Fossil shows first all-American honeybee

North America once had its own Apis species instead of today’s imports

North America did too have a native honeybee.

A roughly 14-million-year-old fossil unearthed in Nevada preserves what’s clearly a member of the honeybee, or Apis, genus, says Michael Engel of the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

The Americas have plenty of other kinds of bees, but all previously known honeybees come from Asia and Europe. Even the Apis mellifera honeybee that has pollinated crops and made honey across the Americas for several centuries arrived with European colonists some 400 years ago.

“This rewrites the history of honeybee evolution,” Engel says, turning over the long-held view of Europe and Asia as the native land of all honeybees.

The newly discovered bee, found squashed and preserved in shale, no longer exists as a living species, Engel says. To a specialist’s eye, it looks closest to another extinct honeybee, A. armbrusteri, known from Germany.

Engel and his colleagues christen the new North American honeybee Apis nearctica in the current, May 7, issue of Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences.

“It is indeed a big find,” says David Grimaldi of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. “Completely unexpected,” he says, considering all of the Eurasian fossils.

Grimaldi now compares the bees with horses. North America once had its own species, but the horses disappeared and Europeans eventually introduced theirs.

Engel says he wasn’t expecting to rewrite the continent’s history when he first heard the California Academy’s Wojciech Pulawski describe some unidentified fossils from west-central Nevada. But when Engel first saw a photo of what Pulawski had led him to believe was an unpromising mess, he says, “I did a double take.”

Engel spotted a definitive pattern in a wing that just buzzes honeybee. At the top of the wing, a vein thickens toward the middle, and veins below trace three characteristic shapes, including a (sort of) horse’s head and a falling-sideways blob.

The bee had come apart, but Engel revels in the honeybee traits he can see. “This thing had hairy eyes,” he says. Barbs on the stinger show up too. This bee probably had to leave its stinger behind at the cost of a fatal rip in its body, just as today’s honeybees do.

Apis nearctica’s honeybee ancestors may have made their way over a land bridge from Asia to traverse this great distance, Engel postulates as he reimagines the old view of honeybees. “I got to overturn some of my own stuff,” he says.

TELLTALE WING A 14-million-year-old fossil from Nevada shows the somewhat jumbled parts of a honeybee, recognizable by its distinctive pattern of wing veins (arrow) and other features shared by modern relatives. M. S. Engel/Proc. Cal. Acad. Sci.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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