by Bob Boisvert, visiting beekeeeper at Carp Ridge EcoWellness Centre, his email: boisveb@rogers.com

The picture I snapped on the left is of something I bought at the Ottawa Gem & Mineral Show (an annual event, and awesome to attend).  With it –I think for the first time — I have been able to combine three favourite hobbies: bees, photography and fossils.

This is a 15-20 million year old Dominican Republic stingless bee (Proplebeia dominicana) entombed in amber. This little critter is actually a little less than 3mm in length.

The bees have been around for a long time, about 100 million years or more. The current thinking is that they are specialization of wasps, so they are cousins, of a sort, to the wasps. The oldest bee to date (100 million years old) has also been found buried in a chunk of amber. This very ancient bee, a male, existed at about the time plants began to diversify and create flowers with pollen to spread their genetic diversity into the world.

Around the same time, bees were evolving to take on the job as perhaps the most excellent of pollinating animals. As a species, they need pollen and nectar to live and reproduce, so they go from flower to flower to collect enough to feed themselves and the colony.

In the process, their hairy, electrostatically charged bodies carry pollen from flower to flower, ensuring that the plants will fruit, reproduce, and at the same time provide more food for the bees during the next season. Hakuna Matata! (those of you with kids will understand this).

When we speak of bees, most of us think of an insect in our backyards, somewhat fuzzy, somewhat yellow and black, hovering around our flowers. We think of them as one single thing.

But look again. First, is it really a bee ? For most city dwellers, you are probably looking at either a bumblebee or a wasp. Evolution has given us many different critters to contend with. There are over 250 known species of bumblebees, 100,000 known species of wasps, and 20,000 known species of bees (not all of them honey bees).  I keep insisting on the “known” part because new species are identified all the time.

We live in a vast world of organisms and animals, and many insects have never even been encountered, let alone documented by scientists or amateurs. And on top of that, within a given species, males, females and queens often have different bodies, which adds to the confusion.

To make matters worse, even honey bees, which mostly share the latin name Apis mellifera, have different lineages. There are Italian, Russian, Carniolan, Caucassian, and Buckfast honey bees, and many, many others, again with differences, just like dog breeds amaze us with diversity from the tiniest of lap dogs to the great big breeds.

So, the next time you catch yourself or a friend talking about seeing a bee, do ask the question “Was that really a bee ?”