Bees and the Big Swatter from Outer Space

Honey beesBees – and the ancestors of carpenter bees, in particular – felt the wrath of the big swatter from outer space 65 million years ago. And it nearly wiped them out, a new study finds. Why they survived is a mystery. But if researchers can figure it out, modern-day bees might also be saved.

Researchers theorize that the same meteor that took out the dinosaurs – and up to 80 percent of the other species then living on earth – almost exterminated bees, as well. It is difficult to prove. We have a pretty good idea what happened to the dinosaurs. They were large and they left lots of big bones around to study. Not so bees, of course, meaning that the study’s authors had to turn to a complicated bit of DNA technology.

The reason they decided to focus on carpenter bees is because the insects have been around for a very long time, at least since the Mid-Cretaceous period about 120 to 90 million years ago. The world was a much warmer place then and the plants upon which carpenter bees dined, were plentiful and widespread. After the meteor struck, those plants died out. Scientists assumed that bees who depended on them had suffered, as well.

To prove it, researchers took DNA samples from carpenter bees on every continent except Antarctica, plus some fossilized plants, and compared them. When they extrapolated the data, they found that something significant happened 65 million years ago. Actually, what they found was that the genetic diversification they would expect to see, just wasn’t there. “This,” says Sandra Rehan of the University of New Hampshire and lead author of the study, “is an indication of a mass extinction event.”

The study results indicate it was pretty bad. But it didn’t kill them all. Somehow carpenter bees made it through and are still around today.

The study is not without its critics. John Ascher, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, concedes the findings are tantalizing. But he has a problem with the proof. Ascher says he’d feel a lot better if they could have used an actual bee fossil from back then for comparison.

So, a group of bees managed to survive the big swatter from outer space. What does this have to do with the bees buzzing these days? Well, they’ve been going through tough times lately, with honey bees especially feeling the sting.

Since 2006 beekeepers in the US have noticed an alarming phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder. Put simply, the bees just up and buzz away one day for no apparent reason and they don’t come back. The disorder has now been detected in parts of Europe as well. Why they are dying off is a mystery. Bee experts think that it’s caused by pesticides or global warming, but they admit they don’t know for sure.

Should honey bees go extinct we would we will not starve, but it will be our turn to feel the sting. Honey bees help pollinate about 30 percent of everything we eat. They contribute billions to the economy yearly. Without honey bees, a lot of the fruits and vegetables we take for granted would become luxury items.

Bee extinction is serious business. Will a study of bees who survived the great swatter from outer space help save modern-day honey bees? Researcher Rehan holds out hope that important clues will be found.

Written by Mike Clancy



The Exponent