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Four new species of bees discovered in Australia

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Posted September 21, 2015

As much as modern science can tell about the nature that surrounds us, we still get quite surprising discoveries. For example, scientists in South Australia recently have discovered four new native bee species. It is interesting that evolutionary development can be easily observed in three of them – they have narrowly shaped heads and unusual long mouth parts, which allows them to feed on emu bush flowers.

Bees are crucially important for ecosystems around the world. We know they not only bring honey, but also important as pollinators of plants in the wild and in farmlands. Although this causes great scientific interest in them, majority of species of bees are yet to be described. Image credit: Thomas Bresson via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

Bees are crucially important for ecosystems around the world. We know they not only bring honey, but also important as pollinators of plants in the wild and in farmlands. Although this causes great scientific interest in them, majority of species of bees are yet to be described. Image credit: Thomas Bresson via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0

These species were discovered during expeditions to Cane River Conservation Park in the Pilbara region and Bon Bon State Reserve, south of Coober Pedy.

Species were discovered by evaluating DNA ‘barcoding’ and morphologically comparing the bees with museum specimens. Dr Katja Hogendoorn from the University of Adelaide, said that three of the discovered species belong to the group of bees that feed on the flowers of emu bushes. These bushes, growing in the Australian mainland, primarily in arid regions, are defined by narrow, tube-like flowers. These three species of bees have adapted themselves to be able to feed on these flowers, which, according to scientists, is a great example of co-evolution.

Dr Hogendoorn, lead author of the study, said: “these bees have narrow faces and very long mouth parts to collect the nectar through a narrow constriction at the base of the emu bush flowers. The fourth species belongs to a different group within this large genus and has a normally round-shaped head.”

We all know how important bees are and how widespread they are across the world. They are needed for variety of reasons and their importance for ecosystem is undeniable. However, surprisingly, we still do not know a lot about them.

Scientists say that despite their environmental and economic importance as pollinators of native plants and agricultural and horticultural crops and inevitable scientific interest in them, only an estimated two-thirds of Australian bee species are currently known to science. Furthermore, despite knowing how crucial their survival is, we are still experiencing a huge decline in bees in Europe and the United States.

In Australia, however, situation is a little bit different. Conservation status of native Australian bees is largely simply unknown, because scientists do not have all needed information. They have only very limited knowledge about the taxonomy, distribution and population dynamics of these invertebrates.

Researchers note that it would be a great loss to science if species became extinct before they were recognised. In order to prevent that, scientists launched a program in order to make native Australian bees more accessible to the scientific community. This project, called AUSBS (Australian bees), will provide access to the global DNA barcoding database, Barcoding of Life Datasystems.

This should help scientists identify species of bees using molecular markers so they local biodiversity of native bees can be documented. It will also assist researchers with recognition of new species that are still to be discovered. Currently, 271 DNA sequences of 120 species collected during Bush Blitz surveys are included in these databases.  However, scientists note that with approximately 750 Australian bee species still not described project has a lot of room for expansion and a great portion of work remains to be done.

This research is a good example showing how much we still do not know about our environment and even about such important actors of ecosystems as bees. Common public opinion usually says that pretty much all living creatures have already been discovered on our planer.

However, it is far from truth as not only we do not have all species described, we still lack information about their position and importance for ecosystems. Since number of bees is rapidly declining, we have to make quick decisions to preserve them and broadening our understanding about this insect is a good step forward.

Source: University of Adelaide

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