In 2010, two years after Bon Bon Station was acquired by Bush Heritage, a Bush Blitz was held. This is a program sponsored by the Australian government to survey remote areas, with the aim of documenting the flora and fauna, and specifically also, of discovering new species. Remko Leijs was part of the Bush Blitz team as a specialist in native bees.
So far, for Bon Bon, Remko’s bee survey yielded six new bee species: three species of Euhesma (Hogendoorn et al 2015), and three belonging to the genus Leioproctus (Leijs et al 2018). In the foreseeable future, even more new species collected during the 2010 Bush Blitz will be described.
The new species are recognised and described five or more years after they've been collected! Many of us may wonder: why does it take so long to identify and describe the new species?
Remko explains the process:
“When we catch a bee, we don’t know yet whether or not it's a new species: we have to try to identify it first. But before we can do that, the specimen needs to be set on a pin and labelled with the date, the place and the plant species it was caught on. After labelling, we can start sorting like by like.”
Sometimes molecular tools are used to sort the collected bees into species. Molecular sequence information can help with species delineation, especially in the case of cryptic species. In addition, it allows us to understand which males and females belong together. This would require a stint in the lab. Once we have sorted the specimens, we try to identify.”
Identification isn’t always easy: there are 1650 described bee species, with keys to only half of them.
For species not in keys, the only avenue is to compare them with type specimens in collections. If there is a key to the group, any undescribed species would not key out. That in itself may indicate that the species is new, but it is also possible that it's a local variant of an existing species. Remko clarifies:
“Species morphology can be variable. In particular, integument colours can vary between locations and hair colours vary with the age of a bee. To check whether it's a new species, we’d ideally have to compare our specimens with the type specimens of described species. We can do this using photos, but often the devil is in the detail that is not captured by photos. So the best thing is a direct comparison with the type specimens. To do that we need to visit several insect collections.”
Remko points out that an advantage of visiting insect collections is that he can scan the so-called accessions, or unidentified specimens, for additional examples of our presumed new species. Very often, this exercise will yield additional undescribed species that belong in the same group.
“It would be a shame to describe just one new species when you already know that there's a group of new species. But then, the task has become larger”, he says.
Take for example, the three new Leioproctus species described from Bon Bon in 2018. They are among a group of 26 new species in the same subgenus, found either during other Bush Blitzes or in national insect collections.
After checking with types and ensuring the presumed new species are real, research is required to identify how the new species relate to species already known, and descriptions need to be produced. Then, a comparison is needed to identify the most reliable and easy characters that can be used to tell the species apart. These will be used to update the key.”
Apart from taking time, the funds to visit insect collections interstate and overseas aren’t always available. Most of this work is done on a shoestring budget. Bush Blitz provides competitive grants to support the description of species caught during the surveys, and Remko counts himself lucky in this respect:
“As recipient of six of Bush Blitz tactical taxonomy grants, I have described 46 new bee species, and have 54 more in the pipeline.”
Describing 100 new species sounds impressive, but Remko is aware of hundreds of Australian native bee species that await. Progress is hampered by the fact that there are no Australian researchers employed to undertake bee taxonomic work, while funding is limited and highly competitive. Much more support is needed if we want to get a full grasp of the biodiversity of Australia’s native bee fauna, or of the insect fauna in general.
Early April 2022, Remko revisited Bon Bon to further explore the bee fauna. Even though there weren’t many plant species in flower, more than 30 native bee species were caught. It is possible that this collection again includes some new species – time (and funding!) will tell.