Ancient bees gathered pollen in 2 ways

November 12, 2015

Were ancient bees specialists, devoting their pollen-collecting attentions to very specific plant partners? Or were they generalists, buzzing around to collect pollen from a variety of flowers in their midst? Researchers who've studied an ancient lineage of bees now say in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on November 12 that the answer to both questions is yes. Bees living some 50 million years ago simultaneously relied on both strategies in foraging for pollen.

"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," says Conrad Labandeira of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and a fellow at the Paleontological Society. "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!"

The researchers, led by Heisenberg Fellow of the German Science Foundation Torsten Wappler from the University of Bonn in Germany, identified pollen found on the bodies of eleven individuals from six bee species of the tribe Electrapini collected from two sites in Germany. The bee specimens were 44 to 48 million years old, with pollen well preserved across their bodies.

The researchers found pollen from a wide variety of nectar-producing flower types all across the bees' bodies--except, that is, on their legs. Pollen on the bees' hind legs came from a much narrower range of flower types, which the bees packed carefully into pollen baskets. That pollen was eventually taken to feed young bees back at the hive.

"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," Wappler explains.

The findings suggest that examples of one-for-one pollination--think yuccas and yucca moths or figs and fig wasps--are probably quite rare in nature.

"It may turn out that generalist pollination strategies in insects may be far more common than previously suggested," Labandeira says. "In the case of bees, the simultaneous presence of generalist and specialist pollen-collection strategies--now documented in deep-time bee and pollen fossils--likely renders the existence of specialist-only pollen collection modes a rare to very rare phenomenon."

They say researchers should now look for validation of the new findings in bee lineages that are even older.
-end-
The authors are supported by the German Research Foundation and the Austrian Science Fund. This is contribution 305 of the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems Consortium at the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, DC, and a contribution of the Division of Entomology, University of Kansas Natural History Museum.

Current Biology, Wappler et al.: "Specialized and Generalized Pollen-Collection Strategies in an Ancient Bee Lineage" http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.021

Current Biology (@CurrentBiology), published by Cell Press, is a bimonthly journal that features papers across all areas of biology. Current Biology strives to foster communication across fields of biology, both by publishing important findings of general interest and through highly accessible front matter for non-specialists. For more information please visit http://www.cell.com/current-biology. To receive media alerts for Cell Press journals, contact press@cell.com.

Cell Press

Related Bees Articles from Brightsurf:

Two pesticides approved for use in US harmful to bees
A previously banned insecticide, which was approved for agricultural use last year in the United States, is harmful for bees and other beneficial insects that are crucial for agriculture, and a second pesticide in widespread use also harms these insects.

Native bees also facing novel pandemic
There is growing evidence that another ''pandemic'' has been infecting bees around the world for the past two decades, and is spreading: a fungal pathogen known as Nosema.

Bees grooming each other can boost colony immunity
Honeybees that specialise in grooming their nestmates (allogroomers) to ward off pests play a central role in the colony, finds a new UCL and University of Florence study published in Scientific Reports.

Microalgae food for honey bees
A microscopic algae ('microalgae') could provide a complete and sustainably sourced supplemental diet to boost the robustness of managed honey bees, according to research just published by Agricultural Research Service scientists in the journal Apidologie.

Bees point to new evolutionary answers
Evolutionary biology aims to explain how new species arise and evolve to occupy myriad niches -- but it is not a singular or simplistic story.

Quantifying objects: bees recognize that six is more than four
A new study at the University of Cologne proves that insects can perform basic numerical cognition tasks.

Prescribed burns benefit bees
Freshly burned longleaf pine forests have more than double the total number of bees and bee species than similar forests that have not burned in over 50 years, according to new research from North Carolina State University.

Insecticides are becoming more toxic to honey bees
Researchers discover that neonicotinoid seed treatments are driving a dramatic increase in insecticide toxicity in U.S. agricultural landscapes, despite evidence that these treatments have little to no benefit in many crops.

Neonicotinoids: Despite EU moratorium, bees still at risk
Since 2013, a European Union moratorium has restricted the application of three neonicotinoids to crops that attract bees because of the harmful effects they are deemed to have on these insects.

Bees 'surf' atop water
Ever see a bee stuck in a pool? He's surfing to escape.

Read More: Bees News and Bees Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.