Bee thought to have gone extinct spotted for first time — in nearly a century

QUEENSLAND, Australia — In recent years, scientists have brought attention to an alarming decline among the world’s bee population. In a bit of good news, one bee that experts believed went extinct has now been spotted for the first time in nearly a century. The rare pollinator, native to Australia, was in the forests of north Queensland all along, but it is probably under increasing pressure to survive.

The species goes by the regal name of Pharohylaeus lactiferus. Only six of these bees had ever been caught, the last of which came in 1923. Now three separate populations have been discovered feeding on flowers and plants along Australia’s east coast.

“This is concerning because it is the only Australian species in the Pharohylaeus genus. Nothing was known of its biology,” says biologist James Dorey, of Flinders University, Adelaide, in a statement. “It is one of two species in the genus, and the only one in Australia with its sister species in Papua New Guinea. It goes by the regal name of Pharohylaeus lactiferus and I found him in far north Queensland in some remnant forest.”

Extinct bee no longer extinct?
The recently found Pharohylaeus lactiferus (Colletidae: Hylaeinae). (Credit: Flinders University)

The widespread hunt began after fellow Phd candidate Olivia Davies and bee expert Dr Tobias Smith, of the University of Queensland, suggested it had been wiped out. This was based on the lack of any recent sightings. The “rediscovery” followed extensive sampling of nearly 250 sites across New South Wales and Queensland.

“Three populations of P. lactiferus were found by sampling bees visiting their favored plant species along much of the Australian east coast, suggesting population isolation,” explains Dorey.

His team analyzed extra bee and vegetation recordings from the Atlas of Living Australia, which lists 500 species in New South Wales and 657 in Queensland. They sought to assess the latest levels of true diversity in the wake of habitat loss and the destruction of Australia’s rainforests, along with wildfires and climate change.

They are likely to put extinction pressure on this and other invertebrate species, say the researchers.

“It is beautiful and we still know almost nothing about what threatens this clearly rare species,” says Dorey. “Again this highlights how little we know about our amazing pollinators and that we need more keen and interested citizen scientists and researchers to work our way forward to both protect, encourage and utilize these insects into the future. I was and still am so very delighted to find them alive and well, and not extinct. Let’s keep it that way.”

Highly fragmented habitat and potential host specialization might explain the rarity of P. lactiferus.

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,” says Dorey.

The study published in the Journal of Hymenoptera Research also warns the species is even more vulnerable. They appear to favor specific floral specimens and were only found near tropical or sub-tropical rainforest — a single vegetation type. Known populations of P. lactiferus remain rare and susceptible to habitat destruction. This could occur from changed land use or fires, say the researchers.

“Future research should aim to increase our understanding of the biology, ecology and population genetics of P. lactiferus,” says Dorey. “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 digitization of their collections and other initiatives,”

Bees produce over a third of our food. They are also being wiped out by pesticides and diseases, reducing the ability to grow crops. A recent scientific review of insect numbers around the world suggest that 40% of species are undergoing “dramatic rates of decline”. In fact, scientists say bees, ants and beetles are disappearing eight times faster than mammals, birds or reptiles.

SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.