Bees are still in trouble, with worrying declines and even outright extinctions occurring within the last decade. However, it turns out that scientists might be tracking only a portion of the pollinator population, with some species still undiscovered. In Australia, specialists are helping to reconcile this, discovering four new bee species in one grand project.
The project called the "Bush Blitz," is the result of a partnership between the Australian Government, BHP Billiton Sustainable Communities, and Earthwatch Australia. Starting in 2010, it has been hailed as one of the largest nature discovery projects of all time, identifying more than 900 never-before seen species, and properly categorizing thousands of others.
It's then no surprise that even new bees would eventually be found. Like everywhere else in the world, bees are essential to both Australian agriculture and the Down Under's unique ecosystems.
And there are some amazing bees found only in Australia. T. hockingsi and T. carbonaria, for instance, are two species that viciously compete for the same hives, playing-out what researchers have called a "Game of Thrones." Being small and stingless, the workers of these rival bees literally grapple in the sky as one lays siege to another's stronghold - not unlike opposing armies clashing in the popular HBO series.(Scroll to read on...)
It's then a wonder that there are very few experts studying bees in Australia. Unfortunately, according to the Bush Blitz's Remko Leijs, that's exactly why the Blitz is necessary.
Remko, one of Australia's top bee experts, reported that he witnessed 26 different bee species visit a single eucalyptus in the Hiltaba Nature Reserve, SA, just last year. Many, he said, go unrecognized simply because it's difficult to capture and survey these populations. What's more, many look so similar that taxonomists have to rely on modern molecular tools to tell them apart. It is estimated that nearly one third of Australia's bees remain unknown to science.
"There are 1500 [bee] species which have been described, however in the last 30 years there has been a lot of revisions and of the 500 that have been revised, around half have been found to be new species," researcher Erin Lake reported in the Bush Blitz blog.
The good news is that with the identification of four new species, the Blitz team is introducing a new Barcoding of Life project, 'AUSBS', which will help experts track bee species' unique molecular signatures. The results were published in the journal ZooKeys. (Scroll to read on...)
"Bee taxonomists can access and use the molecular information to answer specific problems, for example, how certain species are related or whether or not a male and female belong to the same species," bee specialists Katja Hogendoorn, of the University of Adelaide, explained in a statement. "And combined with morphological information, the molecular database can help to identify new species."
According to Hegendoorn and Remko, who conducted the study with Mark Stevens of the South Au. Museum, three of the newly identified bees specialize in pollinating the deep-throated flowers of the emu-bush. As a consequence, these bees have evolved to boast narrow faces and long mouthparts to collect the flowers' nectar.
"It is hoped that this [discovery] will stimulate native bee research," Hogendoorn added. "With about 750 Australian bee species still undescribed and many groups in need of revision there is an enormous job to do."
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