The History of Bees with Plants and People

Brush up on your history of honeybees interacting and living with plants and people over thousands of years.

| March 2018

  • Honeybees have been round since before humans, approximately 93 million years before the first humans arrived.
    Photo by Pixabay/mikezwei
  • “Planting for Honeybees” by Sarah Wyndham Lewis teaches gardeners to use their backyards to give the honeybee population a helping hand.
    Photo courtesy of Quadrille Publishing

Planting for Honeybees (Quadrille, 2018) by Sarah Wyndham Lewis is a guide to help gardeners attract these friendly buzzing bees to their yards all season long. Wyndham Lewis also gives readers a look into the world and history of honeybees, showing why it is so important that they stick around. In the following excerpt, she goes through the history of honeybees evolving and interacting with plants and people.

Honeybees evolved millions of years before mankind, as did plants. Flowers evolved alongside the bees and in the race to spread their genes, made themselves ever more attractive to pollinating insects. Bees and plants together weathered everything that time could throw at them until modern humans arrived and began ‘improving’ nature.

About 100 million years ago (93 million years before the first proto-humans emerged) plants and bees started an elegant coevolution. Their story begins in the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs were still very much part of the ecology. Some wind-pollinated plants began developing flowers to attract insects, which were much more dependable as pollinators than pollen carried on air currents. Initially, they lured insects by developing petals as landing pads, conspicuous colors and distinctive scents. Later, they evolved to produce nectar, an irresistible sugar-rich meal.

Fossil records from the Cretaceous period show both the earliest flowering plants (known as angiosperms) and a recognizable honeybee (Melittosphex burmensis, found in Myanmar in 2006). Perfectly suited to one another, they prospered in their symbiotic relationship and survived the mass extinction of flora and fauna that spelled the end of the giant dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Along the way, honeybees began clearly differentiating themselves from their wasp ancestors, evolving unique structures such as a honey sac, a second stomach, to collect nectar, and pollen baskets to gather the bounty of nutritious pollen grains. Bees and plants also began building colonies, storing and managing supplies and evolving the dance languages and labor division that is still seen today.

Amongst the estimated 25,000 species of bee worldwide today, there are only seven species of honeybee. Unique amongst their kind, they overwinter as a colony, living on honey stored in the wax comb. The most successful of all honeybees, Apis mellifera (still the species most commonly kept today), was originally a cavity-nesting bee and is currently thought to have spread from Asia into Europe and Africa between two and three million years ago. One of mankind’s earliest ancestors, Homo habilis, raided wild bee nests in Africa around that period. It was the original luxury food.

Kevin Galloway
3/27/2018 11:44:40 AM

A list of the flowers and trees that are good for bees would have been very helpful!

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