Eight beautiful new iridescent ‘island hopping’ bee species found in Polynesia

Way back in the 1930s, American entomologist Elwood Zimmerman discovered three small, beautiful bees tahetahe flowers in Polynesia. Although the bees themselves were beautiful, what most fascinated later entomologists was how these tiny insects ended up on the islands – more than 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) from the nearest other bee population in Hawaii and 6,000 kilometers (3,728 miles) from the islands. away from Australia. Well, 59 years later, the mystery has finally been solved thanks to some long-handled nets.

The original three small bees were kept at Honolulu’s Bernice P Bishop Museum until 1965, when they were formally described as Tuamotu’s masked bee (Hylaeus tuamotuensis) by bee specialist Professor Charles Michener. The species was not seen again after that, leading to fears that the bees may be extinct. Now researchers have discovered eight more new species in the genus Hylaeus discovered between 2014 and 2019 and all of which are related to the original Tuamotu masked bee species.

Six of the eight species were found in Fiji, one in Polynesia and one species discovered in Micronesia. Using morphological traits and DNA data, they were able to distinguish the eight species and provide evidence of hylaeine bees in the South Pacific east of Vanuatu that have never been recorded before.

“Here we show that despite almost a decade of bee sampling in Fiji, there is a whole group of species that have so far flown right over our heads. By exploring new sampling techniques, we discovered an unknown species radiation of Hylaeus masked bees in the canopy,” said Dr James Dorey – lecturer at the University of Wollongong, adjunct lecturer at Flinders University and lead author of the study – in a statement . .

What made this discovery possible was a change in sampling method; previous trips focused on taking samples of flowering plants found at ground level, while the new species were discovered in the canopy.

“It wasn’t until we brought very long nets to Fiji and started collecting from the trees that we started finding our mysterious little bees. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if the etymology of Hylaeus could mean ‘belonging to the forest’,” Dorey said.

While the bees may not have been able to cover the vast distance between Hawaii and Polynesia in one go, the team thinks they are likely to find more species on the hundreds of small islands that lie between them, especially since they now know where to go. Look. They strongly suggest that other research trips focus on looking into the canopy to discover more previously overlooked bee species. This discovery also helps explain the mystery of how the bees ended up on these remote islands in the first place.

Two field researchers climb through thick brush atop a summit overlooking the island and forest.

Mount Tomanivi is Fiji’s highest peak, and although it is home to bee species, sampling is still required for the Hylaeus sex.

Image credits: James Dorey Photography CC BY

“With these bees we can solve the mystery: the ancestors of H. tuamotuensis Reached French Polynesia by island hopping via Fiji and the South West Pacific!” continued Dorien.

The team also suggests that the strong weather could have spread the bees across several islands. “Because most masked bees nest in wood, it is likely that they drifted between islands, especially when tropical cyclones wash large amounts of plant material down rivers and into the sea. It is also possible that they were blown by strong winds, but that would have been a much more dangerous journey for our little bees,” said Dorey.

One of the new species has been named Veli’s Hylaeus, in reference to the Veli of Fijian folklore, who are known as powerful people associated with the forest.

“Hence, the name is intended to evoke a sense of responsibility for the protection of these new forest specialist species and their trees,” the authors said.

The article was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

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