Sunday 9 June 2013

A Stingless Bee from Colombian copal.

he film Jurassic Park is based upon the idea that it might be possible to recover the DNA of Dinosaurs from inside Mosquitoes preserved in amber (fossilized tree resin). However attempts to recover biological material from amber have generally ended in failure, leaving most palaeobiologists to conclude that this is in fact impossible, and that organisms are effectively preserved in amber only as images. 

In 1997 Dany Azar of the Faculty of Science at the Lebanese University reported being able to recover intact biological material from Cretaceous Lebanese amber, by dissolving the amber in chloroform, in a paper in the journal Palaeontology. This was followed by the publication in 1999 by the description of an Enicocephalid Bug recovered from Lebanese amber by a team led by Azar, the description of a number of Arthropods recovered from Eocene amber from Cambay in India by a team of scientists led by Nina Mazur of the Steinmann Institute of Geology, Mineralogy and Palaeontology at the University of Bonn in a paper published in the journal Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, and the description of two new species of Booklice from Quaternary Colombian copal (sub-fossil tree resin) in a paper in the journal Denisia, by again by a team led by Dany Azar.

In a paper published in the journal Paleontological Contributions on 9 May 2013, a team of scientists led by David Penney of the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester describe the results of an attempt to replicate Azar's method using Miocene Dominican amber, Eocene Baltic amber and Colombian copal. Penney et al. were not able to recover any material from the Dominican or Baltic amber; the samples were completely destroyed by the process. However they were able to recover a Stingless Bee from the (less polymerized) copal.

The Stingless Bee does not belong to any previously described species. Another, apparently identical, Bee in a similar piece of Copal was dated to around 10 600 years old, although it is quite possible that the species is still extant and simply has not been discovered (several new species of Insect from South and Central America are described more-or-less every day). Altogether four specimens of this Bee were found in Colombian copal, only one of which was dissolved out.

A specimen of the new Stingless Bee, Trigonisca ameliae. The scale bar is 1 mm. Penney et al. (2013).

The new Bee species is placed in the genus Trigonisca and given the specific name ameliae in honour of David Penney's Daughter, Amelia Jan Penney. It is a dark, reddish brown Bee, approximately 2.7 mm in length.

Stingless Bees (Meliponini) are social Insects, forming colonies in a similar way to the familiar Honey Bees (Alpini); though they are not closely related and evolved the life-strategy separately. The Stingless Bees are a much larger group, comprising at least 60 genera (compared to a single genus, Apis, with 11 species of Honey Bee), though they are less familiar due to their small size and lack of either an unpleasant sting (they are not actually stingless, but their stings are too small to penetrate human skin). Stinless Bees do produce honey, though not in such large amounts as Honey Bees (again, largely because they are smaller), and there is growing interest in the commercial production of Stingless Bee honey in several parts of the world, where local Bee species are considered to be better for the local environment than imported European Honey Bees. Some species are kept as pets in Central and South America. Most species of Stingless Bee live in the tropics or subtropics, in warm woodland environments.

Stingless Bees have a fossil record going back most of the Cenozoic, including numerous specimens from Miocene Dominican amber, though they are absent from the modern Greater Antilles. It is thought that they went locally extinct during the Plio-Pleistocene cooling event, and have been unable to recolonize the islands.

Second specimen of the Stingless Bee, Trigonisca ameliae. Penney et al. (2013).

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