Journal of Apicultural Science

How old are bees? - A look at the fossil record

Journal of Apicultural Science. Volume 47, Issue 1, Pages 79-85, ISSN (Print) 1643-4439
How old are bees? Which came first, bees or flowers? When did bees first develop social behaviour? Fossil bees are found in amber and copal but are quite rare as inclusions except for Proplebeia in amber from the Dominican Republic. Amber occurs throughout the world and in Europe the main deposits are in the Baltic region, Germany, Romania and Sicily. Baltic amber is approximately 40 million years old (Myr). Amber belonging to the Cretaceous period is found in several parts of the world and is about 120 Myr. Lebanese amber is the oldest and dates back to the early Cretaceous period some 135 Myr. At the time there were tropical rain forests where the resins from these trees preserved the insect fossils, which we have today. Copal by comparison is “modern”, less than 2 Myr and is mainly from Africa, Colombia and the Dominican Republic.
“The oldest fossil bee” was described by Michener and Grimaldi in 1988 and is now referred to as Cretotrigona prisca. It is from the Cretaceous amber of New Jersey and believed to be 96 to 74 Myr before the present. Rasnitsyn and Michener (1991) questioned the date of this amber and Rasnitsyn believes that late Eocene Baltic amber is where the oldest fossil bees are to be found. He is still strongly opposed to the Cretaceous origin of bees. Prior to the discovery of Cretotrigona, the oldest fossil bees known were all from late Eocene Baltic amber, about 40 Myr. Engel (2001) has written a comprehensive monograph on Baltic amber bees and firmly believes bees originated in the Cretaceous and that the oldest possible age for them is 125 Myr. This is after the origin of flowering plants. No evidence exists (Engel 2001) to suggest bees arose prior to the origin and early diversification of flowering plants. Nests are also known from the fossil record and provide some additional information for dating the origin of bees.
Photographs of bees in Baltic and Dominican amber are displayed and included bees from the Museum of Amber Inclusions, University of Gdańsk; the Natural History Museum, Kraków; the Museum of Earth, Warsaw and the Natural History Museum, London.
The paper is review of the present state of knowledge and attempt to answer the questions raised at the beginning of this presentation. Relevant references are given.
amber, Apis, bees, fossils, museum collections
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