Scientists have discovered hundreds of mummified bees in cocoons that are nearly 3,000 years old. These well-preserved cocoons were found at a newly discovered paleontological site on the coast of Odemir, Portugal. This amazing find sheds light on the ancient history of bees and could prove to be a valuable aid in combating the decline in bee populations caused by climate change. The scientists’ paper is published in the journal Papers in Palaeontology
The level of preservation of these mummified bees is truly exceptional. The researchers were able to identify not only the anatomical details that define the bee’s species, but also its sex and the monofloral pollen left behind by the mother when creating the cocoon. Carlos Neto de Carvalho, scientific coordinator of the Natortejo Geopark and researcher at the University of Lisbon Ciências ULisboa, explains, “The degree of preservation of these bees is so exceptional that we were able to determine not only the anatomical details that define the type of bee, but also its sex and even the supply of monofloral pollen left by the mother when constructing the cocoon.”
Discovering ancient bee habitats
This discovery is part of a larger project that has identified four paleontological sites with high concentrations of bee cocoon fossils. These sites, located between Vila Nova de Milfontes and Odeixeix on the coast of Odemira, have provided valuable insights into ancient bee habitats. The Municipality of Odemira supported this scientific study by allowing carbon dating to determine the age of these fossils.
A rare glimpse into the fossilization process of bees
Bee fossils are extremely rare due to their chitinous composition, which usually decomposes quickly. Andrea Baucon, a paleontologist at the University of Siena and co-author of the study, explains, “While fossils of bee family nests and hives go back 100 million years, the truth is that fossils of its users are virtually unheard of.” The discovery of these well-preserved cocoons provides a unique opportunity to study ancient bee species and their habitat.
The Eucera bee: A species frozen in time
The mummified bees found inside the cocoons belong to the Eucera species of bee, one of about 700 species extant on mainland Portugal. These cocoons act as sarcophagi, preserving the young individuals of the Eucera bee that never made it to the world. Inside, the cocoon is covered with a complex thread fashioned by the mother and composed of an organic polymer. Some cocoons even contain remnants of pollen from single-flowered plants, which must have nourished the larvae during their early stages of life.
Unlocking the secrets of the past for a sustainable future
Bees play a crucial role as pollinators: there are more than 20,000 species of bees worldwide. However, their populations are in significant decline due to human activities and climate change. By understanding the environmental factors that led to the death and mummification of bee populations nearly 3,000 years ago, scientists hope to develop strategies to combat the effects of climate change on bees today.
Experts give their opinions
Dr. Jane Goodall, renowned primatologist and environmentalist, stresses the importance of this discovery, “Studying ancient bee populations can give us valuable insights into their resilience and adaptation to changing environmental conditions. We must learn from the past to protect these vital pollinators and ensure a sustainable future.”