Prehistoric Bee Fossils

Honeybees have been around a long time: about 60 million years.   They were offshoots of bumblebees, which, along with other bees, had branched off of wasps over 100 million years ago.  (I figured bee fossils would be a lot more interesting than tales of me mudding and painting the new honey storage shed.)


14 million years ago, we even had a honeybee here in North America. It’s nice to imagine them buzzing around the saber toothed cats and dire wolves.  Sadly, like so many wondrous animals, this honeybee species, Apis nearctica, died out.  Honeybees wouldn’t return to the western hemisphere until Europeans brought them over around 1622.

Until 2009, it been thought that the “white man’s flies” were the first honeybees to take to the skies of the western hemisphere.  That year Professor Michael Engle, a paleontologist- entomologist at the University of Kansas, and his team discovered and named the fossilized remains of a worker bee in Nevada.  A. nearctica is definitely a honeybee: it has hairy eyes, a barbed stinger, and honeybee wing patterns.

The fact that it is fossilized is pretty remarkable. Lacking bones, insects don’t usually preserve all that well.  The few remains of prehistoric bees that have been discovered have usually turned up suspended in amber: fossilized conifer resin. Perhaps their sealed fate was the end of a doomed excursion to collect propolis.


Sometimes conditions are perfect: the insects fall into mud and are quickly covered.  Temperatures and moisture are perfect and encase the insect in a mineral tomb. This happened to one ancestor of the giant honeybee.  The bee’s 19 million year old fossil was found on Iki Island in Japan.   Today there are no giant honeybees in the area.  The huge bees that can reach up to one inch in length need a tropical environment to survive.  They build their comb in the open air so cold weather is not an option for them.  They can now be found in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and in India.


Older bees have been found, but they are not honeybees.  One of the oldest, Melittosphex burmensis, flew around 100 million years ago when dinosaurs were still strolling about the planet.  There would have been a significant difference in size: the bee was about 1/8th inch (.12 mm) long.

The species was so newly evolved that it still shared some characteristics with its wasp forbearers.  They had the narrow back legs of wasps, as well as wasp spurs, but they also had hairs on their legs: which modern bees use to collect pollen.

Pollen was clearly of interest to these diminutive bees.  The only fossil of M. burmensis, a male trapped in amber, is holding a grain of pollen.  It was discovered in a mine in northern Burma by George Poinar, Prof of Zoology at Oregon State University, and his team, in 2006.

The combination of pollen and bees was about to make a big change in our world.  Prior to 100 million years ago, most of the trees were wind-pollinated conifers.  When M. burmensis took to the air, flowering plants were beginning to appear.  They and the bees and butterflies would all impact each other’s evolution.

M. burmensis either continued to evolve dramatically or died out.  Today, no living bee bears any resemblance to this unique species.

These are only three amazing discoveries. Fossils continue to allow us a view into bees’ past and show the on-going evolution of the various species in response to changes in the environment.  For bees this has stretched over millions of years.


100 million years ago: The tiny Melittosphex burmensis still carried traits found in wasps.

60 million years ago: Bumblebees flew & the first honeybees appeared.

19 million years ago: Giant Honeybees live in what will be Japan

14 million years ago: Honeybees are native to what will be North America

1 million years ago: Apis mellifera appears.

A lot of time, a lot of changes. Hopefully today’s honeybees will continue to adapt and evolve to meet the new challenges that face us all as our world changes.  I do love bees, and I do love fossils.  Ah well, back to painting the honey storage shed.

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