CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered the oldest bee ever known, a 100 million year old specimen preserved in almost lifelike form in amber, and an important link to help explain the rapid expansion of flowering plants during that distant period.
The findings and their evolutionary significance are outlined in an article to be published this week in the journal Science.
The specimen, at least 35-45 million years older than any other known bee fossil, has given rise to a newly-named family called Melittosphecidae insects that share some of the features of both bees and wasps. It supports the theory that pollen-dependent bees evolved from their meat-eating predecessors, the wasps.
"This is the oldest known bee we've ever been able to identify, and it shares some of the features of wasps," said George Poinar, a professor of zoology at OSU and international expert in the study of life forms preserved in ancient amber. "But overall it's more bee than wasp, and gives us a pretty good idea of when these two types of insects were separating on their evolutionary paths."
Just as important, Poinar said, the discovery points to the mechanism that could have allowed for the rapid expansion and diversity of flowering plants around that time the "angiosperms" that depend on some mechanism other than wind to spread their seeds. Prior to that, the world was dominated by "gymnosperms," largely conifer trees, which used wind for pollination and re-seeding.
These changes took place during the Cretaceous Period, which lasted from 65.5 million to 145.5 million years ago. The earliest angiosperms didn't really begin to spread rapidly until a little over 100 millions years ago, a time that appears to correspond with the evolution of bees seen in the new fossil.
"Flowering plants are very important in the evolution of life," Poinar said. "They can reproduce more quickly, develop more genetic diversity, spread mor
Contact: George Poinar
Oregon State University