The number and diversity of male partners a queen honeybee has could help to protect her children from disease, say University of Leeds scientists, who are investigating possible causes of the widespread increase in bee deaths seen around the world.
The researchers are working on the theory that the reason some colonies are wiped out while others remain healthy could be down the genetic diversities of the hives.
Dr Bill Hughes, from the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the University of Leeds, says: "By making sure queens mate with enough genetically variable males, we may be able to boost resistance levels and so protect our honeybee populations from disease attacks like the ones we have seen hitting the US."
One possibility is that the loss of honeybees means that the number and variety of potential mates for a queen is becoming too low to maintain genetic diversity and therefore disease resistant populations.
Says Dr Hughes: "Given the choice, queen honeybees will typically mate with up to 12 different male partners in a matter of minutes and some with over 20. The record is the giant Asian honeybee whose queens normally mate with well over 40 males - and in one case was found to have mated with over a hundred."
The Leeds scientists will be examining the question of genetic resistance by studying honeybee reactions to a common fungus parasite called Chalkbrood, under carefully controlled laboratory conditions.
The fungus, already found in the majority of UK hives, infects and 'eats' larvae, giving them a chalky appearance. Individual larvae die but the parasite rarely kills the whole colony.
In 2008, US average losses of honeybee colonies were 35%, with some beekeepers losing 90% of their colonies. A contributing factor to these high levels of honeybee deaths may have been a virus. However the same virus has been found in other countries yet does not seem to cause the same problems.
Dr Hughes and his team think infections by hidden parasites in genetically susceptible bees may be combining with other factors to produce a lethal â??perfect stormâ?? which overwhelms their defences.
Honeybee survival is vital to the protection of our food supplies because they pollinate up to a third of the food we grow in the UK.
The project, which has received just under Â£500,000 in funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, is due last for three years. Collaborators include the UK Government's National Bee Unit based near York and the University of Copenhagen.
Jessica Kwok and Ronaldo Ichiyama, International Spinal Research Trust (Feb 2018), £94,450
Dave Lewis and Colleagues in South Africa, HEFCE Global Challenge Research (Jan 2018), £48,000
Sarah Calaghan, Ed White, John Colyer, Isuru Jayasinghe, BHF (Jan 2018), £128,308
Christine Foyer and Alison Baker, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £71,158
Alison Baker, Yun Yung Gong and Lindsay Stringer and ICRISAT India, HEFCE GCRF Grant (Jan 2018), £27,000
Graham Askew, Simon Walker, BBSRC (Jan 2018), £699,781
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society (Jan 2018), £512,801
Alison Dunn, NERC (Dec 2017), £18,000
Jennifer Tomlinson, Royal Society-Research Fellows Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £94,681
Helen Miller, AB AGri Grant (Dec 2017), £73,600
Simon Walker, Royal Society Enhancement Award (Dec 2017), £10,000
Carrie Ferguson, Bryan Taylor, Harry Rossiter, The Physiological Society (Dec 2017), £7,392
Ralf Richter, Royal Society (Dec 2017), £6,000
Christine Foyer, British Council Newton Fund (Dec 2017), £49,840
Adrian Whitehouse and colleagues in School of Chemistry and University of Liverpool, MRC (Nov 2017), £622,319
Michelle Peckham, Neil Ransom, MRC (Nov 2017), £495,159
Dave Lewis, British Council India (Nov 2017), £22,540
Hannah Dugdale, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Elton Zeqiraj, Royal Society (Nov 2017), £15,000
Shaunna Burke, Cancer Research UK Innovation Grant (Nov 2017), £20,000
Alex O'Neill and colleagues in Chemistry, BBSRC (Nov 2017), £431,865
Jessica Kwok, Wings for Life (Nov 2017), £87,365
Tom Bennett, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £523,679
Neil Ranson, Darren Tomlinson, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £494,318
Nikita Gamper, BBSRC (Oct 2017), £490,426
Amanda Bretman and colleagues from UEA, NERC (Oct 2017), £430,886
Juan Fontana, Rosetrees Trust consumables grant (Oct 2017), £22,500
Helen Miller, DSM Nutritional Products AG (Sep 2017), £69,988
Neil Ranson, Juan Fontana, Mark Harris, Michelle Peckham, Ralf Richter, Peter Stockley, Patricija Van Oosten-Hawle and colleagues in Engineering, FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Sep 2017), £418,000
Jamie Johnston, Physiological Society (Sep 2017), £10,000
Frank Sobott, Adrian Goldman, Mark Harris, Andrew Macdonald, Stephen Muench, Sheena Radford and colleagues in FMH and MAPS, Wellcome Trust Equipment Call (Aug 2017), £415,000
Ralf Richter, David Brockwell, Eric Hewitt, Jessica Kwok, Emanuele Paci and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £600,000
Eric Blair, Adrian Whitehouse, Nicola Stonehouse, Alison Baker, Richard Bayliss, Joan Boyes, Ryan Seipke, Sally Boxall and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £376,000
Stefan Kepinski, Yoselin Benitez-Alfonso, Tom Bennett, Michelle Peckham, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £331,000
Roman Tuma, Lars Jeuken, Paul Millner, Sheena Radford, Peter Stockley and MAPS/FMH, BBSRC (Jun 2017), £222,000
Vas Ponnambalam, Darren Tomlinson, Stephen Wheatcroft, BHF (May 2017), £107,878
Graham Askew in collaboration with Bangor University, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £477,383
Stephen Muench, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £132,945
Nic Stonehouse, MRC (Mar 2017), £906,341
Bill Kunin, Steve Sait, BBSRC (Mar 2017), £602,831
Adrian Goldman, EU (Mar 2017), £546,576
Sheena Radford, Wellcome Trust (Mar 2017), £1,836,482
Tom Bennett, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Jamie Johnston, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000
Beatrice Filippi, Royal Society (Mar 2017), £15,000