Bee fossils from La Brea Tar Pits offer clues to Ice Age climate


Bee fossils discovered in the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in California are offering new information about climatic conditions in southern California thousands of years ago, when tremendous ice sheets ruled the terrain. 

Ice age fossils are abundant in the La Brea Tar Pits, located near Los Angeles. Within this geological formation, paleontologists discovered fossils of nests from a rare variety of leafcutter bee. 

Two of the fossils were examined using scanners capable of producing three dimensional computer models. A close examination was made of the nests, as well as the pupae contained in the structures. Bees begin life as larvae and grow into pupae before becoming full-grown adults. The species of bee that built the nest turned out to be familiar. 

Megachile gentilis is a variety of the insect still in existence in today. Adult members of the species grow to be about half an inch long. 

Anna Holden of the Natural History Museum (NHM) led the study of the ancient bees and the role of climate on their development during the last ice age. Based on modern leafcutter bees, the area around Los Angeles must have once been warmer and wetter than the modern era. 

Holden and her team chose to study leafcutter fossils from la Brea because "these specimens frequently serve as the most valuable paleoenvironemental indicators due to their narrow climate restrictions and life cycles," the researchers wrote in the article announcing their results. 

Bees have been vanishing for several years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that populations of bees have dwindled by one-third over the last seven years. Beekeepers and biologists are still debating the underlying cause of this massive population loss. 

Crops essential for several popular food products could be threatened by dwindling bee populations worldwide. 

"Honey bees are not native to the New World; they came from Europe with the first settlers. There are native pollinators in the United States, but honey bees are more prolific and easier to manage on a commercial level for pollination of a wide variety of crops. Almonds, for example, are completely dependent on honey bees for pollination. In California, the almond industry requires the use of 1.4 million colonies of honey bees, approximately 60 percent of all managed honey bee colonies in the United States," the USDA wrote on their Web page about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). 

An article detailing the study of the leafcutter bee nests was published in the online journal Plos One.

Researchers are attempting to learn something about changing climate during the last ice age by looking at bees. Maybe, modern versions of these insects are trying to tell humans something about our world today. 

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