No doubt, bees are important pollinators of crops and native plants, but habitat loss and pesticides are proved to be causing a serious decline in their populations in Europe and the United States of America. Meanwhile, the conservation status of native Australian bees is largely unknown because solid baseline data are unavailable and about one third of the species are as yet unknown to science. Furthermore, identification of Australian bees is hampered by a lack of keys for about half of the named species.
With a new publication, bee specialists from the University of Adelaide and the South Australian Museum are trying to make Australian native bees more accessible to the scientific community. Their study introduces a public BOLD project, which will be built to contain the barcode sequences of the identified Australian native bees.
This paper launches an open access DNA barcoding project “AUSBS” under the Barcoding of Life Datasystems (BOLD). The aims of the project are to help scientists who lack the necessary morphological knowledge to identify known species using molecular markers, to aid native bee specialists with the recognition of species groups that morphologically are difficult to define, and, eventually, to assist with the recognition of new species among known species.
So far, the project includes 271 sequences of 120 species that were collected during the Bush Blitz surveys, Australia's largest nature discovery project. The researchers intend to build on the existing DNA database to cover as many as possible of the 750 Australian bee species.
The paper also shows the utility of this project. After careful evaluation of the DNA sequence data and subsequent morphological comparison of the collected bees to museum type specimens, the colleagues recognized four new plasterer bee species in the genus Euhesma, which are described in the publication as well. Three of the species belong to the group of bees that specialize on the flowers of emu-bushes. These bees have evolved narrow faces and very long mouth parts to collect the nectar through a tight constriction at the base of the flowers. A similar evolution has been already observed in other groups of bees. The fourth species belongs to a different group within this large genus and has a normally shaped head.
In future, this database can help scientists who have access to molecular tools, but insufficient knowledge of bees, to identify known species. Yet, that is not the only use of the database.
Bee taxonomists can access and use the molecular information to answer specific problems, for example, how certain species are related or whether or not a male and female belong to the same species. And combined with morphological information, the molecular database can help to identify new species.