Defining honeybee subspecies in an evolutionary context warrants strategized conservation

Lifei Qiu, Jiangxing Dong, Xingan Li, Sajad H. Parey, Ken Tan, Michael Orr, Aquib Majeed, Xue Zhang, Shiqi Luo, Xuguo Zhou, Chaodong Zhu, Ting Ji, Qingsheng Niu, Shanlin Liu, Xin Zhou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Despite the urgent need for conservation consideration, strategic action plans for the preservation of the Asian honeybee, Apis cerana Fabricius, 1793, remain lacking. Both the convergent and divergent adaptations of this widespread insect have led to confusing phenotypical traits and inconsistent infraspecific taxonomy. Unclear subspecies boundaries pose a significant challenge to honeybee conservation efforts, as it is difficult to effectively prioritize conservation targets without a clear understanding of subspecies identities. Here, we investigated genome variations in 362 worker bees representing almost all populations of mainland A. cerana to understand how evolution has shaped its population structure. Whole-genome single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) based on nuclear sequences revealed eight putative subspecies, with all seven peripheral subspecies exhibiting mutually exclusive monophyly and distinct genetic divergence from the widespread central subspecies. Our results demonstrated that most classic morphological traits, including body size, were related to the climatic variables of the local habitats and did not reflect the true evolutionary history of the organism. Thus, such morphological traits were not suitable for subspecific delineation. Conversely, wing vein characters showed relative independence to the environment and supported the subspecies boundaries inferred from nuclear genomes. Mitochondrial phylogeny further indicated that the present subspecies structure was a result of multiple waves of population divergence from a common ancestor. Based on our findings, we propose that criteria for subspecies delineation should be based on evolutionary independence, trait distinction, and geographic isolation. We formally defined and described eight subspecies of mainland A. cerana. Elucidation of the evolutionary history and subspecies boundaries enables a customized conservation strategy for both widespread and endemic honeybee conservation units, guiding colony introduction and breeding.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)483-493
Number of pages11
JournalZoological research
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright ©2023 Editorial Office of Zoological Research, Kunming Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences.


  • Apis cerana
  • Centrifugal diversification
  • Genomics
  • Integrative taxonomy
  • Morphology
  • Pollinator insect
  • Species concept

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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