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Ancient Bees: Plant Generalists and Specialists; What That Means for Modern-Day Bees

Nov 12, 2015 06:08 PM EST
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Aiming to learn more about the buzzy habits of modern-day bees, researchers led by the University of Bonn in Germany recently looked at 50-million-year-old fossilized bees and the pollen still clinging to their forms, and noted that they did two things: They collected pollen indiscriminately from a variety of nearby flowers and they also zeroed in on very specific plants.

The findings from this study were published recently in the journal Current Biology.

"Since the fossil record of bees extends to the Late Cretaceous, and an early bee-like ancestor is known from 100 million-year-old amber, it could very well be that this dual foraging behavior may be as old as bees themselves," Conrad Labandeira of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. said in a release. "If this is the case, then the controversy as to whether the earliest bees were generalist or specialist pollen collectors may be moot: the earliest bees during the mid-Cretaceous may have been simultaneously generalists and specialists!"

In the study, the scientists looked at pollen from the bodies of 11 individuals from six species of bee, from the tribe called Electrapini, originating at two sites in Germany. They were 44 to 48 million years old, and well-maintained pollen still clung to their bodies, according to a statement.

The wide range of pollen from flowers that produce nectar was all over the bees' bodies, but their legs held a much smaller range of flower-pollen types. Bees have "pollen baskets," a dense area of sticky hairs on their legs that they use to transport pollen for young bees to eat at the hive; the fossilized bees had filled their pollen baskets with the more specifically chosen pollens, as the release noted.

"Pollen retrieved by the second, specialized mode represented flowers that were considerably more morphologically stereotyped than the first mode and originated from only three or four major taxa of plants, unlike the considerably greater, more diverse spectrum of plants of the generalist mode that formed the pollination mutualism," Torsten Wappler from University of Bonn said in the statement.

These findings might mean that a generalist pollination may be more common than previously thought, and that very few bees specialize in only one or a few plants. The scientists suggest that others now look for more information to support this among bee lineages that are older than the fossils in this study, the statement noted.

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