Rare Australian Bee Thought Lost Seen For First Time In 100 Years

A female Pharohylaeus lactiferus, a member of a species that has been found after 98 years of no recorded sightings, offering hope for the vast number of bee species that haven't been seen for decades. Image Credit: James Dorey Photography

 

A bee species native to the rainforests of eastern Australia has been found for the first time in 98 years. Although rare, and almost certainly threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, the bee's rediscovery offers hope for the many other bee species that haven't been seen for decades.

Earlier this week many people gained a brief moment of hope that the thylacine, one of the world's most famous recently extinct species, might still survive. That hope was quickly dashed, but a morsel of consolation is that a much lesser-known creature, unseen for even longer than the Tasmanian tiger, has been found alive. Welcome back Pharohylaeus lactiferus.

Australia has hundreds of native bee species, many of which may already be extinct (a problem common worldwide). P. lactiferus has a particular status, however, being the only Australian member of a genus. The only other Pharohylaeus species lives in New Guinea.

Lactiferus hadn't been seen since 1923 and only six specimens had ever been collected before then when Flinders University PhD student James Dorey went looking for it. Dorey told IFLScience his journey to the rainforests of Queensland and northern New South Wales was primarily undertaken for his thesis on the relationships between ground-nesting bees. However, having learned of P. lactiferus's possible demise, he decided to search for it at the same time.

As well as an entomologist, Dorey is a photographer who has set himself the task of photographing at least one member of each Australian bee genus, of which there are 63, “counting the introduced ones,” he says. “If I'm going to include Pharohylaeus I'd have to find lactiferus,” Dorey told IFLScience.

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Pharohylaeus lactiferus in close up. Image courtesy of James Dorey

Find it he did, at three sites out of the 245 places he looked, although there were a few false alarms along the way. Plactiferus is “part of a group called the masked bees that are relatively hairless and have quite remarkable facial markings,” Dorey told IFLScience. This makes them easy to distinguish from other bees, and lactiferus is “unusually big and thick, maybe with two ccs, so it can be told apart from most other masked bees.” Nevertheless, Dorey sometimes mistook other large masked bees for his prize until he got a really close look.

Unfortunately, it seems lactiferus may be too picky for its own good. Dorey reports in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research he only found it on the outskirts of tropical and subtropical rainforests. Moreover, it only seemed to be interested in the flowers of two trees, the evocatively named firewheels and Illawarra flame trees. Both of these are bright red, and intriguingly are better known for being pollinated by birds than bees. Dorey told IFLScience he saw lots of other bees, pollinating the same flowers, so at least it seems lactiferus's demise, if it comes, will not take these plants with it.

Hopefully, however, that fate can be avoided. Dorey says the key to saving lactiferus is preserving its habitat, and if possibly reconnecting it so separated populations can mix their genes. Unfortunately, the extensive burning experienced in last year's bushfires mean these forests are under more pressure than ever.

The beautiful flowers of the Illawarra flame tree appear to be one of only two plants Pharohylaeus lactiferus depends upon. Image courtesy of James Dorey
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