Urban life leaves behind traces in the genome of bumblebees

April 19, 2018, Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Bumblebees living in the city have genes that differ from those of their relatives in the countryside. Although genetic differences are not major, they nevertheless may influence how well the insects adapt to their habitat. For example, urban bumblebees are probably better able to react to environmental challenges that come with city life, such as higher temperatures. These differences in their genetic makeup are an indication that urban life does impact the evolutionary trajectory of a species, write researchers at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Leipzig-Jena in the current issue of the renowned journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

For bumblebees, life in the is a two-edged sword. "On the one hand, food is abundant for the insects thanks to the numerous urban gardens and balconies. But on the other hand, bumblebees have more parasites and there is a considerably higher degree of habitat fragmentation in cities," says Dr Panagiotis Theodorou from the Institute of Biology at MLU and iDiv. He headed the new study alongside bee researcher Professor Robert Paxton, also from Halle. Cities around the world are expanding, which threatens the natural habitant of many species. "In order for individuals to survive, they have to adjust to the new living conditions. This process should also be detectable in a species' genetic material," says Paxton, explaining the idea behind the new study.

In order to test this, the researchers collected bumblebees from nine large German cities and paired neighbouring rural regions and analysed the bees' genetic material with the aid of so-called next generation sequencing. "Overall differences in the genetic material of urban and rural bees are subtle," says Paxton. However, a more detailed analysis of the data revealed that urban bumblebees are consistently distinguishable genetically from their country counterparts. "For example, we detected differences in genes associated with metabolism and environmental stress, such as heat or energetic stress," adds biologist Panagiotis Theodorou. The researchers were unable to identify these changes in the rural bumblebees.

The biologists from Halle are unable to say for sure which of the many, different in cities cause these changes in the genetic material. However, their study is further proof of how plants and animals adapt to an environment shaped by humans and how this is reflected in their .

Explore further: Bees are more productive in the city than in surrounding regions

More information: Panagiotis Theodorou et al, Genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism scan suggests adaptation to urbanization in an important pollinator, the red-tailed bumblebee ( Bombus lapidarius L.), Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2806

Related Stories

Bold and aggressive behaviour means birds thrive in cities

April 16, 2018

Most people probably wouldn't consider bustling towns and cities good places for nature to thrive. Yet a few species of birds have so successfully adapted to city living that they boast large and thriving urban populations. ...

Flies and bees act like plant cultivators

March 14, 2017

Pollinator insects accelerate plant evolution, but a plant changes in different ways depending on the pollinator. After only nine generations, the same plant is larger and more fragrant if pollinated by bumblebees rather ...

In bee decline, fungicides emerge as improbable villain

November 14, 2017

When a Cornell-led team of scientists analyzed two dozen environmental factors to understand bumblebee population declines and range contractions, they expected to find stressors like changes in land use, geography or insecticides.

Recommended for you

Sculpting stable structures in pure liquids

February 21, 2019

Oscillating flow and light pulses can be used to create reconfigurable architecture in liquid crystals. Materials scientists can carefully engineer concerted microfluidic flows and localized optothermal fields to achieve ...

Researchers make coldest quantum gas of molecules

February 21, 2019

JILA researchers have made a long-lived, record-cold gas of molecules that follow the wave patterns of quantum mechanics instead of the strictly particle nature of ordinary classical physics. The creation of this gas boosts ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.