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Correlation of proteome-wide changes with social immunity behaviors provides insight into resistance to the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, in the honey bee (Apis mellifera)

Robert Parker1, M Marta Guarna1, Andony P Melathopoulos2, Kyung-Mee Moon1, Rick White3, Elizabeth Huxter4, Stephen F Pernal2 and Leonard J Foster1*

Author Affiliations

1 University of British Columbia, Centre for High-Throughput Biology and Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, 2125 East Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 14, Canada

2 Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada, Beaverlodge Research Farm, PO Box 29, Beaverlodge, AB, T0H 0C0, Canada

3 University of British Columbia, Department of Statistics, 2207 Main Mall, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4, Canada

4 Kettle Valley Queens, 4880 Well Rd., Grand Forks, BC, V0H 1H5, Canada

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Genome Biology 2012, 13:R81  doi:10.1186/gb-2012-13-9-r81

Published: 28 September 2012



Disease is a major factor driving the evolution of many organisms. In honey bees, selection for social behavioral responses is the primary adaptive process facilitating disease resistance. One such process, hygienic behavior, enables bees to resist multiple diseases, including the damaging parasitic mite Varroa destructor. The genetic elements and biochemical factors that drive the expression of these adaptations are currently unknown. Proteomics provides a tool to identify proteins that control behavioral processes, and these proteins can be used as biomarkers to aid identification of disease tolerant colonies.


We sampled a large cohort of commercial queen lineages, recording overall mite infestation, hygiene, and the specific hygienic response to V. destructor. We performed proteome-wide correlation analyses in larval integument and adult antennae, identifying several proteins highly predictive of behavior and reduced hive infestation. In the larva, response to wounding was identified as a key adaptive process leading to reduced infestation, and chitin biosynthesis and immune responses appear to represent important disease resistant adaptations. The speed of hygienic behavior may be underpinned by changes in the antenna proteome, and chemosensory and neurological processes could also provide specificity for detection of V. destructor in antennae.


Our results provide, for the first time, some insight into how complex behavioural adaptations manifest in the proteome of honey bees. The most important biochemical correlations provide clues as to the underlying molecular mechanisms of social and innate immunity of honey bees. Such changes are indicative of potential divergence in processes controlling the hive-worker maturation.

Honey bee; Proteomics; Social immunity; Hygienic behavior; Varroa sensitive hygiene