Monday 2 February 2015

Tyrannosaurus, Mesozoic bees, and bee-friendly palaeoart!

The stem-birds and the bees - two juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex investigate a Cretaceous honey bee nest. Prints are available, and you'll be contributing to bee conservation if you buy one in February 2015. See below for details.
Here's something you don't see every day - a depiction of a beehive in the Mesozoic. Bees rarely make it into Mesozoic palaeoart, but genuine bees were certainly contemporaneous with non-avian dinosaurs. The oldest bees have been found in Early Cretaceous amber inclusions (Poinar and Danforth 2006) and their fossils show that many traits of modern bees - including those related to collecting pollen - were already present by this time. Indeed, one of the oldest known bees is preserved with bits of pollen stuck to its hair. Trace fossils also suggest that many modern bee behaviours - nest building, burrowing etc. - were also taking place in the Mesozoic (e.g. Genise et al. 2002).

Calibrating the Mesozoic diversification of bees is difficult because their fossils are exceedingly rare. However, the likelihood that early bees were pollinating early flowering plants means that their diversification is of interest to not only palaeoentomologists but also those trying to understand the establishment of modern ecosystems. The Mesozoic can seem like a time of weird and wonderful plants and animals, but this view is skewed by our interest in unusual Mesozoic megafauna. A lot of our modern biota and ecologies have their origins around these animals, so much so that time-travelling humans would probably find many Mesozoic settings quite familiar. It seems that Mesozoic bee diversity fits this idea, as studies of bee DNA suggests crown-group bees evolved in the Early Cretaceous and quickly diversified into groups we would recognise from the modern day (Cardinal and Danforth 2011, 2013). This radiation likely included the adoption of at least ancestral variants of complex social behaviour we associate with modern bees (Cardinal and Danforth 2011).

One of my favourite implications of this work is the suggestion that the Apini were present in the Late Cretaceous (Cardinal and Danforth 2011, 2013). Apini are better known as honey bees, and, assuming their ability to make and store honey in nests was ancestral to the entire group, we may have seen Late Cretaceous reptiles raiding their colonies like modern animal rob their nests today. I find concepts like this really 'ground' the behaviour of fossil animals - the idea that a theropod or small ornithopod might partake in sting-filled nest vandalism to obtain energy-filled honeycomb seems like a very real, likely concept, and far more grounded than the gladiator matches we often see associated with dinosaur foraging. I've tried to capture some of that reality in the image above, showing dog-sized juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex taking on a colony of increasingly angry honey bees. Getting past the bee defenses is not proving easy, and the smaller Tyrannosaurus is close to adopting a full-on duck-and-cover defensive response to his aggressors. Videos of bears failing nest raids often show them hunkering down and covering their faces with their paws - I thought it would be fun to have Tyrannosaurus try that with it's proportionally small arms.

Bee-friendly palaeoart. Yes, it's a thing now.

My sudden interest in Mesozoic bees was catalysed by a donation request for an auction at Cumberland House, Portsmouth's Natural History Museum. The auction is raising money for a new beehive at the museum and, rather than just printing off some old work, I thought it would be fun to produce something new and relevant to the event. I'll be providing a framed version of the above work as a lot for sale - check out the Cumberland House Natural History Museum Friends Facebook page for the latest on the auction.

The Cumberland House auction is not the only way to get a piece of palaeoart while helping bee-related causes - for the next month, any copy of this print I sell will directly help a leading UK bee charity. Yes, bees need charities now, being in trouble globally thanks to habitat loss, climate change and the wide use of insecticides (see, for instance, this, this, and this for a taster of this issue). Several national populations and species have gone extinct in recent years, and more are set to follow. This is not just a problem for the 'natural' world: we rely on bees to pollinate many of our crops. Food prices and availability are set to change for the worse as bee populations and diversity dwindle so, whether you consider conservation an issue or not, we need to do something about their decline. For this reason, all February 2015 sale proceeds of my Tyrannosaurus and bees print will be donated to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, a UK charity devoted to restoring bee habitats, encouraging bee-friendly policies at local, national and European governmental level, and raising awareness of the bee conservation crisis. Prices for my prints start at £20 (+£5 shipping) - most of that will go straight to the bees, and you get a print out of the deal. Contact me at if your want to know more.


  • Cardinal, S., & Danforth, B. N. (2011). The antiquity and evolutionary history of social behavior in bees. PLoS One, 6(6), e21086.
  • Cardinal, S., & Danforth, B. N. (2013). Bees diversified in the age of eudicots. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 280(1755), 20122686.
  • Genise, J. F., Sciutto, J. C., Laza, J. H., González, M. G., & Bellosi, E. S. (2002). Fossil bee nests, coleopteran pupal chambers and tuffaceous paleosols from the Late Cretaceous Laguna Palacios Formation, Central Patagonia (Argentina). Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology, 177(3), 215-235.
  • Poinar, G. O., & Danforth, B. N. (2006). A fossil bee from Early Cretaceous Burmese amber. Science, 314(5799), 614-614.


  1. To be honest, given how growth-driven all dinosaurs had to be, I would suspect that brood comb would be more of interest to them than would honey. What I would suspect is that social behaviour in bees and wasps would be driven partly by this giving them a way to defend their nests against hungry macropredators.

    I would therefore strongly suspect that alarm pheromones developed fairly quickly in social insects (it is the release of alarm pheromones from one bee or wasp stinging that causes the mobbing behaviour that all such insects display) as a massed assault would be the only way to put off an inquisitive dinosaur.

  2. The only hives I see here are those hives of bacteria adorning the bodies of those rexes...;) Lord knows how a 40 foot long beastie would've kept all those feathers clean.

    Seriously though, gorgeous work as always, and for a good cause Brilliant use of color and landscape - goes to show that the real stars of the show aren't just the dinosaurs, but the entire Mesozoic world in which they live. Keep it up.

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