Rare Australian Bee Spotted After 100-Year Absence

A field researcher identified the bee, which faces new threats from rainforest degradation and wildfires.

A rare Australian native bee was identified again in the wild after nearly 100 years. (Courtesy of James Dorey Photography / Flinders University)

(CN) — The Australian native bee which hadn’t been detected for more than a century was identified as part of a recent field research effort, but the insect species faces new threats from environmental hazards, according to a study released Thursday.

The last recorded sighting of the bee species — scientific name pharohylaeus lactiferus (colletidae: hylaeinae) — was published in 1923 in Queensland, Australia. 

Prior studies by Australia bee experts Olivia Davies and Tobias Smith speculated the lack of recent sightings meant the pharohylaeus lactiferus species had gone extinct.

For Flinders University researcher James Dorey, the fact that only six of the bees had ever been spotted in the field — and that very little was known of its biology — was alarming.

“This is concerning because it is the only Australian species in the Pharohylaeus genus and nothing was known of its biology,” Dorey said in a statement released with the study.

Dorey set out to locate any pharohylaeus lactiferus bees that have still been buzzing around the nation.

The field research campaign comprised of extensive sampling of 225 general and 20 targeted sampling sites across Australia’s New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland regions.

Recordings from the Atlas of Living Australia database list 500 bee species in NSW and 657 in Queensland.

Dorey and other Flinders researchers endeavored to provide an updated tally of bee population diversity in the regions as well as document the levels of habitat loss in wild areas.

Wildfires, degradation of Australia’s rainforests and other events that are made worse by the acceleration of climate change only increase the “extinction pressure” on the bee and other invertebrate species, the study authors found. 

“Australia has already cleared over 40% of its forests and woodlands since European colonization, leaving much of the remainder fragmented and degraded,” they wrote. “In particular, Queensland is a contemporary land-clearing hotspot and is responsible for more than half of all land-clearing in Australia over the past four decades. It is a failing of state and federal government policy and regulation that land clearing in Queensland continues at rates that should be of concern both nationally and internationally.”

Dorey’s sample collections indicate the bees have favorite host plants and visit specially selected habitats.

Researchers said in a study published in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research that the pharohylaeus lactiferus bee faces an extinction threat as more of its wild Australian habitat is lost to rainforest degradation and wildfires. (Courtesy of James Dorey Photography / Flinders University)

Specimens were found near tropical or subtropical rainforest and tended to only visit firewheel and Illawarra flame trees and the plants stenocarpus sinuatus and brachychiton acerifolius.

“Three populations of P. lactiferous were found by sampling bees visiting their favored plant species along much of the Australian east coast, suggesting population isolation,” Dorey said in the statement. “My geographical analyses used to explore habitat destruction in the wet tropics and Central Mackay Coast bioregions indicate susceptibility of Queensland rainforests and P. lactiferus populations to bushfires, particularly in the context of a fragmented landscape,”

The increasing fragmentation of the pharohylaeus lactiferus bee’s habitat, along with its choice of host plants – which face their own threats – could explain why the bee is such a rare find, according to the study published Thursday in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

More research is needed to determine whether pharohylaeus lactiferus is a naturally rare bee or if it is so uncommon because of the low availability of favorable habitat, the study said.

The pressure should be on the Australian government to protect wildlands biodiversity to ensure the nation’s threatened species have a chance at survival, Dorey said in the statement.

“If we are to understand and protect these wonderful Australian species, we really need to increase biomonitoring and conservation efforts, along with funding for the museum curation and digitization of their collections and other initiatives,” Dorey said in the statement.

Researchers did not immediately respond to a request for further comment on the study.

The study was funded by the Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment, and the AJ & IM Naylon and Playford Trust Ph.D. Scholarships.

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