Oregon State University zoologist George Poinar was sifting through a mail-order bag of rocks in his basement lab, picking out chunks of amber collected from an Asian mine. In the amber, he hoped to find the preserved remains of ancient plants and animals.

What he found was remarkable: a 100-million-year-old bee, the oldest ever found and the first to be traced back to the age of the dinosaurs. The wee bee – only 0.116 inch long, about the thickness of two pennies – is about 40 million years older than previously found bees. The discovery of the ancient pollinator may help explain the rapid expansion and diversity of flowering plants during that time.

“I knew right away what it was, because I had seen bees in younger amber before,” said Poinar, a zoology professor at OSU. The date is established by determining the age of the amber deposit. “It was quite exciting because it’s the only definite Cretaceous bee known, which changes views about how old these insects are.”

Also embedded in the amber are four kinds of flowers. “So we can imagine this little bee flitting around these tiny flowers millions of years ago,” he said.

Poinar’s description of the discovery will appear Friday in the journal Science. His article, co-authored by bee researcher Bryan Danforth of Cornell University, coincides with a report in Nature about the unraveling of the genetic map of the honeybee.

The recently completed sequencing of the honeybee genome already is giving scientists fresh insights into the social insects.

Poinar’s ancient male bee, Melittosphex burmensis, is not a honeybee and not related to any modern bee family. The pollen-eating bee has a few features of meat-eating wasps, such as narrow hind legs, but the body’s branched hairs are a key feature of pollen-spreading bees.

The bee – about one-fifth the size of today’s honeybee worker has a heart-shaped head that is only 0.009 inch long.

“It’s exciting to see something that seems so different from what we think of as modern bees,” Danforth said. “It’s not an ancestor of honeybees, but probably was a species on an early branch of the evolutionary tree of bees that went extinct.”

Poinar found the bee two years ago in amber from a mine in the Hukawng Valley of northern Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Many researchers buy bags of the rocks from miners to search for fossils. Amber, a translucent semiprecious stone, is a substance that begins as tree resin.

The sticky resin entombs and preserves insects, pollen and other small organisms.

Poinar’s specimen is too small and fragile to open for closer inspection. “The amber would crack and fracture and the bee would be lost,” he said.

The 70-year-old Spokane native, who has been at OSU since 1995 and is an emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California at Berkeley, is one of the world’s leading experts on insects in amber.

Last year, Danforth heard about Poinar’s discovery and flew to Oregon to see the specimen, which is in OSU’s vast insect collection.

“It’s difficult to see in the amber, but we’re confident that we’ve interpreted this specimen correctly,” Danforth said. “But we’d like other people to take a look at it to get some independent confirmation that this is a bee.”

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Danforth said the work on the honeybee genome, which he’s already using in his research, is an important step in understanding the bees’ complex social behavior.

Western honeybees, Apis mellifera, are Earth’s premier pollinators, accounting for as much as $20 billion in food produced in the United States, according to Gene Robinson, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Robinson, one of 200 scientists involved in the genome project, said the new genetic information about honeybees is important because they are used in research involving allergies, neuroscience and venom toxicology.

As researchers continue to look for ancient specimens, bees even older than Poinar’s, perhaps going back 120 million years, may be found, Danforth said. “That’s why it’s nice to find something that looks like a bee in the Burmese amber because people predicted that we should find something like this. Now we have.”

JL END HILL

(Richard L. Hill is a staff writer for The Oregonian of Portland, Ore. He can be contacted at richardhill(at)news.oregonian.com)

AP-NY-10-26-06 1501EDT


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