Bees have an extraordinary history and have changed considerably over time resulting in the bees we see today.
Bees first appeared during the Cretaceous period 130 million years ago. During this time, the first fossils of many flowering plants, insect groups, birds and modern mammals were found. The earliest recorded bee was found in Myanmar, where it was encased in amber, dating approximately 100 million years old.
In this early stage, it is thought that bees were actually predatory, eating other insects for survival rather than seeking nectar and pollen. At this time they were part of the wasp family, namely, Crabronidae. They were also solitary non-social insects.
120 million years ago specific morphological changes occurred including longer tongues, pollen baskets, and increased fuzziness. These changes resulted in the improved ability of bees to collect pollen and nectar resulting in the transition from insect-based prey to a vegetarian diet.
In the Oligocene-Miocene period, some 35-40 million years ago, temperatures cooled at a time when the European honey bee became extinct. However, the Indo-European honey bee was able to survive and develop. Around 6 million years ago the bees, bees which were able to form cavity-nests, spread east and northwards.
In the Pleistocene period, 2-3 million years ago, the warming allowed the bees to spread westwards into Europe and Africa. Covering such a vast areas of different climatic conditions from hot summers to dry winters as well as desert and tropical environments allowed different subspecies to emerge.
Today, in total, there are seven established species of honey bees with 44 subspecies. Considering the approximately 20 000 species of bees in total, the honey bee forms a surprisingly small fraction. In fact, honey bees are the only surviving members of the tribe Apini which is part of the Apidae family.
The single genus of honey bee, Apis, is split into three branches of subspecies depending on how the bees nest. These are the cavity nesting bees (including Apis cerana, Apis koschevniokovi, and Apis mellifera), the open nesting honey bees (Apis dorsata and Apis laboriosa), and the single-combed honey bees (Apis andreniformis and Apis florae).
Apis mellifera is the main truly domesticated species of bees which has moved beyond its native range from at least the time of the Egyptian pyramids. And so in next part of this series we will explore the remarkable role of bees in Egyptian life from how they were kept by ordinary civilians to the discovery of golden bees in the tombs of Kings.
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