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Australian bee spotted for the first time in nearly 100 years

A rare Australian bee species has been spotted for the first time in 100 years. According to a new study from Flinders University, the bees have likely persisted all these years, but are under increasing pressure from forest degradation and wildfires. 

Only six individuals of this species have ever been found, and the last documented sighting was in 1923.

“This is concerning because it is the only Australian species in the Pharohylaeus genus and nothing was known of its biology,” said study co-author James Dorey.

Based on the lack of any sightings in recent decades, bee experts Dr. Tobias Smith and Olivia Davies set out to determine whether the bees had become extinct. For the investigation, the team sampled 225 general and 20 targeted sites across New South Wales and Queensland.

The results of the analysis suggest that highly fragmented habitat and potential host specialization may explain the rarity of the Australian bee, which is known as Pharohylaeus lactiferus.

“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,” said Dorey.

The research team also analyzed bee and vegetation recordings from the Atlas of Living Australia, which lists 500 bee species in NSW and 657 in Queensland. 

The experts warn that habitat loss and fragmentation of Australia’s rainforests, along with wildfires and climate change, are likely to put extinction pressure on this and other invertebrate species.

The study authors report that Australia has already cleared more than 40 percent of its forests and woodlands since European colonization, leaving much of the remainder fragmented and degraded.

“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,” said Dorey.

The researchers discovered that the species is even more vulnerable due to their preference for specific floral specimens that are not found in the forested areas where the bees were spotted.

“Collections indicate possible floral and habitat specialization with specimens only visiting firewheel trees, Stenocarpus sinuatus, and Illawarra flame trees, Brachychiton acerifolius, to the exclusion of other available floral resources,” said Dorey.

“Future research should aim to increase our understanding of the biology, ecology and population genetics of P. lactiferus.”

“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 digitisation of their collections and other initiatives.”

The study is published in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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