Researchers have discovered eight new species of bees just by looking up

For years they were looking in the wrong place. Researchers who wanted to map bee populations on tropical islands in the Pacific looked too close to Earth.

Their expeditions were difficult anyway, because bees are not very diverse in the tropics. The diversity is much greater in areas with dry or temperate climates, where bees forage for pollen and nectar from lower plants and flowers.

In Fiji, researchers also looked lower to the ground. “While we should have been looking up,” Australian researcher James Dorey says in a press release. After years of searching, he got inspiration. He made longer poles for the swing nets, between 5 and 11 meters high, in the treetops.

There, high in the tropical forest canopy, Dorey and his colleagues found eight new species of bees from the genus Masked Bees (Helios). Six of them are in Fiji, one in French Polynesia and one in Micronesia. They described the discovery last week in the scientific journal Frontiers in ecology and evolution. They are small black creatures with yellow and white drawings on their heads, as if they were wearing a mask. They are small in size: only 3 to 5 millimeters.

Bees hopping between islands

With their discovery, the researchers were able to solve the well-known mystery of bees. Because sixty years ago, American bee expert Charles Michener actually described it Hylaeus tuamotuensis. He studied some specimens collected in the 1930s during an expedition to the Tuamotu Archipelago in French Polynesia.

But Michener didn’t understand how the creatures got there. Their counterparts lived thousands of miles away in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia. Bees can never travel those distances.

A landscape in Taveuni, Fiji, where a number of new bee species have been discovered.Photo by James Dorey Photography

All this time, the masked bee’s cousins ​​have been living much closer away, on islands in and around Fiji. Maybe the bees were hopping Among the islands of the Pacific Ocean. For example, on a tree trunk that ended up on another island during a storm.

Dorey says the Michener mystery could have been solved much sooner if researchers had started looking in the treetops of tropical islands earlier. He warns his colleagues about blind spots in bee research. “Scientific research has often focused on bees that live close to the ground.”

Another mistake bee researchers make is that they write off red flowers too quickly, he believes. Most bees cannot perceive red well. But the masked bees of Fiji prefer red flowers. He believes that if researchers abandon their preconceived notions about bees, more bee species are likely to be found in the South Pacific.

More focus on the canopy

Tropical bees may be spending more time in trees than we realize yet, admits Thomas Wood, a bee researcher and taxonomist at Naturalis in Leiden. He hopes that by focusing more on the canopy in the tropics, more species will be found. “Fortunately, more attention is now being paid to this.”

He says it’s not surprising in itself that bees seek out higher elevations in the tropics. Because of the dense vegetation, there will likely be fewer flowers on the ground. In the Netherlands, masked bees stay close to the ground, Wood says. There are about 25 Types of helios It is found in the Netherlands, and likes to nest in the cavities of dead wood or dead plant stems.

Although there are also some bees in the Netherlands that fly on trees, such as different types of sand bees that collect pollen and nectar from willows. But in most arid and Mediterranean climates, you won’t easily find bees in the treetops. Also, most bees do not like to visit red flowers. This is what masked bees are like in Fiji. This doesn’t surprise Wood. “As always in biology, there is enormous variety and variety.”

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Megan Vasquez

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