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Eight new Hylaeus bees discovered in the Pacific treetops

Even with our constant exploration, nature continues to surprise us. Recently, scientists from Flinders University made a remarkable discovery while studying the beautiful Pacific Islands: they found completely new types of bees that no one knew existed before. 

These amazing pollinators, known as Hylaeus bees, show us just how much unseen variety there is still on Earth. 

Importance of bee diversity

Bees are much more than just honey-making insects. They play a critical role in the environment as pollinators, helping countless plants, trees, and flowers grow. This, in turn, provides food and shelter for various wildlife, maintaining the balance of ecosystems worldwide. 

Over 20,000 known bee species exist, each with unique adaptations to their specific environment. These range from tiny solitary bees nesting underground to social bumblebees forming complex colonies. 

They are not just important for the environment; bees are crucial to human agriculture as well. They pollinate a significant portion of the crops we rely on for food, ensuring a diverse and nutritious diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Exploring the tree-tops

To uncover the hidden diversity of tree-top bees in the Pacific, scientists embarked on an adventurous study. They ventured into the canopies of Fiji, French Polynesia, and Micronesia, equipped with tools and techniques designed for canopy sampling. 

This method isn’t like the usual bee hunt; it involves reaching the tops of trees, where many species have remained elusive due to traditional sampling methods focusing on the ground. 

By exploring these tree-top habitats, researchers were able to collect specimens and observe the behaviors of the bees in their natural environment. 

Hylaeus bees

The researchers identified eight species of Hylaeus bees that are completely new to science, doubling the known dispersals of these bees out of Australia. 

“Our investigations have discovered an extra group of endemic bees in Fiji that have remained ‘hidden’ in the forest canopy despite years of looking and sampling,” said study first author and Australian native bee expert James B. Dorey.

Hylaeus bees are small in size and are often overlooked, yet they play a vital role in helping plants reproduce. Unlike the bees we typically see, Hylaeus bees live high up in the forest canopy – an area where the tops of trees create a thick layer of leaves and branches. 

Solving a long-standing mystery

The study also solved a longstanding scientific mystery related to bees. Dr. Charles Michener, an expert on bees, had discovered a unique bee in French Polynesia called Hylaeus tuamotuensis. However, he couldn’t determine its connection to other bees within the same family, Hylaeus. 

The researchers have now successfully traced the lineage of this isolated bee back to its relatives in Fiji, finally clarifying its position within the Hylaeus family tree. 

This discovery not only answers a long-standing question but also improves our understanding of how these bees are distributed and connected throughout the Pacific islands. 

“Happily, this also solves ‘Michener’s mystery’ about how these tiny (3-5mm) Hylaeus made it to French Polynesia, dispersing over time from their closest relatives which were 4,000 km north in Hawaii and 6,000 km west in Australia,” said Dr. Dorey.

Eight new species

Scientists found eight new types of Hylaeus bees in the Pacific Ocean. These bees are all small and build their nests in special ways, but each new type has unique features.

In Fiji, the discovery includes six species: Hylaeus albaeus, Hylaeus apertus, Hylaeus derectus, Hylaeus navai, Hylaeus veli, and Hylaeus breviflavus.

From French Polynesia, the study adds Hylaeus aureaviridis, while Hylaeus chuukensis is the species identified in Micronesia.

More about about the species

The new bees in Fiji have different colors, sizes, and preferred living spaces. This suggests they have adapted to the various environments on the islands. These adaptations might involve how they find food, what flowers they like, or where they build their nests in the forest. 

The single new bee type found in French Polynesia adds to the few known bee types there, suggesting there might be many more undiscovered bees. This discovery might show how bees in isolated islands have evolved in unique ways to fit their local flowers and climate.

The new bee type found in Micronesia is an important addition to the known animals in the area, and it shows that Hylaeus bees can travel long distances. Its presence suggests that bees may have moved across the ocean in the past, possibly helped by wind, storms, or floating plants. 

Importance of bee conservation

Bees face many threats that could wipe them out, which would hurt both nature and our farms. As cities and farms get bigger, bees lose the places they naturally live and the plants they eat. 

Climate change makes things even harder by changing where bees live and when plants flower, messing up their feeding schedule. Also, the widespread use of pesticides poisons their food, and diseases make them even sicker.

Each kind of bee has a special job and needs something different to survive, so we need different ways to protect them all. By learning where bees live and what they need, scientists and conservationists can create better ways to keep them safe. This will protect bees, the environment, and the food we grow.

The study is a testament to the endless wonder waiting to be discovered in our own backyards (or, in this case, in rainforests).

The research is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

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