Royal Society Publishing

Origins and ecological consequences of pollen specialization among desert bees

R.L. Minckley, J.H. Cane, L. Kervin


An understanding of the evolutionary origins of insect foraging specialization is often hindered by a poor biogeographical and palaeoecological record. The historical biogeography (20000 years before present to the present) of the desert–limited plant, creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), is remarkably complete. This history coupled with the distribution pattern of its bee fauna suggests pollen specialization for creosote bush pollen has evolved repeatedly among bees in the Lower Sonoran and Mojave deserts. In these highly xeric, floristically depauperate environments, species of specialist bees surpass generalist bees in diversity, biomass and abundance. The ability of specialist bees to facultatively remain in diapause through resource–poor years and to emerge synchronously with host plant bloom in resource–rich years probably explains their ecological dominance and persistence in these areas. Repeated origins of pollen specialization to one host plant where bloom occurs least predictably is a counter–example to prevailing theories that postulate such traits originate where the plant grows best and blooms most reliably. Host–plant synchronization, a paucity of alternative floral hosts, or flowering attributes of creosote bush alone or in concert may account for the diversity of bee specialists that depend on this plant instead of nutritional factors or chemical coevolution between floral rewards and the pollinators they have evolved to attract.