Phantom of the forest: after 100 years in hiding, I rediscovered the rare cloaked bee in Australia


James B. Dorey, Flinders University

It’s not often you get to cast your eyes on a creature feared to be long-gone.

Perhaps that’s why my recent rediscovery of the native bee species Pharohylaeus lactiferus is so exciting — especially after it spent a century eluding researchers.

But how did it stay out of sight for so long?

A creature overshadowed

Australia is home to 1654 named species of native bee. Unfortunately, these are often overshadowed in the eyes of public by the widespread and invasive European honeybee.

Scientific research on Australian native bees is lagging, compared to many other nations.

With this in mind, it may not be surprising to learn some native species can go unnoticed for many years. Although, when it’s the only representative of a whole genus, one might start to worry about losing something special.

In this case the genus is Pharohylaeus, where “pharo” means “cloaked”, as these bees’ first three abdominal segments overlay the others to resemble a cloak.

I found the cloaked bee P. lactiferus during a major east coast sampling effort of more than 225 unique sites. The discovery, and what I learnt from it, helped me find more specimens at two additional sites.

It also made me wonder why P. lactiferus had been missing for so long. Is it naturally rare, hard to find, or perhaps threatened?




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We taught bees a simple number language – and they got it


Taxonomic trouble

Many Australian bees are very difficult to identify to a species level. In fact, some might be nearly impossible.

However, P. lactiferus is a relatively distinct black and white masked bee. Masked bees are those from the subfamily Hylaeinae, named so because they often have striking, bright facial patterns on an otherwise dark face.

With this distinctive appearance, identification issues weren’t a contributor to the mystery of P. lactiferus.

Seeing red

Still, despite having sampled extensively across sites and flowering plant species, I only found P. lactiferus on two types of plant: the firewheel tree and the Illawarra flame tree — both of which boast exuberant red flowers.

_Brachychiton acerifolius_ flowers.
The Illawarra flame tree (Brachychiton acerifolius).
James Dorey, Author provided

Bees generally don’t see shades of red, so such plants are usually pollinated by birds. It could be that bee researchers tend to avoid sampling these red flowering plant species for this reason.

Then again, bee vision and bee perception are not always the same. And bees are also guided by their keen sense of smell.

Habitat specialisation

So far, I’ve only found P. lactiferus within about 200 metres of one major vegetation subgroup, which is tropical or sub-tropical rainforest.

The first specimens I collected were in Atherton, Queensland. I later found more in Kuranda and Eungella. Some of these specimens are now stored in the South Australian Museum.

The habitat specialisation of P. lactiferus may suggest it has an above-average level of vulnerability to disturbances, particularly if it needs a strict set of requirements to make it through its entire life-cycle.

It is one of myriad bee species that nest in narrow, wooden hollows. Some bees such as Amphylaeus morosus dig these themselves and may require specific plant species to make their nest in.

Others such as Exoneurella tridentata need to use holes made by weevil larvae in two particular tree species: western myall and bullock bush.

Rainforests are also notoriously hard to sample. If a bee species spends much of its time in the high canopy, finding it would be difficult.

That said, two early collectors managed to find six specimens of P. lactiferus between 1900 and 1923. So its rarity doesn’t necessarily come down to it being a canopy-dweller.




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Potential threats

We know in the bioregions where P. lactiferus has been found that rainforests have undergone both habitat destruction and fragmentation since European colonisation. This threat hasn’t abated and Queensland is still a land-clearing hotspot.

We also know these rainforests burnt across Queensland every year between 1988 and 2016. The 2019-20 black summer megafires burnt nearly double the area of any previous year.

For some bee species this may not be a problem. But for a species that potentially requires specific foods, habitats and even other species, it could mean local extinction.

Only so many populations of a single species can disappear, before there are none left.

Where does this leave us?

P. lactiferus persists, which is wonderful. Unfortunately, we can’t yet say whether or not it is threatened.

To determine this confidently would require a robust, extensive and targeted survey regime.

We may not be able to undertake such a regime for all 1654 of the named bee species in Australia. But perhaps we could make that effort for the country’s only cloaked bee.The Conversation

James B. Dorey, PhD Candidate, Flinders University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s bee season. To avoid getting stung, just stay calm and don’t swat



Shutterstock

Caitlyn Forster, University of Sydney and Tanya Latty, University of Sydney

This summer’s wetter conditions have created great conditions for flowering plants. Flowers provide sweet nectar and protein-rich pollen, attracting many insects, including bees.

Commercial honey bees are also thriving: the New South Wales population has reportedly bounced back after the drought and bushfires

While you may have seen a lot of bees around lately, there’s no reason to be afraid. Most bees are only aggressive when provoked, and some don’t sting at all. And some bee-like insects are actually flies.

We are experts on honey bee and other insect behaviour. So let’s look at which bees to watch out for, and how to avoid being stung this summer.

Blue banded bee
Most bees, like this native blue banded bee, are not very interested in people.
Shutterstock

Is it a bee, or a wanna-bee?

Bees in Australia comprise both introduced and native species.

Invasive bees found in Australia, all of which can sting, include the widespread European honeybees, bumble bees in Tasmania, and Asian honey bees in Queensland.




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The mystery of the blue flower: nature’s rare colour owes its existence to bee vision


Australia is also home to about 2,000 native bees, including 11 stingless species.

Stingless bees live in colonies and produce honey. Other native species, such as blue banded bees and leaf cutter bees, are capable of stinging but are rarely aggressive.

Some insects we see around flowers are actually harmless hoverflies. But their yellow and black stripes mean they are often mistaken for bees.

A hoverfly
Hoverflies have similar colouring to honeybees.
Caitlyn Forster

Bees out and about

Bees on flowers are usually more interested in the food they’re collecting than the people around them. However, if you’re concerned about encountering one on your morning walk or in the garden, there are simple ways to mitigate the risk.

Bees sting when they feel threatened. So when you see one, move slowly and keep your distance. If bees fly close to you, avoid sudden movements such as swatting them away.

And wear closed shoes where bees might fly close to the ground, such as around clover or fallen jacaranda flowers.

Bee approaching wattle flower
If you see a bee in the garden, avoid sudden movements.
Shutterstock

What if I see a swarm?

In spring and into summer, healthy honeybee colonies may reproduce by dividing into two. One part of the colony stays at the hive and the other goes looking for a new home.

Worker bees and the queen bee leave the hive in a swarm and find a spot to stay temporarily while scout bees find a new home. That’s when you might see a swarm on a tree, vehicle or building.

Once scout bees find a new home, they return to the swarm and communicate the location via the “waggle dance”. Once a sufficient number of scouts agree on a new nest site, the swarm lifts into the air and flies to its new home.




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Don’t panic if you encounter a stationary swarm of bees. The bees will sting only if threatened. But keep your distance.

Moving swarms can pose a higher sting risk, and should be avoided. If you encounter one, move a safe distance away, or indoors if possible. When moving away, avoid fast movements or swatting.

Swarms are usually present for a few hours or days before they move to a permanent location. If the bees are in a risky location (for example, near a footpath or other busy areas), call a beekeeper to safely remove them.

Stingless native bees swarm for two reasons: mating and fighting.

Mating swarms involve males congregating outside a hive to mate with the queen. Fighting swarms occur when a colony of stingless bees attempts to invade another colony. They do not usually pose a risk to humans.

Native bees capable of stinging are solitary, so don’t swarm. However, male solitary bees are known to group together on branches in the evening.

Bee swarm on a fence during a 2018 cricket match
Bee swarms, such as this on a fence during a 2018 cricket match, usually move on in a few days.
Brendon Thorne

When a bee sting happens

Death and serious injury from bee stings is rare. But in Australia, bees are responsible for more hospital visits than snakes or spiders. European honeybees are also responsible for more allergic reactions than any other insect.

Only female bees can sting. Honeybees can only sting once, and die shortly after. This is because their stinger is barbed – once it stings something, the bee can’t pull the stinger out. Instead the stinger pulls free from the bee’s abdomen and the bee dies.

Other species can sting multiple times because their stingers are not barbed.

When a bee’s stinger enters your skin, it injects venom from a sac on its abdomen. When this happens, you’re likely to experience temporary swelling and redness.

For most people, reactions to bee venom are shortlived. To limit the amount of venom injected by the bee, quickly remove the sting using the edge of your fingernail or credit card.

In some cases, stings can lead to severe allergic reactions, including anaphylaxis. If you think you may have an allergy to bee stings, speak to your doctor.

And seek medical advice if you are stung in the face or neck, if significant swelling occurs or if you develop symptoms such as wheezing, light-headedness or dizziness.

Person squeezing bee sting on arm
Many people develop swelling and redness after a bee sting.
Shutterstock

Learning to like bees

Bees and other insects play an important role in our food production, by moving pollen from one plant to another. They do a similar job in your garden, helping flowers and fruits to flourish.

But worldwide, bees and other pollinators face many threats, including climate change, misuse of pesticides and habitat loss. We must do what we can to keep pollinator populations healthy.

So if you’re out and about and see a bee, or even a swarm, try not to panic. The bees are probably focused on the job at hand, and not interested in you at all.




Read more:
‘Jewel of nature’: scientists fight to save a glittering green bee after the summer fires


The Conversation


Caitlyn Forster, PhD Candidate, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Sydney and Tanya Latty, Associate professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The mystery of the blue flower: nature’s rare colour owes its existence to bee vision



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Adrian Dyer, RMIT University

At a dinner party, or in the schoolyard, the question of favourite colour frequently results in an answer of “blue”. Why is it that humans are so fond of blue? And why does it seem to be so rare in the world of plants and animals?

We studied these questions and concluded blue pigment is rare at least in part because it’s often difficult for plants to produce. They may only have evolved to do so when it brings them a real benefit: specifically, attracting bees or other pollinating insects.

We also discovered that the scarcity of blue flowers is partly due to the limits of our own eyes. From a bee’s perspective, attractive bluish flowers are much more common.

A history of fascination

The gold and blue funerary mask of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.
The ancient mask of the pharaoh Tutankhamun is decorated with lapis lazuli and turquoise.
Roland Unger / Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

The ancient Egyptians were fascinated with blue flowers such as the blue lotus, and went to great trouble to decorate objects in blue. They used an entrancing synthetic pigment (now known as Egyptian blue) to colour vases and jewellery, and semi-precious blue gemstones such as lapis lazuli and turquoise to decorate important artefacts including the Mask of Tutankhamun.




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Blue dye for fabric is now common, but its roots lie in ancient Peru, where an indigoid dye was used to colour cotton fabric about 6000 years ago. Indigo blue dyes reached Europe from India in the 16th century, and the dyes and the plants that produced them became important commodities. Their influence on human fashion and culture are still felt today, perhaps most obviously in blue jeans and shirts.

Renaissance painters in Europe used ground lapis lazuli to produce dazzling works that captivated audiences.

A painting of a woman in a vivid blue robe and white hood, with bowed head and clasped hands.
The Virgin in Prayer by the Italian painter Sassoferrato, circa 1650, highlights the vivid blue colour made with ground lapis lazuli.

Today many blues are created with modern synthetic pigments or optical effects. The famous blue/gold dress photograph that went viral in 2015 not only shows that blue can still fascinate — it also highlights that colour is just as much a product of our perception as it is of certain wavelengths of light.

Why do humans like blue so much?

Colour preferences in humans are often influenced by important environmental factors in our lives. An ecological explanation for humans’ common preference for blue is that it is the colour of clear sky and bodies of clean water, which are signs of good conditions. Besides the sky and water, blue is relatively rare in nature.

What about blue flowers?

We used a new online plant database to survey the the relative frequencies of blue flowers compared to other colours.

Among flowers which are pollinated without the intervention of bees or other insects (known as abiotic pollination), none were blue.

But when we looked at flowers that need to attract bees and other insects to move their pollen around, we started to see some blue.

This shows blue flowers evolved for enabling efficient pollination. Even then, blue flowers remain relatively rare, which suggests it is difficult for plants to produce such colours and may be a valuable marker of plant-pollinator fitness in an environment.

Global flower colour frequency for human visual perception (A) shows when considering animal pollinated species less than 10% are blue (B), and for wind pollinated flowers almost none are observed to be blue (C).
Dyer et al., Author provided

We perceive colour due to how our eyes and brain work. Our visual system typically has three types of cone photoreceptors that each capture light of different wavelengths (red, green and blue) from the visible spectrum. Our brains then compare information from these receptors to create a perception of colour.

For the flowers pollinated by insects, especially bees, it is interesting to consider that they have different colour vision to humans.




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Bees have photoreceptors that are sensitive to ultraviolet, blue and green wavelengths, and they also show a preference for “bluish” colours. The reason why bees have a preference for bluish flowers remains an open field of research.

Various blue flowers from our study.

Why understanding blue flowers is important

About one-third of our food depends on insect pollination. However, world populations of bees and other insects are in decline, potentially due to climate change, habitat fragmentation, agricultural practices and other human-caused factors.

The capacity of flowering plants to produce blue colours is linked to land use intensity including human-induced factors like artificial fertilisation, grazing, and mowing that reduce the frequency of blue flowers. In contrast, more stressful environments appear to have relatively more blue floral colours to provide resilience.

For example, despite the apparent rarity of blue flower colours in nature, we observed that in harsh conditions such as in the mountains of the Himalaya, blue flowers were more common than expected. This shows that in tough environments plants may have to invest a lot to attract the few available and essential bee pollinators. Blue flowers thus appear to exist to best advertise to bee pollinators when competition for pollination services is high.

Knowing more about blue flowers helps protect bees

Urban environments are also important habitats for pollinating insects including bees. Having bee friendly gardens with flowers, including blue flowers that both we and bees really appreciate, is a convenient, pleasurable and potentially important contribution to enabling a sustainable future. Basically, plant and maintain a good variety of flowers, and the pollinating insects will come.




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The Conversation


Adrian Dyer, Associate Professor, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Jewel of nature’: scientists fight to save a glittering green bee after the summer fires



Remko Leijs, Author provided

Katja Hogendoorn, University of Adelaide; Remko Leijs, Flinders University, and Richard V Glatz, University of Adelaide

This article is a preview of Flora, Fauna, Fire, a multimedia project launching on Monday July 13. The project tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Sign up to The Conversation’s newsletter for updates.


The green carpenter bee (Xylocopa aerata) is an iconic, beautiful native species described as a “jewel of nature” for its metallic green and gold colouring. Carpenter bees are so named because they excavate their own nests in wood, as opposed to using existing holes.

With a body length of about 2 centimetres, it is among the largest native bees in southern Australia. While not used in honey farming, it is an important pollinator for several species of Australian native plants.

Last summer’s catastrophic bushfires significantly increased the risk of local extinctions of this magnificent species. We have studied the green carpenter bee for decades. For example, after the 2007 fires on Kangaroo Island, we bolstered the remaining population by providing nesting materials.

To see our efforts – and more importantly, most of the habitat these bees rely on – destroyed by the 2020 fire was utterly devastating.

Much of Kangaroo Island was incinerated by the summer bushfires.
Daniel Mariuz/AAP

A crucial pollinator on the brink

The green carpenter bee is a buzz-pollinating species. Buzz pollinators are specialist bees that vibrate the pollen out of the flowers of buzz-pollinated plants.

Many native plants, such as guinea flowers, velvet bushes, Senna, fringe, chocolate and flax lilies, rely completely on buzz-pollinating bees for seed production. Introduced honey bees do not pollinate these plants.




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The green carpenter bee went extinct on mainland South Australia in 1906 and in Victoria in 1938. It still occurs on the relatively uncleared western half of Kangaroo Island in South Australia, in conservation areas around Sydney, and in the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales.

Local extinctions were probably due to habitat clearing and large, intense bushfires. The last time the green carpenter bee was seen in Victoria was early December 1938 in the Grampians, which burnt completely during the Black Friday fires of January 1939.

There are several reasons green carpenter bees are vulnerable to fire, including:

  • the species uses dead wood for nesting, which burns easily
  • if the nest burns before the offspring matures in late summer, the adult female might fly away but won’t live long enough to reproduce again, and
  • the bees need floral resources throughout the year.
A male green carpenter bee.
Remko Leijs, Author provided

Nowhere to nest

The bees mainly dig their nests in two types of soft wood: dry flowering stalks of grass trees and, crucially important, large dead Banksia trunks. The availability of both nesting materials is intricately connected with fire.

Green carpenter bees sometimes nest n the dried flowering stalks of grass trees, also known as Xanthorrhoea.
Remko Leijs, Author provided

Grass trees flower prolifically after fire, but the dry stalks are only abundant between two and five years after fire. Banksia species don’t survive fire, and need to grow for at least 30 years to become large enough for the bees to use.

Bees nesting in an artificial stalk.
Remko Leijs, Author provided

With increasingly frequent and intense fires, there’s not enough time for Banksia trunks to grow big enough, before they’re wiped out by the next fire.

A helping hand after the 2007 fires

In 2007, Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island burnt almost entirely.

An artificial stalk nesting site installed in a Xanthorrea.
Remko Leijs, Author provided

However, in long-unburnt areas adjacent to the park, carpenter bee nests were still present. From there, they colonised the many dry grass tree stalks that resulted from the fire in the park.

In 2012, most flowering stalks had decayed. In an attempt to bolster population size, we successfully developed artificial nesting stalks to tide the bees over until new Banksia, suitable for nesting, would become available.

Since then, each year we’ve placed artificial nesting stalks in fire-affected areas where the bee still occurred. Almost 300 female carpenter bees have successfully used our stalks to raise their offspring.

Then came the January 2020 fires

At the time of the 2020 fires on Kangaroo Island, there were more than 150 nests containing mature brood in the stalks we had provided.

We’d placed these in 12 sites in and around Flinders Chase National Park, to spread risk – to no avail, as they all burnt.

We were horrified to see the intensity and speed of the fire that turned our efforts to ash, along with most of the remnant, long (more than 60 years) unburnt Banksia habitat the bees rely on. In New South Wales, much of the species’ natural range was also burnt.

The yellow dots represent known green carpenter bee nests. In red: the area burnt in 2020. Only a subset of the remaining green and yellow patches still have the right vegetation for the green carpenter bee.
Nature Maps SA/Remko Leijs, Author provided

What’s next for the green carpenter bee?

To fully appreciate the impact, we need to survey the remaining long unburnt areas on Kangaroo Island and in NSW.

Encouragingly, we have already found a few natural nests on Kangaroo Island, but the remaining suitable areas are small and isolated, and densities are likely to be low.

With funds raised through the Australian Entomological Society and the Wheen Bee Foundation, and with help of the Kingscote Men’s Shed, we are making new nesting stalks.

The Kingscote Men’s Shed on Kangaroo Island is helping build new nesting stalks.
Remko Leijs, Author provided

With permission of landholders, we’ll place these new stalks in areas with good floral support, to enhance reproduction and help the bees disperse into conservation areas once suitable.

As we have learnt, success is not guaranteed. Extensive and repeated bush fires, combined with asset protection and fuel reduction burns, are making longtime unburnt habitat increasingly rare. It is this lack of old, continuous, unburnt forest that severely threatens the green carpenter bees’ existence.

The future of fire-vulnerable biodiversity

The carpenter bee is not the only species facing this problem. Many Australian plants and animals are not resilient to high frequency fires, no matter their intensity or time of year.

The ecological importance of longtime unburnt forest needs urgent recognition, as increased fire frequency – both of natural and “managed” fires – is likely to drive a suite of species to extinction.

For Kangaroo Island, this could include several small mammals, glossy black cockatoos, and a range of invertebrate species, including the green carpenter bees.

Given the expected increase in fire frequency and intensity associated with global heating, it’s time we recognise fire-vulnerable species as a category that requires urgent habitat protection.




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The Conversation


Katja Hogendoorn, University of Adelaide; Remko Leijs, Researcher, Flinders University, and Richard V Glatz, Associate research scientist, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

One, then some: how to count like a bee


Scarlett Howard, Deakin University and Adrian Dyer, RMIT University

If you were a honeybee, how would you choose where to find flowers? Imagine your first flight out of the hive searching for food. What would you do if you saw flower patches with one flower, or three, or twelve, or twenty?

Our new study, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, tested honeybees on exactly this question. We wanted to understand how honeybees choose where to forage in environments like greenhouses where our food is pollinated, in local parks, or in our own backyards.

Specifically, our research looked at whether honeybees with no specific numerical training could choose a flower patch based on the quantity of flowers it had.

We found the bees could tell the difference between groups of 1 vs 4 flowers – but not between, say, 4 vs 5. Basically, they couldn’t differentiate between groups of 2 or more flowers.

A honeybee pollinating a strawberry plant flower in a greenhouse.
Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

A mathematical matter of life and death

The ability to tell the difference between two quantities can mean life or death for an animal. “Quantity discrimination” can be vital for survival in tasks including:

  • resource comparison: choosing a larger quantity of food

  • aggressive interactions: choosing to avoid conflicts with larger groups of individuals, and

  • avoiding predators: choosing to stay with a larger group of animals of the same species to reduce your chance of being eaten.

We are gaining a better understanding of quantity discrimination across the animal kingdom. Primates and other mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds and fish all display some form of quantity discrimination in day-to-day tasks. For example, fish use quantity discrimination to stay in larger groups to reduce the chance of being eaten by a predator.

However, little is known about spontaneous number choices by insects.




Read more:
We taught bees a simple number language – and they got it


How do bees choose where to forage?

Honeybees assess the available flowers based on several factors, including scent, colour, shape and size.

Backyard flowers; which patch to choose if you were a bee?
Adrian Dyer/RMIT University

Honeybees typically visit around 150 individual flowers per flight from the hive to collect resources such as nectar or pollen. For a honeybee, a high quantity of flowers in a single area would mean less energy exertion than having to fly to many flower patches with less flowers.

Using different numbers of artificial flowers, we wanted to test whether individual honeybees could discriminate between a range of quantities, and how they might determine the quality of a flower patch.

Our honeybees were shown pairs of flower quantities ranging from easier number comparisons (such as 1 flower vs 12 flowers) to more challenging scenarios (such as 4 flowers vs 5 flowers).

The experimental set-up (left) and the quantity comparisons (right). Honeybees succeeded at spontaneously discriminating between 1 vs 12, 1 vs 4, and 1 vs 3 flowers, but no other comparisons. The honeybees were trained to associate single yellow dots with sugar water before being shown quantity comparisons.
Scarlett Howard

Interestingly, despite previous findings that trained honeybees can discriminate between challenging quantities and can also learn to add and subtract, the bees performed poorly in our spontaneous number task.

We found they were only able to discriminate between 1 vs 3, 1 vs 4, and 1 vs 12 flowers – wherein they preferred the larger quantity. When 1 flower was an option they succeeded, but confused any comparisons between groups of 2 flowers or more.

This result suggests flower patch choice based on numerical-type cues is difficult for honeybees. And this has implications for how flower displays are interpreted.

A honeybee flies towards three flowers.
Scarlett Howard

With today being World Bee Day, why not take the opportunity to discover what bees are doing in gardens near you. Chances are they’re going to any flower patch with more than one flower, rather than paying much attention to absolute numbers.




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The Conversation


Scarlett Howard, Postdoctoral research fellow, Deakin University and Adrian Dyer, Associate Professor, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aussie scientists need your help keeping track of bees (please)



The Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) has been found in Cairns. It’s just one of the introduced bees buzzing under the radar.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Manu Saunders, University of New England; Callum McKercher, University of New England; Mark Hall, Western Sydney University; Tanya Latty, University of Sydney, and Tobias Smith, The University of Queensland

Bees get a lot of good press. They pollinate our crops and in some cases, make delicious honey. But bees around the world face serious threats, and the public can help protect them.

Of more than 20,400 known bee species in the world, about 1,650 are native to Australia. But not all bees found in Australia are native. A few species have been introduced: some on purpose and others secretly hitchhiking, usually through international trade routes.

As bee researchers, we’ve all experienced seeing a beautiful, fuzzy striped bee buzzing about our gardens, only to realise it’s an exotic species far from home.




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We need the public’s help to identify the bees in Australian backyards. There’s a good chance some are not native, but are unwanted exotic species. Identifying new intruders before they become established will help protect our native species.

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) fuels a valuable honey industry and contributes to agricultural pollination. Other introduced species are far less welcome.
Tobias Smith

Exotic bees in Australia

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the best-known introduced species, first brought to Australia in the early 1800s. It is now well-established throughout the country, with profitable industries built around managed populations.

Other invasive species in Australia are less well known (or loved). The European bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) is present in high numbers in Tasmania, but isn’t thought to be established on mainland Australia.

This bumblebee has caused major harm to native bees in South America, competing for resources and spreading disease.

In northern Queensland, the Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) is established around Cairns and Mareeba, from a single incursion in 2007. The original founding colony is thought to have been a stowaway on a boat that sailed to Cairns from somewhere in southeast Asia or the Pacific, where this bee is widespread.

New Asian honey bee incursions at Australian ports occur almost annually, most recently in Townsville and Melbourne. But swift biosecurity responses have so far stopped them becoming established.

The European bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) lives in large numbers in Tasmania, but is not established on the mainland.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Why should we care?

Most insects can spread and establish breeding populations before anyone notices them, so it’s important we pay attention to these small intruders.

Introduced species can bring new parasites or diseases into the country that may harm native insects – including our stingless bees that are so vital to crop pollination – or affect the valuable European honey bee industry.

While bumblebees may help commercial pollination in a handful of Australian crops, they and other introduced species can also compete with native species for resources, or spread weeds.

Most resources go to monitoring invasive species with a more dramatic and understood effect on agriculture and the environment. Bees sneak under the radar – but we’re still curious.

Take the African carder bee (Pseudoanthidium repetitum), which arrived in Australia in the early 2000s. Thanks to citizen scientists, we know they are spreading rapidly. In 2014, they were the third most common bee species found in a survey of Sydney community gardens.

An African carder bee spotted in Lismore. They are the third most common bee species in Sydney community gardens.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Just recently, we found two invasive African carder bees in a backyard in Armidale in northern New South Wales while testing out a new insect monitoring method. There are no confirmed records of this invasive bee in Armidale, although we have seen a few around town since 2017.




Read more:
Bees: how important are they and what would happen if they went extinct?


Although it’s usually exciting to find a new record for a native species, finding an exotic bee where it’s not supposed to be is worrying. How long have they been there, and how many others are there?

The European bumble bee was recently sighted to global biodiversity.

You don’t have to be totally sure what kind of bee you’ve spotted. Just snap some pictures and upload it to a citizen scientist app like iNaturalist with the date and location.
Jean and Fred/Flickr, CC BY

Will you help us keep track?

Anyone can help keep track of potential new invasive species, simply by learning more about the insects in your local area and sharing observations on citizen science platforms such as iNaturalist, or through targeted projects like the African carder bee monitoring project.

You don’t need to be sure exactly what species you’ve seen. Uploading some clear, high-resolution photos, along with the date and location of your observation, will help naturalists and researchers identify it.




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Wasps, aphids and ants: the other honey makers


You can also participate in events such as the twice-yearly Wild Pollinator Count or local Bioblitzes.

Your efforts can help us detect emerging threats, and add to our records of both native and non-native bees (and other species). Plus it’s a great excuse to get outdoors and learn more about the insect life in your area.


This article was co-written with Karen Retra.The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England; Callum McKercher, PhD Student, University of New England; Mark Hall, Research fellow, Western Sydney University; Tanya Latty, Associate professor, University of Sydney, and Tobias Smith, Ecologist, bee researcher and stingless bee keeper, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Bees seeking blood, sweat and tears is more common than you think



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Known sweat-collecting stingless bees, Tetragonula sp., from the bee family Apidae.
Tobias Smith, Author provided

Manu Saunders, University of New England and Tobias Smith, The University of Queensland

The recent story of four live bees pulled from inside a woman’s eye quickly grabbed people’s attention. News reports claimed the bees were “sweat bees”, the common name for species in the bee family Halictidae.

There are some contradictory and unlikely statements in the many news reports covering this story, so it’s hard to know what actually happened. The images accompanying many reports, which some reporters captioned as the live sweat bees in the Taiwanese woman’s eye, are actually uncredited images from a completely unrelated story – this report by Hans Bänzinger of a stingless bee species (Lisotrigona cacciae) collecting tears from his eye in Thailand.


The Guardian/ Bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) That Drink Human Tears, in Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society.

All in all, we would consider it extremely unlikely for multiple adult insects to survive inside a human eye for very long. Most halictid bees are too large to get trapped in your eye unnoticed. Female sweat bees also have stingers so you would definitely know straight away!

But whether this story is accurate or not, there are bees who would happily feast on human tears – and blood, sweat and even dead animals. Flower-loving insects like bees and butterflies often seek out other food sources that are at odds with their pretty public image.




Read more:
Can bees do maths? Yes – new research shows they can add and subtract


Un-bee-lievable

So why would bees hang around someone’s eye in the first place? It’s a bit of a myth that all bees only collect pollen and nectar for food. There are bee species all over the world that also feed on the bodily fluids of living and dead animals, including animal honeydew, blood, dead meat, dung, sweat, faeces, urine and tears. This is a source of important nutrients they can’t get from flowers, like sodium, or protein and sugar when floral resources are scarce.




Read more:
Wasps, aphids and ants: the other honey makers


The term “sweat bee” is used colloquially for bees that ingest human sweat as a nutritional resource.

Many people think the term only refers to bees in the Halictidae family. But not all halictid bee species are known to collect sweat, while many species in the Apidae family, particularly stingless bees, are common sweat-collectors in tropical areas around the world. Swarms of sweat-seeking stingless bees can be a nuisance to sweaty humans in tropical places.

And it’s not just sweat; stingless bees have quite diverse tastes and collect many non-floral resources. There are also a few neotropical Trigona species that collect animal tissue as their main protein source, instead of pollen. These species collect floral nectar and make honey, like other stingless bees, but predominantly scavenge on carrion (they are technically know as obligate necrophages).

Vulture bees feed on rotting meat rather than pollen or nectar.
Wikipedia/José Reynaldo da Fonseca, CC BY-SA

Regardless of taxonomy, bees that are attracted to sweat often use other bodily fluids too, like tears. Tear-feeding is such a common behaviour among insects, it has an official name: lachryphagy. Some stingless bees from south Asia, such as the Lisotrigona species mentioned above, are well-known lachryphagous insects, often seen congregating in groups around animal eyes (including humans) to harvest fluids. They don’t harm the animal in the process, although their activity might be a nuisance to some.

In South America, Centris bees are large, solitary apid bees, in the same family as stingless bees and honey bees. These bees are often observed drinking tears from animal eyes; published observations include interactions with caimans and turtles.

Bees aren’t the only insects that regularly drink from animal eyes. Our world-famous hand gesture, the Aussie salute, is designed to deter the common bush flies (Musca species) that hang around our faces on hot days, looking for a quick drink of sweat, saliva or tears. These flies are also commonly seen clustered around livestock eyes on farms.

The feeding habits of butterflies would shock many people who think they are dainty, angelic flower-frequenting creatures. Butterflies are common feeders on dung, carrion, mud and various other secretions, including animal tears. Moths are also well-known nocturnal feeders on animal tears, even while they are sleeping.

Julia butterflies drinking the tears of Arrau turtles in Ecuador.
Wikimedia/amalavida.tv, CC BY-SA

Although most of us wouldn’t like the idea of an insect drinking out of our eyelid, this isn’t the stuff of nightmares. It’s just another fascinating, but little-known, story of how animals interact with each other. From a bee’s perspective, an animal’s eye is just another food source.




Read more:
Catch the buzz: how a tropical holiday led us to find the world’s biggest bee


It produces secretions that provide important nutrients, just like a flower produces nectar and pollen. Although entomologists know this behaviour occurs, we still don’t fully understand how common it is, or how reliant pollinating insects are on different animals in their local environment.

But, while tear-collecting behaviour is normal for many insects, the odds of live bees crawling inside your eye to live are extremely low.The Conversation

Manu Saunders, Research fellow, University of New England and Tobias Smith, Ecologist, bee researcher and stingless bee keeper, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Catch the buzz: how a tropical holiday led us to find the world’s biggest bee



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Eli Wyman with the elusive Wallace’s Giant Bee.
Clay Bolt, Author provided

Simon KA Robson, University of Sydney

Many people on a tropical island getaway might take a jungle hike, or learn about the local wildlife. My colleagues and I went one better: we tracked down the world’s biggest bee species, which hadn’t been spotted for decades, while on holiday in Indonesia’s North Molucca islands.

Wallace’s giant bee, Megachile pluto, is fascinating for many reasons. It’s the largest of all known living bees, with a body length about that of a human thumb and a wingspan of more than 6cm. What’s more, its last confirmed sighting in the field was in 1981. After numerous efforts to rediscover it, it was unclear whether the species still remained in the wild.

Beenormous: M. pluto is roughly four times the size of a European honeybee.
Clay Bolt, Author provided

The bee also has a special place in scientific history. It was first collected by the British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace in 1859, as part of his work in the Malay Archipelago. He described the female bee as “a large black wasp-like insect, with immense jaws like a stag-beetle”.

Wallace not only independently derived the theory of natural selection as an explanation for evolution alongside Charles Darwin, but his detailed studies of the distribution of animals gave rise to the famous Wallace Line, a boundary that splits Australia and Asia and helps to explain the distribution patterns of many plants and animals.




Read more:
Wallacea: a living laboratory of evolution


Holiday plans

How did four biologists from across the globe, two from Australia (myself and Glen Chilton) and two from the United States (Eli Wyman and Clay Bolt), end up on this journey?

My involvement started at the prompting of Glen, who although specialising in ornithology and writing was interested in both Wallace and the rediscovery of potentially extinct species. He became aware of the existence of the world’s largest bee, and after two years of cajoling I agreed that searching for the bee would represent an excellent holiday.

During the planning for our trip, we became aware that Eli and Clay were also, independently, planning to travel to the Moluccas to search for M. pluto. After a brief Skype call we decided it made sense to join forces and collaborate. So despite our two duos never having met in person, we were a team heading out into the field.

And what a great team it was: Eli’s expertise in all things bee-related; Clay’s fantastic photographic skills; Glen’s enthusiasm and knowledge of Wallace; and my own fascination with the evolution of insect behaviour.

On the ground

We converged on the island of Ternate and began our search across the North Molucca islands for termite mounds containing bee-sized holes, helped by two excellent local guides, Ekawati Ka’aba and Iswan Maujad.

M. pluto is a solitary bee species that forms communal nests inside termite mounds, using its mandibles to collect and apply tree resin to the inner walls of its nest. So we knew what to look out for.

After five fruitless days of searching termite mounds, we were about to call it quits and head for a late lunch when we spotted another mound near the edge of a path.

Inspection with a torch and binoculars revealed a hole that looked promising. Clay scaled the tree and reported that the hole looked to be lined with resin – very exciting. Our guides constructed a platform from branches, we inspected the hole in more detail, and there she was. Cue intense excitement and cries of jubilation as we all rushed to peer inside and catch a glimpse.

Now that we had the bee, we had to be able to prove it, so we put away our iPhone cameras in favour of better-quality (but riskier: the bee might escape!) footage with more professional photographic and video equipment. We gently coaxed her out of her nest and into a small flight chamber, and then eventually Clay got the magic shot, where we released the bee back onto her nest and photographed her at the entrance to her home. Mission accomplished.

Capturing the evidence.
Simon Robson, Author provided

Confirming that the world’s largest bee species is still alive is an enticing development for ecologists. We can learn a lot about the ecology, behaviour and ecological significance of this giant. Amid a global decline in many insects, it’s wonderful to discover this special species is still surviving.




Read more:
Ten years after the crisis, what is happening to the world’s bees?


We also hope our discovery will galvanise conservation movements in Indonesia, and we were inspired by the reception our journey met with many people in the conservation and forestry fields of the North Molucca islands.

We would love more work to be done to assess the bee’s current conservation status. Plans to produce a documentary about Wallace and the rediscovery of this bee are underway, and we hope that its rediscovery provides further impetus to conservation efforts generally.

Not a bad outcome for a holiday!The Conversation

Simon KA Robson, Honorary Professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.