Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Fossilized Bees Were Finicky Pollen Collectors


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

The oil shale in the Messel Pit and at Eckfeld Maar also preserved many typical plants from the Eocene era.

© 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
Tel. 0228/73-4682

Weitere Informationen: Publication

Johannes Seiler | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Receding glaciers in Bolivia leave communities at risk
20.10.2016 | European Geosciences Union

nachricht UM researchers study vast carbon residue of ocean life
19.10.2016 | University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

New method increases energy density in lithium batteries

24.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

International team discovers novel Alzheimer's disease risk gene among Icelanders

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

New bacteria groups, and stunning diversity, discovered underground

24.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>