“Mummified” Bees From the Time of the Pharaohs Discovered in Portugal

by Santiago Fernandez
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Ancient Bees

“Mummified” Bees Dating Back to the Time of the Pharaohs Unearthed in Portugal

An astonishing discovery involving the well-preserved remains of ancient bees has emerged as a significant milestone in the ongoing battle against climate change. Spearheaded by Fernando Muñiz, a research academic affiliated with the University of Seville, this revelation has been documented in a recent publication in the international journal Papers in Palaeontology, under the title “Eucera bees (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Eucerini) preserved in their brood cells from late Holocene (middle Neoglacials) palaeosols of southwest Portugal.”

Remarkable Preservation of Bees

This groundbreaking study unveils the existence of bees found in a state of exceptional preservation, cocooned within their nests. Notably, these cocoons also contained traces of Brassicaceae pollen, suggesting a preference for a specific monofloral variety among these ancient insects. The exceptional level of preservation is particularly rare since the skeletal structure of such insects typically decomposes rapidly. Thanks to this remarkable preservation, the research team has been able to identify the bee species, their gender, and even the type of pollen left by the mother when constructing the cocoon.

A Potential Clue to Bee Mortality

Bees constitute a vital group of pollinating insects, encompassing over 20,000 different species. A significant portion of these bee species, approximately three-quarters, nest underground, which aids in the preservation of their nesting structures. The study describes the discovery of dense aggregations of thousands of fossilized nests per square meter in southwest Portugal, mostly attributed to the ichnogenera Palmiraichnus.

The revelation of this ichnogenera presents an unparalleled opportunity to delve into the well-conserved architecture of these nesting sites and explore the potential environmental factors that contributed to the bees’ demise and subsequent preservation for over 3,000 years. Although the exact cause of death remains a mystery, the study suggests that a shortage of oxygen resulting from sudden flooding and a subsequent decrease in nocturnal temperatures could have played a role. During the Neoglacial interval, the southwest coast of Portugal experienced slightly colder periods and increased winter rainfall, creating favorable climatic conditions for the preservation of these fossils.

The Significance of Bees and Implications for Modern Ecology

As pollinators, bees play a crucial role in ecosystems, affecting a multitude of plant and animal species, including humans. For instance, bees are responsible for pollinating 70% of the crops consumed by people and 30% of livestock feed. Human activities such as intensive farming, pesticide and insecticide use, and climate change have placed one out of every ten bee species in Europe at risk of extinction.

Professor Muñiz emphasized the critical role of bees in ecosystems, underlining that any decline in their numbers would directly impact biodiversity and human food sources. Furthermore, understanding the ecological factors that led to the presence and subsequent mummification of this ancient bee population 3,000 years ago holds the potential to inform strategies for resilience in the face of contemporary climate change challenges. It allows for a comparison between the ecological imbalances caused by natural factors and those arising from current conditions, shedding light on their impact on present-day bee species.

Reference: “Eucera bees (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Eucerini) preserved in their brood cells from late Holocene (middle Neoglacial) palaeosols of southwest Portugal” by Carlos Neto de Carvalho, Andrea Baucon, Davide Badano, Pedro Proença Cunha, Cristiana Ferreira, Silvério Figueiredo, Fernando Muñiz, João Belo, Federico Bernardini, and Mário Cachão, 27 July 2023, Papers in Palaeontology.
DOI: 10.1002/spp2.1518

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Ancient Bees

What is the significance of the discovery of ancient mummified bees in Portugal?

The discovery of mummified bees in Portugal is significant because it provides insight into the preservation of these insects over 3,000 years and offers clues about their potential cause of death. It also has implications for modern ecology and the critical role of bees in pollination.

How were the bees so well-preserved?

The exceptional preservation of these bees is unusual because insect skeletons typically decompose quickly. In this case, the bees were found cocooned within their nests, which played a crucial role in their preservation. The study suggests that environmental factors, such as sudden flooding and temperature changes, may have contributed to their preservation.

Why is the preservation of ancient bees relevant to modern ecology?

Bees are essential pollinators for many plant and animal species, including humans. Understanding the ecological factors that led to the preservation of these ancient bees can help us develop strategies for resilience in the face of contemporary challenges, such as climate change and bee population decline.

What are the implications of this discovery for bee conservation?

The discovery underscores the importance of bee conservation efforts. With one in every ten bee species in Europe at risk of extinction due to factors like intensive farming, pesticide use, and climate change, preserving and studying ancient bee populations can inform conservation strategies and highlight the critical role bees play in ecosystems.

Where can I find more information about this discovery?

You can find more details about this discovery in the scientific paper titled “Eucera bees (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Eucerini) preserved in their brood cells from late Holocene (middle Neoglacial) palaeosols of southwest Portugal” published in the journal Papers in Palaeontology, dated July 27, 2023 (DOI: 10.1002/spp2.1518).

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