The ancestors of honeybees, living 50 million years ago, were fairly choosy when it came to feeding their offspring. This is shown in a study sponsored by the University of Bonn, which also included researchers from Austria and the United States. According to the study, the pollen that these insects collected for their larvae always originated from the same plants. When it came to their own meals, they were less picky – on their collection flights, they ate pretty much everything that turned up in front of their mouth parts. The findings from this study have now appeared in the “Current Biology” trade journal.
The paleontologists studied fossilized bees from two different locations: the Messel Pit near Darmstadt and Eckfeld Maar in the Vulkaneifel. Both are former volcanic crater lakes, so deep that there was no oxygen to be found at the bottom. Any animals or plants that fell into the water were thus outstandingly preserved in the bottom sediment.
This image shows two fossilized bees and a few sample pollen types that were stuck to their back legs.
© Photo: AG Wappler/Uni Bonn
Nearly 50 million years ago, numerous bees met this very fate. Many of them were very well preserved in the oil shale rock. “For the first time, we are taking advantage of this circumstance in order to get a closer look at the pollen on the bees’ bodies,” explains Dr. Torsten Wappler. Dr. Wappler, an associate professor at the Steinmann Institute for Geology, Mineralogy and Paleontology at the University of Bonn, is the first author of the study.
Bees were both generalists and specialists
In their analyses, the researchers noticed a strange pattern: the pollen near the hymenoperans’ heads, chests and abdomens came from completely different plants. The pollen on their back legs, on the other hand, mainly came from evergreen bushes, which produce very similar blossoms.
The back legs of the long-extinct hymenoptera featured characteristic structures. The bees used them as transport containers (today’s honeybees have a very similar arrangement on their back legs). The insects used their front legs to comb pollen grains out of their body hair, and then transferred the pollen to their back legs.
However, this only worked if their front legs could reach the pollen easily – we human beings have trouble scratching between our shoulder blades, after all. “The bushes where the worker bees collected food for their larvae all had a similar blossom structure,” explains Dr. Wappler. “After they visited those blossoms, the pollen mainly stuck to parts of their bodies where it was easy to transfer to their legs.”
The prehistoric bees seemed to know which plants would give them a successful harvest, and they mainly targeted those blossoms. If they got hungry on the way, they landed on plants along their flight path and sipped the nectar. The pollen that stuck to their bodies shows how undiscriminating they were in their snacking.
Searching for food without wasting time
“This was a good strategy for the bees,” points out Dr. Wappler. “When they were looking for food for the larvae, they visited blossoms that offered a high yield with little effort. On the way there, on the other hand, they ate whatever they happened to find. So they didn’t waste any time looking for especially delicious or nutritious food.”
There was one thing that especially surprised the researchers: the bees from Eckfeld Maar were 44 million years old, while those from Messel were 48 million years old. Nonetheless, they had very similar pollen patterns on their legs and bodies. Even among the precursors of today’s bumblebees, the distribution was very similar. The dual strategy thus seems to have been common in various species, and stayed consistent for millions of years.
Even today, our honeybees use a similar approach. It is possible that the very first bees, which populated the earth about 100 million years ago, did the same thing. “Unfortunately there are no finds from that era that would allow us to analyze the pollen,” says Dr. Wappler.
Publication: Torsten Wappler, Conrad C. Labandeira, Michael S. Engel, Reinhard Zetter and Friðgeir Grímsson: Specialized and generalized pollen-collection strategies in an ancient bee lineage; “Current Biology”
PD Dr. Torsten Wappler
Steinmann Institute for Geology, Mineralogy and Paleontology
University of Bonn
Johannes Seiler | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft
Greenland ice flow likely to speed up: New data assert glaciers move over sediment, which gets more slippery as it gets wetter
17.08.2017 | Swansea University
Climate change: In their old age, trees still accumulate large quantities of carbon
17.08.2017 | Universität Hamburg
Whether you call it effervescent, fizzy, or sparkling, carbonated water is making a comeback as a beverage. Aside from quenching thirst, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have discovered a new use for these "bubbly" concoctions that will have major impact on the manufacturer of the world's thinnest, flattest, and one most useful materials -- graphene.
As graphene's popularity grows as an advanced "wonder" material, the speed and quality at which it can be manufactured will be paramount. With that in mind,...
Physicists at the University of Bonn have managed to create optical hollows and more complex patterns into which the light of a Bose-Einstein condensate flows. The creation of such highly low-loss structures for light is a prerequisite for complex light circuits, such as for quantum information processing for a new generation of computers. The researchers are now presenting their results in the journal Nature Photonics.
Light particles (photons) occur as tiny, indivisible portions. Many thousands of these light portions can be merged to form a single super-photon if they are...
For the first time, scientists have shown that circular RNA is linked to brain function. When a RNA molecule called Cdr1as was deleted from the genome of mice, the animals had problems filtering out unnecessary information – like patients suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders.
While hundreds of circular RNAs (circRNAs) are abundant in mammalian brains, one big question has remained unanswered: What are they actually good for? In the...
An experimental small satellite has successfully collected and delivered data on a key measurement for predicting changes in Earth's climate.
The Radiometer Assessment using Vertically Aligned Nanotubes (RAVAN) CubeSat was launched into low-Earth orbit on Nov. 11, 2016, in order to test new...
A study led by scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg presents evidence of the coexistence of superconductivity and “charge-density-waves” in compounds of the poorly-studied family of bismuthates. This observation opens up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon of high-temperature superconductivity, a topic which is at the core of condensed matter research since more than 30 years. The paper by Nicoletti et al has been published in the PNAS.
Since the beginning of the 20th century, superconductivity had been observed in some metals at temperatures only a few degrees above the absolute zero (minus...
16.08.2017 | Event News
04.08.2017 | Event News
26.07.2017 | Event News
17.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
17.08.2017 | Earth Sciences
17.08.2017 | Physics and Astronomy