DToL News

Release of full bee genome sequences creates a buzz

As we revealed in Liam Crowley’s blog yesterday, the Darwin Tree of Life (DToL)  is pleased to announce that we have released full genome sequences for three of the bumblebee species found in Britain and Ireland, with more coming soon. The DToL project aims, ultimately, to sequence all the 70,000 species that make their homes here on and around these islands. We will release these data openly to build foundations for a new biology based on reference genome sequences – basic science, conservation, ecology, evolution, and biotechnology will benefit from our project.

Bumblebees are of particular interest and concern in our environment. DToL project lead Prof. Mark Blaxter says:

Bumblebees are an iconic and important part of our ecosystems, and through their pollination services are essential to the productivity of agricultural crops. However bumblebee populations are threatened globally, and especially in temperate ecosystems. They are also fascinating organisms with social behaviour, complex immune systems, venoms of possible medical application, and many other features.

The Darwin Tree of Life Project is proud to have been able to sequence three bumblebees in the first set of species we are analysing, and we look forward to seeing how these new data will be used by conservationists, ecologists and biologists in understanding and conserving these beautiful animals”

We have already received a lot of positive feedback regarding the latest release from the wider community, who are keen to use these sequences in their research. DToL partners at the Earlham Institute said:

“The Earlham Institute is excited to be working alongside Oxford University and the Wellcome Sanger Institute on researching UK bumblebee species as part of the Darwin Tree of Life project. The groundbreaking work they have done to collect this core sample of UK bumblebee biodiversity, and to generate high quality genome sequences will further enable our ongoing work on bumblebee population biodiversity. We are studying the population structure and history of several of the species included in this release. The unprecedented quality and completeness of the genomes will allow us to ask these questions with an accuracy never thought to be possible before. As bumblebees play such an important role in our native pollinator assemblage, we are interested in understanding why some species are struggling in the UK countryside, whilst others are thriving. Our work will allow us to isolate parts of the genome that are particularly important to the health of contemporary populations, and hopefully this understanding can contribute to future conservation efforts to protect bumblebees across the UK. 

The release of the first DToL bumble bee genomes also presents an amazing opportunity to understand the unique biology of our native bees. Our lead researcher, Dr Calum Raine, is asking questions about the relationship between the way bees determine their sex and the way they evolve. His work, described in an article here, will greatly benefit from the availability of the genome sequences of more UK bumblebees. Working in a field called comparative genomics, more genomes equals more explanatory power. This release will offer such an increase in power, and hopefully speed exciting insights into some of our most loved pollinators.”

Earlham Institute group leader Dr Wilfried Haerty echoed this sentiment, saying:

“We are extremely excited by the release of high quality bumblebee genomes by the DToL as it will allow a great step forward in our ongoing work investigating Bumblebee populations genetics and dynamics across the UK, and how their unique biology shapes the evolution of their genomes”

There has also been excitement from the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT), the UK charity whose aims are to enhance the understanding of bumblebee ecology and conservation, increase the quality and quantity of bumblebee habitat, and to inspire and enable a diverse range of people to take action for bumblebees. Dr Amy Plowman (Head of Conservation and Science at BBCT) said:

We are really excited to see the first Bombus genomes added to the Darwin Tree of Life.  Bumblebee researchers around the world will be able to use them to understand more about these wonderful species”.

To commemorate the release of these first bee genomes, we have collaborated with award-winning young artist Leon Jarman to distribute a print of his bumblebee painting to project partners. Leon, who donates a portion of his profits to the BBCT, says

“I painted the bumble bee in the summer of 2020 using coloured inks and water.  I am a very big fan of bees and wasps so my friends and I started a Bee Society at school to help inform others about why we must look after our fluffy, flying friends and not be afraid of them.  My painting won first prize in an art competition in August 2020 and because of all the positive comments about my painting and requests for prints I decided to make some to sell.  I chose to donate 25% of all my profits to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to help raise awareness and help protect them from dangers like harmful pesticides. 

I am very grateful that my painting has been chosen for the bee section of the tree of life project.”

Bumblebee by Leon Jarman

(If you would like a copy of his picture, they can be obtained from Leon’s Facebook page: Bee cooperative – Home)

DToL News

Successful full genome sequencing of three bumblebee species

The Darwin Tree of Life team are delighted to announce the release of three complete bumblebee genomes this week. These high quality, chromosomally complete reference genomes have been produced from specimens from Wytham Woods, near Oxford. The genomes are amongst the first to be produced by the Darwin Tree of Life project and represent an important milestone on our mission to sequence the full genomes of all 70,000 species of eukaryotic organisms in Britain and Ireland.  This was a highly collaborative endeavour, involving researchers from several institutions including the University of Oxford, the Natural History Museum, the Sanger Institute and the European Nucleotide Archive.

Why sequence bumblebee genomes?

Bumblebees are a charismatic genus of large, furry, colourful bees which are globally important pollinators in both agricultural and wild ecosystems. They are particularly diverse across temperate regions and many species are able to live at higher altitudes or fly in cooler conditions than other pollinator groups. Many species of bumblebee are, however, in decline, with at least 2 (arguably 3) species having been lost from Britain. In addition to their importance as pollinators, true bumblebees are social insects which exhibit complex behaviours, making them interesting and important model species for evolutionary studies. Bumblebees are also utilised as environmental indicators in toxicology studies.

Reference genomes not only allow the immediate investigation of the evolutionary history of a species, but are also a fundamental prerequisite for subsequent analysis of a wide range of biological questions. For example, a reference genome is required in order to allow the selection of target loci for resequencing of large numbers of individuals for a population genetics approach to conservation. Bumblebee genomes will provide insights into behaviour, diet, metabolism, kleptoparasitism, immunity and detoxification across the group (e.g. Sun et al., 2020).

Twenty-four of the ~250 global species of bumblebees can be found in the UK, including 6 species of ‘cuckoo bumblebees’ in the subgenus Psithyrus, which are social parasites. Fourteen of these 24 UK bumblebee species have been found to be present across the diverse habitats of Wytham Woods, making this site an ideal location to commence sequencing efforts. The sampling focussed on collection of males and workers, so as to limit the impact of collections on bumblebee populations. This is due to the life history of bumblebees, where only newly mated queens (or females of cuckoo species) overwinter, meaning that limited removal of males and workers is unlikely to affect the overall population. Furthermore, Hymenoptera (the order to which all bees belong) are haplodiploid, meaning that males have half the number of chromosomes as females (one of each chromosome from the mother – rather than a pair of each chromosome with one from each parent), and are therefore more straightforward to sequence.

Which species were sequenced?

For three of the species of Bombus which occur at Wytham Woods sequencing and assembly is complete: B. campestris (the field cuckoo-bee), B. hortorum (the garden bumblebee), and B. pascuorum (the common carder bee).  In addition to the three released this week, there are an additional nine bumblebees already in sequencing in DToL: watch this space!

Bombus campestris – The field cuckoo bee

Field Cuckoo Bee- Photo by Liam Crowley

This is a cuckoo bumblebee, which takes over the nests of B. pascuorum (and probably also other carder bees). The public genome data for this species can be found here.

Bombus hortorum – The garden bumblebee

Garden Bumblebee- Photo by Liam Crowley

This species is quite common in gardens. It is quite a large bee with a very long proboscis (tongue), therefore favours flowers with a deep corolla. The public genome data for this species can be found here.

Bombus pascuorum – The common carder bee

Common Carder Bee- Photo by Liam Crowley

This species is the most common and widespread of the UK carder bees, a group of bumblebees which nest on or just under the ground and cover the nest with moss (hence the ‘carder bee’ name). The public genome data for this species can be found here.

References/further reading

Edwards, M. and Jenner, M., 2005. Field Guide to the Bumblebees of Great Britain and Ireland (Ocelli).

Sun, C., Huang, J., Wang, Y., Zhao, X., Su, L., Thomas, G.W., Zhao, M., Zhang, X., Jungreis, I., Kellis, M. and Vicario, S., 2020. Genus-wide characterization of bumblebee genomes provides insights into their evolution and variation in ecological and behavioral traits. Molecular biology and evolution, 38(2). https://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msaa240 

By Dr Liam Crowley, postdoctoral field biologist at the University of Oxford who collected the specimens from Wytham Woods.