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Archive for Sunday, August 17, 2003

KU researcher gets buzz from ancient bee species

August 17, 2003

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The honeybee came from Europe to America with the first settlers.

Indians always knew when the colonists were encroaching because their bees preceded them. That's why the Indians called them "white man's flies."

Honeybees swarm. But the vast majority of the more than 20,000 bee species on Earth are loners, says Michael Engel, assistant curator of entomology at Kansas University's Natural History Museum.

Engel, who helps maintain a KU bee collection of 460,000 specimens, treasures bees that are much older than the early settlers' honeybees. He's especially fond of bees trapped in ancient amber.

Amber is a fossilized form of gooey, yellow resin secreted by ancient trees. The resin became a liquid coffin for any unwary insect that strayed into it.

Engel has seen and described for publication the oldest fossil bee ever found. The 75-million-year-old specimen came from Burlington County, N.J.

"It's enthralling to know that this thing has been biding its time for 75 million years," Engel says. "It sits there in all its color and glory, in a way that a dinosaur cannot. The only difference from a live specimen is that it's not moving."

Early this year, Engel published a paper about the second oldest bee, which is from British Columbia. This one is about 50 million years old, and it didn't come packaged in amber. The bee lacked antennae, mouthparts and legs.

With fossil bees that aren't trapped in amber, Engel says, it's the wings that last. They're too flat to get smashed, and they contain no bug meat, so they aren't feasted on by bacteria or birds.

But it's bees in amber that appeal most to Engel.

This is an Illustration of a 75 million-year-old bee. It's based on
a real specimen found encased in amber in Burlington County, N.J.
Michael Engel, assistant curator of entomology at Kansas
University's Natural History Museum, has seen the specimen and
described it for publication.

This is an Illustration of a 75 million-year-old bee. It's based on a real specimen found encased in amber in Burlington County, N.J. Michael Engel, assistant curator of entomology at Kansas University's Natural History Museum, has seen the specimen and described it for publication.

Amber can freeze a bug doing its thing. Engel has specimens caught forever in a moment: flies joined, forever mating, and spiders forever spinning webs.

When the amber containing the 75 million-year-old bee came to Engel, its surface was cloudy and cracked. So he encased it in epoxy to stabilize it. Then he cut thin slices off the amber, approaching the trapped bee gingerly.

It was as if he were washing a dirty window, he says. The bee came slowly into view. As Engel saw the mandibles and the structure of hind legs, he saw that early guesses about the creature's identity were wrong.

The bee belonged to a new genus that Engel named Cretotrigona.

"It raised a bit of a stir among bee people around the world," Engel says.

Yet the discovery made no headlines.

Then something remarkable happened. An illustrator for a New York Times article on fossil flowers came to Engel. He wanted his illustration to contain a bee appropriate to the ancient flowers he was drawing. The illustrator sat in Engel's lab, which was then at the American Museum of Natural History, for two days. The two men worked back and forth to create an accurate image of Cretotrigona.

That bee hovers above the fossil flowers in the illustration. It is anonymous, but free at last from its amber cell.

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