The topic of honey bees is a buzz in the news due to the extinction epidemic they face. With rapidly declining populations attributed to various factors – Colony Collapse Disorder, pesticides, shrinking habitats, and the Varroa mite – these architects of agriculture could soon be on the endangered species list.
In order for honey bees to survive, so we can continue to enjoy the fruits, vegetables, and nuts they pollinate, researchers are scrambling for a solution to create a bee boon once more. By studying the species’ genetics, they can possibly gain some clues and insights to learn how to save the bees.
While studying these efficient pollinators, scientists stumbled upon an intriguing discovery they weren’t looking for: where the honey bee really originated from.
A Bit About Honey Bees.
Honey bees are a part of the genus Apis, categorized by their propensity to produce and store honey, as well as the wax nests they house in. There are only seven species of honey bees that are recognized, along with 44 subspecies. While other types of related bees manufacture honey, only members of the Apis family are true honey bees. The honey bee that we’re most familiar with is the Apis mellifera, the species responsible for carrying the agricultural industry.
Honey bees are eusocial creatures, characterized by four behaviors:
- Adults living together in groups
- Cooperative care for young, typically by non-breeding bees, or worker bees, that protect and provide for the group
- Reproductive division – not all members get to reproduce; typically, one female (queen) and multiple males
- Overlap of generations
In eusocial structures, tasks are distributed based on age and colony needs. Younger bees are the queen’s cronies, while veteran worker bees run the show: they forage, construct and clean wax cells, transform nectar to honey, and guard the hive.
A Honey Bee History.
The first Apis bees were discovered in a fossil record found at the Eocene–Oligocene boundary, in European deposits dating 34 million years ago. However, finding these ancient honey bees doesn’t necessarily mean they originated from there, merely that they were around at that time. The origin of the honey bee dates much further back in time.
Scientists and researchers believe the honey bee, the common Apis mellifera in particular, made its inaugural appearance in the Cretaceous period 130 million years ago. Until recently, they pinpointed Africa as the birthplace of the original honey bee species.
This turned out to be accurate – somewhat. While researchers were studying the genome of the honey bee in order to prevent their extinction, they found evidence that the honey bee actually originated in Asia, and not Africa, which was their accepted home for years. The scientists conducting the study concluded that based off the evolutionary tree they constructed from genome sequences, that their findings didn’t support the origin-in-Africa theory. Instead, they pinpointed Asia as the true home of honey bees.
While their evidence supports a bees-from-Asia theory, the Apis mellifera actually does originate from Africa. Every specie of bee is native to the Asian region except the Apis mellifera, which did indeed originally come from Africa.
The researchers say the Asian bees are descendants of a species of cavity-nesting bees, which then started to spread to European and African regions. Once the bees spread west into Europe, and then into Africa, they became the Apis mellifera, or the western honey bee we know today.
Why Understanding Where Honey Bees Originated is Important.
Very few fossil deposits have been unearthed from South Asia, and even less have been studied, leaving honey bee history a bit cloudy. But it looks like we can accurately conclude that honey bees are native to Asia, migrating to Africa, becoming the common Apis mellifera that’s now on the verge of extinction.
Understanding honey bee history gives valuable insight of how we can cultivate bee populations for the future. For them to withstand the threats of today, we must learn the origins of their journey here in the first place, and how they adapted to a changing world.
The honey bee faces a rapidly changing world once more, and if we can use the insights of their evolutionary and genetic adaptations, a framework can be constructed – such as taking advantage of their high level of genetic diversity, or amazing adaptation to climate change – to preserve honey bees.
While honey bees are facing extinction, hornet and wasp pests are as plentiful as ever. Magical Pest’s Wasp and Hornet Removal Division can make those pests an endangered species on your property. Call the experts at Magical Pest Control at 905-738-6676 or send us a message for a free phone consultation.