Greater past disparity and diversity hints at ancient migrations of European honey bee lineages into Africa and Asia


Correspondence: Ulrich Kotthoff, Institut für Geologie, Centrum für Erdsystemforschung und Nachhaltigkeit, Universität Hamburg, Bundesstraße 55, D-20146 Hamburg, Germany.




We re-evaluated the proposition based on the present-day distribution of honey bees (genus Apis) that their centre of origin resides in Asia, with subsequent migration and diversification into Europe and Asia. In our research, we considered the so-far largely ignored fossils distributed through a variety of late Palaeogene (Oligocene) and early Neogene (Miocene) deposits, aiming at a synthesis of both present-day and past honey bee distribution.


Northern Hemisphere, Africa, Southeast Asia.


We examined the morphological diversity (also termed ‘disparity’) and affinities of the full living and fossil diversity of honey bees ranging from their earliest origins to the present day. Based on the fossil record and present-day distribution of species, considering continental drift from the Oligocene until today, we have established an evolution and migration scenario for the genus Apis.


The fossil record of Apis demonstrates a diversity that is predominantly European in origin, particularly among the most basal species of the genus. Honey bees exhibited a greater morphological disparity during the Oligocene and, particularly, the Miocene epochs, a time when the principal lineages were established. Contradicting earlier propositions, the geological models allowed a migration via western Europe to north-western Africa during the Miocene, and the fossil record corroborates such a migration.

Main conclusions

From the full complement of available data, Apis apparently originated in Europe, spreading from there into Asia, Africa and North America, with subsequent diversification in the former two regions and extinction in the latter. The western honey bee, Apis mellifera, descended from European ancestors that probably migrated from western Europe to Africa during the late Miocene and re-immigrated into Europe during the Holocene and possibly preceding interglacials.