Fossilized bees reveal their secrets

Greedy Snackers or Choosy Collectors?

May 11, 2016
Fossilized bees reveal their secrets: Greedy Snackers or Choosy Collectors?

Fossilized bees reveal their secrets: Greedy Snackers or Choosy Collectors?

The ancestors of today’s honeybees, living 50 million years ago, were picky when it came to feeding their offspring. The pollen they collected for their larvae always originated from the same variety of plants. But when they got hungry on the way, they ate pretty much everything that turned up in front of them.

This is the result of a recent study sponsored by the German University of Bonn, which also included researchers from Austria and the United States.

The scientists studied fossilized bees from two former volcanic crater lakes. Both the bees and the pollen on their bodies were well preserved. Analyzing the pollen distribution on the bees yielded tell-tale results:

  • Pollen on the bees’ hind legs came from evergreen bushes whose blossom structure made it easy to take the pollen home to the brood. Visiting the blossoms, the pollen mainly stuck to parts of their bodies where it was easy to transfer it to their back legs which they used as transport containers.
  • Pollen that stuck to their head, chest and abdomen came from a wide variety of plants which shows that workers who got hungry during their pollen hunt, would just land on any plant that happened to be along their flight path and sip the nectar. During their pit stop, the pollen would stick to their head, chest and abdomen, revealing their fast-food meal to researchers 50 million years later.

21st century bees follow a similar dual strategy of foraging. It could therefore be crucial for the well-being of these important pollinators to find out where they are going and which flowers and plants they visit.

Additional Information

The original study, titled Specialized and generalized pollen-collection strategies in an ancient bee lineage by Torsten Wappler, Conrad C. Labandeira, Michael S. Engel, Reinhard Zetter and Friðgeir Grímsson, was published in the “Current Biology” trade journal.
Here is the link to the press release "Fossilized bees were finicky pollen collectors" of Bonn university.
It was also picked up by other online media, among them and

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