When Kent Hackett talks about honeybees, he compares them in glowing terms to hard-working domestic farm animals. "They pollinate 90-plus crops in the United States," says Mr. Hackett, who coordinates programs on bees and pollination for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Research Service. "In fact, honeybees make eating fun. They pollinate the crops that make dinners delicious."
Honeybees pollinate such crops as almonds, blueberries and alfalfa. "So we study bees," he says, "in order to increase pollination of important crops that we love to eat, as well as to control the different diseases that are setting bees back."
There is also a new and unexpected benefit to studying bees. Researchers say the newly revealed genetic blueprint of the honeybee can help them understand the human genome as they work to improve human health.
The USDA runs five bee research facilities in the United States - including a laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. From a window on the second story of the lab building, entomologist Jay Evans looks down on two dozen beehives -- white wooden boxes that stand out against the facility's winter-idled fields.
200 colonies of bees are scattered in seven other Beltsville field locations. In the season's suddenly cold temperatures, the insects have gone into a slowed-down winter housekeeping mode.
But the humans studying them are very busy. Mr. Evans directs technicians as they pore over data to identify disease resistance traits in the honeybees. He points to a long series of numbers on his computer screen - numbers that represent a gene sequence.
"What we have here is an alignment of a honeybee gene, a yet described gene, that has a strong match to a strong immune gene in a fruit fly," he says. "We can borrow from information generated for other species that involves silencing the gene and showing its role in disease and actually infer that the honeybee gene is acting in the same way."
This work in comparative genomics is relatively new. The honeybee genome project -- supported by the USDA and the publicly funded National Human Genome Research Initiative -- began in 2003.
The completed sequence is one-tenth the length of the human genome and includes 15,000 genes. Entomologist Jay Evans is on a mission to explore connections with diseases in honeybees.
"Right now we are trying to find out which aspects of the immune response in bees are weak points…which are susceptible to failure when the bees are exposed to disease," he says. "We can do that by connecting the genes in bees to known genes involved with this response in other organisms." Mr. Evans explains that researchers can do simple genetic experiments in the laboratory -- for example, "crossing bees, looking at the offspring of different queens and seeing what happens in those bees when they are exposed to disease."
Although he must prove his theories in the lab, comparative sequences help narrow down the field of study from thousands to just 10 or 20 genes.
Jay Evans hopes the results will translate into breeding more disease-resistant bees. He says the work has opened new possibilities for pure and applied research on honeybee pollination, nutrition, breeding and winter survival.
It has also expanded research across species. "We are all studying some of the same disease pathways in bees, in cows, in humans," he says, "and, using that, we can share information. We have collective databases. We can speed up the research simply because we are speaking a similar language and in many ways conducting the exact same experiments on our organisms of preference."
It might not be a coincidence of nature that the temperature inside a beehive is similar to that of the human body. Entomologist Jay Evans says that, as scientists look more closely at the genetics of the honeybee, they are beginning to see more of themselves.