A Matter of Time

In his landmark publication, Honeybee Ecology : A Study of Adaptation in Social Life, published 31 years ago, Thomas Seeley, writes,   “ ... it appears that the evolutionary history of honeybees (sic) comprises an initial period of rapid morphological change, which lasted some 10 million years ... followed by an approximately 30 million year period of relevant stasis in morphological evolution.  ... This pattern suggests, assuming that honeybee social behavior and worker morphology have evolved in tandem, that the social organization found today in the genus Apis has a history of some 30 million years.” 


How does this relate to the history of the evolution of the hominids, of which we are the heirs?  Perhaps the simplest comparison is to reduce the 40 million years of honey bee evolution to a 24 hour day, so that each second of that 24 hours period represents 463 years of evolution. 


So lets assume that midnight represents the time when the earliest known bees were fossilized in amber or shale.  Whether they formed societies or were solitary is presently unknown although some signs point to eusociality in at least one of those species. 


And incidentally this is 20 million years after the death of the last dinosaur - one would have to go back to noon on the previous day to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures.   The first primate, a creature about the size of a squirrel, developed sometime during the afternoon of that day, some 15 million years before the first bee. 


If Thomas Seeley is correct, and the honey bee spent 10 million years developing it’s present  morphology and social organization, the animal as we know it would have been established just before 6:00 o’clock on the morning of our 24 hour day, which coincides with the evolution of the predecessor of the modern monkey.


Incidentally, E.O.Wilson, writing in The Social Conquest of Earth, (2012) suggests that the appearance of the first bee may have occurred as long as 70 - 80 million years ago, some 30 - 40 million years before Tom Seeley’s estimate, which makes the following analogy even more dramatic, but we’ll stick with the more conservative of the two figures.  Whichever estimate is correct, one cannot hide the fact that, quite literally, a new day was dawning.


More than 20 hours pass until, at 8.14 in the evening, the primate genus splits into the chimpanzee lane and what was to become the hominid line.     At 9.36 that evening, in East Africa, there are signs of the first bipedal primate, called australopithecine, or southern ape.  


From 10.30 to 11.06 pm Africa experiences a dry period that lasted one million years, at the end of which emerges the first hominid, called Homo habilis, or handy man, because of the sign of early stone tools, soon to be followed by Homo erectus who, at about 11.34 pm, controls the use of fire. 


By 11.58 pm the mass migration out of Africa has begun, first into Europe and very quickly across Asia to Indonesia and Australia; in Europe what is now called Homo sapiens (or wise man) replaces the Neanderthals, a different genus. 32 seconds before midnight there are signs of hominids having crossed the ice bridge that spanned the Bering Sea, and at the same time, in Europe and the Middle East, the first signs of mankind collecting honey. 


The last stage happened in seven different parts of the world simultaneously.  With 22 seconds of our scale left, the Neolithic revolution began in which Homo sapiens sapiens developed agriculture and began to lead a more settled life, and with it, develop an urban culture and civilization. 


To summarize, for 23 hours, 59 minutes and 38 seconds, the honey bees existed relatively successfully without any management from us.  Or to express it another way, only for 3/1000 of the honey bees’ existence have we been working with them directly. 


There is another way to look at this as well.  If we accept our earth as being 4.3 billion years old and reduce that to a 24 hour scale, the first honey bee appears 13 minutes before midnight, Homo habilis appears 32 seconds to midnight and civilized mankind appears 0.18 seconds before the day ends.  Blink and you miss that last event. 


In The Social Conquest of Earth, from which the dates for the hominid evolution have been extracted, Edward Wilson writes, “Overall, the pace of evolution of ants and termites was slow enough to be balanced by counterrevolution in the rest of life.  As a result, these insects were not able to tear down the rest of the terrestrial biosphere by force of numbers, but became vital elements of it.  The ecosystems they dominate today are not only sustainable but dependent of them.


“In sharp contrast, human beings of the single species Homo sapiens emerged in the last several hundred thousand years and spread around the world only in the last sixty thousand years.  There was no time for us to coevolve with the rest of the biosphere.  Other species were not prepared for the onslaught. This shortfall soon had dire consequences for the rest of life.”


If ants, termites and honey bees disappear we, the human species, will be in serious trouble.  If mankind should disappear from the earth, the insects will be just fine. 


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

Good morning Mr. Barnes, I'm so pleased to see the best of history teachers is still going strong! Looking at your website brings back some great memories

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