Washington: Ants and bees are surprisingly more genetically related to each other than they are to social wasps such as yellow jackets and paper wasps, scientists have discovered.
Researchers from the University of California, Davis used state-of-the-art genome sequencing and bioinformatics, to resolve a long-standing, unanswered evolutionary question.
Scientists previously thought that ants and bees were more distantly related, with ants being closer to certain parasitoid wasps.
Ants, bees and stinging wasps all belong to the aculeate (stinging) Hymenoptera clade - the insect group in which social behaviour is most extensively developed, said senior author and ant specialist Phil Ward, professor of entomology at UC Davis.
"Despite great interest in the ecology and behaviour of these insects, their evolutionary relationships have never been fully clarified. In particular, it has been uncertain how ants - the world`s most successful social insects - are related to bees and wasps," Ward said.
"We were able to resolve this question by employing next-generation sequencing technology and advances in bioinformatics. This phylogeny, or evolutionary tree, provides a new framework for understanding the evolution of nesting, feeding and social behaviour in Hymenoptera," Ward added.
"With a phylogeny or evolutionary progression that we think is reliable and robust, we can now start to understand how various morphological and/or behavioural traits evolved in these groups of insects, and even examine the genetic basis of these phenotypic changes," said assistant professor Joanna Chiu who collaborated on the study.
For the study, scientists combined data from the transcriptome - showing which genes are active and being transcribed from DNA into RNA - and genomic (DNA) data from a number of species of ants, bees and wasps.
They included bradynobaenid wasps, a cuckoo wasp, a spider wasp, a scoliid wasp, a mud dauber wasp, a tiphiid wasp, a paper wasp and a pollen wasp; a velvet ant (wasp); a dracula ant; and a sweat bee, Lasioglossum albipes.
Of particular interest was the finding that ants are a sister group to the Apoidea, a major group within Hymenoptera that includes bees and sphecid wasps (a family of wasps that includes digger wasps and mud daubers).
The study was published in the journal Current Biology.