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 Wandering greenhouse gas
16.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

nachricht Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System
14.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

Im Focus: Radar for navigation support from autonomous flying drones

At the ILA Berlin, hall 4, booth 202, Fraunhofer FHR will present two radar sensors for navigation support of drones. The sensors are valuable components in the implementation of autonomous flying drones: they function as obstacle detectors to prevent collisions. Radar sensors also operate reliably in restricted visibility, e.g. in foggy or dusty conditions. Due to their ability to measure distances with high precision, the radar sensors can also be used as altimeters when other sources of information such as barometers or GPS are not available or cannot operate optimally.

Drones play an increasingly important role in the area of logistics and services. Well-known logistic companies place great hope in these compact, aerial...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

International Virtual Reality Conference “IEEE VR 2018” comes to Reutlingen, Germany

08.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Development and Fast Analysis of 3D Printed HF Components

19.03.2018 | Trade Fair News

In monogamous species, a compatible partner is more important than an ornamented one

19.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Signaling Pathways to the Nucleus

19.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>