Nine new species of bee have been scientifically described following a research expedition to Fiji. In an effort to draw attention to their perilous status, one of the bees has been given a scientific name noting its vulnerability to global warming.
Newly identified species are often already endangered by the time the scientific community finds them. After all, it’s usually their rareness that has prevented them from being found before. However, the threat is particularly acute for mountain-dwellers.
Organisms that don't survive lower down the slopes because they can't handle the heat, have nowhere to go as global climate change breaches their high-altitude fortress. It’s this threat that led to one of the bees, newly described in Zootaxa, being named Homalictus terminalis.
“Found only on Mount Batilamu near the city of Nadi, … H. terminalis has only been found within 95 metres (315 feet) of the mountain peak,” said James Dorey, a PhD student at Flinders University, Australia, in a statement.
All 13 known Fijian bees are thought to descend from a single colonization event 400,000 years ago. However, it's not clear whether all of these survive. Homalictus achrostus, a native bee distinctive for its large mandibles was previously described based on specimens collected on Mount Nadarivatu in the 1970s, but has not been seen since 2010, despite detailed searches of its former habitat. The authors used DNA analysis to establish relationships between them, which was useful because most look so alike only their genitalia can be used to distinguish them.
Co-author Dr Mike Schwarz said H. achrostus’ disappearance “raises real concerns about the extinction of many highland species in Fiji and across all of the tropics.” Eleven of the 13 Fijian native bee species live above 800 meters (2,600 feet). Most Fijian islands are so low lying they are threatened by rising sea levels, but the highest peak is 1,324-meter (4,343-foot) Mount Tomanivi.
Dorey told IFLScience the Flinders team are “doing a lot of research at the moment” into why the bees don’t flourish in warmer conditions, adding: “We think it is more likely to be physiological than to do with host plants.”
Plants can die out with their pollinators, and Dorey said the team are working on establishing whether any of the flowers are exclusively dependent on particular bees. However, he noted one of the previously identified native bees, H. Fijensis, is a supergeneralist, feeding on a wider variety of flowers than even the European honeybee, suggesting these are adaptable creatures.
Often when scientists claim to have “discovered” new species, indigenous people point out they have known of them for centuries. However, Dorey said that when speaking to locals the response was usually to be surprised to learn of the existence of bees besides the European honeybee, something he attributed to Homalictus members' small size.