Bee Hive or Wasp Nest Inclusion in Dominican Amber

Bee hive or Wasp nest

Be hive or wasp nest in Dominican amberThe nature of this specimen is still heavily debated and requires further study. Without any doubt, it is a rare fossil of hexagonal cells and could be an interesting scientific study object, especially for a museum or any other specialized institution. The hexagonal enclosures in piece of amber from La Toca mine date back 35 – 40 million years (J.A. Santiago-Blay and G.O.Poinar jr).

But, what is it? We have consulted scientists in Germany, England, South Africa and USA. Some think it could be from a bee (because the cells look like they are wax).

At a first glance, the most obvious assumption is of course that they are honeycombs. However, there are a few problems with this conjecture. The Western Honeybee (apis mellifera) -the bee as we know it – is not native to the American continent. It was first introduced to South America approximately 500 years ago. The honeybee may still have buzzed about Europe and Africa when the Amber was still resin, but another species of bee did exist and it is the Mayan culture that reminds us of this. The Mayans were the first to actually keep bees as pets and harvest the honey, calling them Xunan Kab, the Royal Lady. The bee species they kept is now identified as a type of stingless honeybee (Melipona beecheii but also Melipona yucatanica) that differs from the traditional Western Honeybee in the fact that is does not, well, sting. It does however bite and it doesn’t build hives the way western bees do. Instead Xunan Kab builds pots irregularly arranged around a central brood comb where the larval bees are housed. The pots may be circular, but it is the brood comb that is hexagonal. Therefore, and since Hispaniola and the South American continent used to be connected, could our specimen indeed be a brood comb of a great-great-great-grandmother of the Xunan Kab? Maybe, if it weren’t for the other insect that builds hexagonal nests and resides within the Apis family.

Wasps

bee hive in amberWasp nests look shockingly similar to our hexagonal cells, plus they have the advantage of having been previously identified in Miocene Amber as a new species of the paper wasp genus Agelaia Lepeletier (Hymenoptera: Vespidae; Polistinae, Epiponini). At least three other finds of similar kinds have been studied and identified. Some Agelaia species also have the habit of building their nests in fallen tree trunks near ground level, which would be a perfect location for resin to accumulate. Unlike bees, wasps build their nests of paper, not wax. Unfortunately it is hard to identify the former consistency of a material after it has become a rock.

Bee hive or Wasp nest in Dominican amber

Opinions seem to split in this regard. Some feel that our specimen appears to be more paper than wax, while others are of the opinion that it is more wax than paper. Dr. Justin Schmidt (Tucson, AZ) feels that “the appearance and similarity of the cells to those of the Polistes carniflex nests from Sonora, Mexico… are striking. Plus the fact that the cells are even larger than those of the two nests of P. carniflex makes it even more likely the nest was a carniflex, or species near it. Since it is Dominican, it is extraordinarily unlikely that it could be from the waxen combs of honeybees. Also, I believe Vespa hornets, like honeybees were absent in the New World until humans transported them there. I suppose one could postulate a Vespula or some epiponine wasp, but modern day species of these groups are far too small to come even close to the cell size of those in the amber. A Polistes also makes sense from the dispersal and geographical records of these groups. A final thought about beeswax combs. I suspect beeswax would dissolve in fresh resin, with only the silken cocoons and fecal meconia remaining to be seen. Has anybody ever seen wax in amber?”

Whipping out Occam’s Razor, one could postulate that the find is indeed wasp, not bee. But Occam’s Razor is a double-bladed sword, and at this point a comparative study on those cells, including measurements, shape of the cells and their composition is needed. And to fuddle up the issue a bit more, here come Larry, Curly and Moe.

Be hive or wasp nest in Dominican amber

The Three Stooges

Not far from the main hexagonal complex we find three unidentified larvae. The first logical assumption would be to state that they may be bee pupae, swept out of their brood comb by the gushing resin. Experts we have consulted (among them the world’s leading Amber expert George Poinar) disagree among each other in matters of the origin of the hexagonal shapes, but they all seem to be in accordance in the point that the larvae are not pupae of any kind, but most likely scavenger, inquilines, or even some parasitoid type of larvae (a wax moth larvae?). The thing is, most insect larvae pretty much look the same.

scavengerSome may have anterior true legs or pseudo legs, which could indicate wax moth larvae for instance. But here is another problem we face: Larry and Curly both look to be legless, while Moe seems to have some type of legs. In any case, they seem not to help in identifying the hexagonal cells, since scavenger larvae are popular in all types of nests, be they honeybee, stingless bee or wasp.

 

 

 

Fossil-behavior-compendium

Fossil-behavior-compendium

 

So, what gives? There have been quite some controversies about this specimen among the leading scientists. As example, it is described by Dr. George Poinar, Department of Zoology, Oregon State University in the Encyclopedia entitled “Fossil Behavior Compendium”as probably a bee hive.

 

 

 

Encyclopedia of Insects

Encyclopedia of Insects

But according to Dr. Justin O. Schmidt, Southwestern Biological Institute in the chapter on wasps in the “Encyclopedia of Insects” it is a wasp nest.