The corbiculate bees arose from New World oil-collecting bees: implications for the origin of pollen baskets

Mol Phylogenet Evol. 2014 Nov;80:88-94. doi: 10.1016/j.ympev.2014.07.003. Epub 2014 Jul 15.


The economically most important group of bees is the "corbiculates", or pollen basket bees, some 890 species of honeybees (Apis), bumblebees (Bombus), stingless bees (Meliponini), and orchid bees (Euglossini). Molecular studies have indicated that the corbiculates are closest to the New World genera Centris, with 230 species, and Epicharis, with 35, albeit without resolving the precise relationships. Instead of concave baskets, these bees have hairy hind legs on which they transport pollen mixed with floral oil, collected with setae on the anterior and middle legs. We sampled two-thirds of all Epicharis, a third of all Centris, and representatives of the four lineages of corbiculates for four nuclear gene regions, obtaining a well-supported phylogeny that has the corbiculate bees nested inside the Centris/Epicharis clade. Fossil-calibrated molecular clocks, combined with a biogeographic reconstruction incorporating insights from the fossil record, indicate that the corbiculate clade arose in the New World and diverged from Centris 84 (72-95)mya. The ancestral state preceding corbiculae thus was a hairy hind leg, perhaps adapted for oil transport as in Epicharis and Centris bees. Its replacement by glabrous, concave baskets represents a key innovation, allowing efficient transport of plant resins and large pollen/nectar loads and freeing the corbiculate clade from dependence on oil-offering flowers. The transformation could have involved a novel function of Ubx, the gene known to change hairy into smooth pollen baskets in Apis and Bombus.

Keywords: Ancestral state reconstruction; Corbiculate bees; Divergence dating; Molecular phylogeny; Oil-collecting apparatus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bayes Theorem
  • Bees / anatomy & histology
  • Bees / classification*
  • Bees / genetics
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Fossils
  • Models, Genetic
  • Phylogeny*
  • Pollination
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA