In 2019, researchers discovered hundreds of mummified bees that had been encased inside their cocoons for nearly 3,000 years. The bees were found on the Odemira coastline of Portugal. A new study detailing the findings has been published in a paleontology journal.
In the past, scientists have encountered other fossilized bee nests, but this was the first they’ve seen with insects still inside. This phenomenon is rare, as insects typically decompose pretty quickly after their deaths. Therefore, the finding of the mummified bees is something to truly marvel at.
While in the town of Odemira, a team of researchers came across some rocks with bulb-shaped cocoons inside them. At first, they couldn’t figure out what insect had created the cocoons.
After taking them back to the lab for a closer look, they could see the remains of young adult long-horned bees of the species Eucera. The bees were so well-preserved that scientists were able to identify their genders, in addition to the amount of pollen the mother left behind after building the cocoon.
Female Eucera bees lay their eggs inside cocoons underneath the earth and provide a supply of pollen for their offspring to feed on after they’ve hatched. Once the bees mature into adults, they break out of the cocoons and venture aboveground.
Some type of catastrophic weather event occurred while these bees were nestled safely inside their cocoons. Experts suspect a sharp decrease in temperature or a sudden flood led to the simultaneous deaths of hundreds of bees.
The cocoons were made with organic polymer produced by the mother, which kept the bees sealed inside and prevented oxygen and bacteria from getting in. So, that’s how the bees managed to stay intact for almost three millennia.
Additionally, the pollen in the cocoons serves as further evidence that the bees died as a result of a weather event. Right before their untimely endings, the bees had been eating pollen from a flower in a plant family that includes cabbage and mustard. This indicates that there were plenty of available crops, and the bees did not perish due to mass starvation.
Understanding the reasons behind the bees’ deaths and mummification is crucial. Bees are important pollinators that have been decreasing in population because of climate change.