The ancestors of honeybees living over 50 million years ago were believed to have been picky when it came to what pollen they brought home to their offspring.
New findings reveal the pollen these ancient bees selected for their young always came from the same plant, the University of Bonn reported. They appeared to be less picky about the pollen they feasted on themselves, and would take pollen from almost any flowering plant.
To make their findings, the researchers looked at fossilized bees from two different locations: the Messel Pit near Darmstadt and Eckfeld Maar in the Vulkaneifel. They noticed pollen near the ancient insects' heads, chests and abdomens was mixed, while pollen found on the back legs almost exclusively came from evergreen bushes. These insects are believed to have used their front legs to collect pollen and transport it to their back legs.
"The bushes where the worker bees collected food for their larvae all had a similar blossom structure," said researcher Torsten Wappler. "After they visited those blossoms, the pollen mainly stuck to parts of their bodies where it was easy to transfer to their legs."
The bees are believed to have targeted blossoms that would give them the best harvest, but would stop to sip from other plants along the way.
"This was a good strategy for the bees," Wappler said. "When they were looking for food for the larvae, they visited blossoms that offered a high yield with little effort. On the way there, on the other hand, they ate whatever they happened to find. So they didn't waste any time looking for especially delicious or nutritious food."
The researchers noted they were surprised to find bee foossils from Eckfeld Maar were 44 million years old, while those from Messel were 48 million years old. Despite the dramatic time difference, both of these bee species had similar pollen patterns on their bodies. This means the pollen-collecting strategy remained intact for millions of years, and even modern honeybees use a similar approach.
The findings were published in a recent edition of the journal Current Biology.