In an extraordinary find, paleontologists working along the coast near Odemira, Portugal, have unearthed the remains of hundreds of young adult bees mummified within their cocoons. This discovery, dating back to approximately 2,975 years ago, during the reign of Pharaoh Siamun in Lower Egypt, offers an exceptional view into the world of these insects, belonging to the Eucera genus, which are still buzzing around Portugal today.
The state of preservation of these bees is nothing short of remarkable, capturing even their tiniest anatomical details. This is considered "extremely rare", according to the research team, as insect bodies, primarily composed of the organic compound chitin, are generally prone to rapid decomposition. Indeed, as pointed out by paleontologist Andrea Baucon of Italy’s University of Siena, despite a fossil record spanning 100 million years of nests and hives attributed to bees, actual fossilization of these insects is virtually non-existent.
Bee Mummies from 2,975 Years Ago Unearthed in Portugal
In a surprising find along the coast near Odemira, Portugal, paleontologists have unearthed hundreds of mummified, young adult bees preserved inside their cocoons. The discovery dates back to around 2,975 years ago, during the reign of Pharaoh Siamun in Lower Egypt. Interestingly, these bees belong to the Eucera genus, a species still buzzing around Portugal today.
Unlike Pharaoh Siamun, whose mummy is believed to have completely decayed, these ancient bees are incredibly well-preserved, showcasing even their minute anatomical details. This is a rare occurrence, as insects, primarily composed of the organic compound chitin, usually decompose rapidly. Andrea Baucon, a paleontologist from Italy’s University of Siena, shared that despite a fossil record spanning 100 million years, bee fossilization is almost non-existent.
The research, led by paleontologist Carlos Neto de Carvalho of the Naturtejo UNESCO Global Geopark, has shed light on several intriguing details. "The degree of preservation of these bees is so exceptional that we could identify not only the anatomical details that determine the type of bee but also its sex and even the supply of monofloral pollen left by the mother when she built the cocoon," he said. Examination of the cocoons revealed an intricate thread composed of an organic polymer coating the interiors.
Fossilized Cocoons Sites
Neto de Carvalho’s team discovered four sites with a high density of fossilized cocoons – thousands per square meter – along Portugal’s southwestern coastline between the town of Vila Nova de Milfontes and the village of Odeceixe. Some cocoons even contained bees almost ready to break free. With the support of the municipality of Odemira, the team used carbon-14 dating to ascertain the age of the bees and microcomputed tomography scans to create 3D images of the mummified bees inside their sealed cocoons.
Why it Matters
With more than 20,000 species worldwide, bees are vital pollinators whose existence is threatened by human activities and climate change. The researchers believe understanding why these ancient bees died and were mummified could provide insights into making modern species more resilient against climate shifts. Portugal’s climate 3,000 years ago was marked by colder, rainier winters than today. Neto de Carvalho suggests that a sharp decrease in nocturnal temperature at winter’s end or prolonged flooding outside the rainy season could have led to the bees’ death and mummification.
This discovery is a testament to the importance of paleontology and its role in understanding our ecological past to better inform our present. Bees play a crucial role in our ecosystems, and any insight into their preservation amid climatic changes is invaluable. It is a stark reminder of the fragile balance nature maintains and the impact our actions have on it.