The Evolution of Bees

Wasps, WASPS and honey-bees

“Scientists have unravelled the genetic code of the honey bee, uncovering clues about its complex social behavior, heightened sense of smell and African origins.

“It is the third insect to have its genome mapped and joins the fruit fly and mosquito in the exclusive club.

“The honey bee, or Apis mellifera, evolved more slowly than the other insects but has more genes related to smell.” [M]

“Scientists have identified the oldest known bee, a 100 million-year-old specimen preserved in amber.

“The discovery coincides with the publication of the genetic blueprint of the honeybee, which reveals surprising links with mammals and humans…

“Experts believe pollen-dependent bees arose from carnivorous wasp ancestors. With the arrival of pollinating bees, flowering plants blossomed on Earth. Prior to 100 million years ago, the plant world was dominated by conifers which spread their seeds on the wind.

“George Poinar, professor of zoology at Oregon State University, US, whose team reported their discovery in the journal Science, said: ‘This is the oldest known bee we’ve ever been able to identify, and it shares some of the features of wasps’.” [N]

The ‘similarity to humans’ that they noted seemed rather minor, “Honey bees have an internal ‘biological clock’ which is more like those of mammals than of flies”, which would make them as close to mice as to humans. I noticed a few others.

In a previous Newsnotes, I mentioned that mice seem to have had more natural selection than humans, while retaining much the same basic form as an ancestral mammal. Now something similar seems to be true of the bees, with their complex social existence. Probably it will also be true of ants, believed to be heavily-modified offshoots from the basic carnivorous wasps. Interesting evolutionary advances seem to happen on the peripheries of life, where natural-selection pressures are relatively low.

Bees, it seems, also came ‘Out of Africa’ in at least two waves of migration, just as humans did. Life is a remarkable process, and so-called ‘selfish genes’ are not what it’s about. Too much competition seems to be as stifling as too little. Life gets interesting only when order and chaos are finely balanced.

[M] [http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20061025/sc_nm/science_honeybee_dc]

[N] [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6084974.stm]

From Newsnotes, November 2006.

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