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Scientists are abuzz — they've figured out where bees originated

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

We are covering the birds and bees today. Silas Bossert is researching the history of bees. He's an assistant professor at Washington State University.

SILAS BOSSERT: We have over 20,000 species of bees. And one of those long-standing questions was where bees originally came from.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

So a team of scientists has spent years studying that question. They conclude that bees are so old that when they emerged, the continents were not in their current positions on the globe. Africa and South America were attached when the first bees buzzed.

BOSSERT: The climate that made bees originate 120 million years ago is almost the exact same kind of climate that corresponds to the hotspots of bee biodiversity today.

INSKEEP: Dry, hot climates like the places where bees thrive most in the United States - Arizona, California and New Mexico.

MCCAMMON: Bossert's team has studied hundreds of modern and fossilized bee species.

BOSSERT: Understanding the past is always important to understand the present. If we understand the kinds of habitats and the time when bees were doing so good that they spread all over the place, we get additional tools to understanding how we can help them today.

MCCAMMON: And this is really important work considering their role in food production.

BOSSERT: Our breakfast table would look pretty dire without bee pollination. There would be no strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, chocolate. We'd be, like, hard-pressed for coffee.

INSKEEP: Yeah, no coffee - that would be an emergency. Bossert says the scientific community still has much more to learn.

BOSSERT: The fossil record is most well studied in the northern hemisphere. There are a lot of gaps. There are almost certainly a lot of fossils in Africa that we don't know of or India that we are not really aware of yet.

INSKEEP: So he looks forward to learning more.

BOSSERT: It's also actually really fun work. You know, bees are fascinating animals. They like the same habitats that humans often like. Usually, you know, you're standing in front of a patch of flowers, and you're looking for insects. You know, it's kind of nicer than some other kinds of insect collecting.

MCCAMMON: The researchers say their findings will help them detect the origins of various bee species.

(SOUNDBITE OF GROOVYDOMINOES52'S "BEE.") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Naina Rao
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