When ecologist Kit Prendergast was surveying native bee populations in Perth’s Kings Park botanic gardens, the last thing she expected to discover was a new bee species — with a very distinctive snout.
“I came across this really unusual species, and it had this big protrusion on its face,” she said.
“Bees don’t have noses, they smell with their antennae — but it looked like a snout.
“I thought I would be able to identify [it] quite easily because it’s a very obvious feature.
“So I went and did lots of photographs, lots of looking at what the diagnostic features were. I talked to the taxonomists in the WA Museum — they said it was probably a new species.”
After searching the WA Museum’s entomology collection, Ms Prendergast discovered a few specimens of the species had been collected in 1979.
But it remained undescribed scientifically.
“It’s been a dream of mine to find and describe a new species of native bee,” she said.
“And whoever describes a new species, the taxonomist gets to have naming rights.
“The only rule is that you can’t name it after yourself because that’s really egotistic.
“You can name it after something descriptive, a location, or even a famous person or someone who is significant in your life – which is exactly what I did.”
Dr Prendergast named the species Leioproctus Zephyr, after her beloved pet dog Zephyr.
“[My dog] has been with me through my hardest times, she has loved me unconditionally,” she said.
Discovery highlights native bushland’s importance
She said the bee’s “snout” was most likely used to help the species forage in a very limited range of host plants called Jacksonia sericea, a type of native pea flower.
“They’ve got this flower structure where the petals have sort of a keel and inside the keel is the nectar and pollen, and it needs to be pushed open to access those rewards,” she said.
“It seems like this snout in the middle of its face is used to push up in the keel so it can easily access the nectar.”
Dr Prendergast said the discovery highlighted the importance of maintaining pockets of urban bushland and planting native flowers.
“Our native bees are extremely specialised — you can have a garden full of flowers, but if they’re all exotic flowers, it’s essentially a desert to the native bees,” she said.
“These [native plants] need to be propagated and made available to the public.
“Bushland remnants have to be conserved because without them, we wouldn’t have this native bee species.
“It is already super rare, and only occurs in a handful of locations, because it is specifically tied to this host plant.”
New discoveries yet to be made
Dr Prendergast said there were 1,661 native bee species already described in Australia, but there was an estimated 2,000 species yet to be identified.
“One of the saddest things is that there’s almost no investment into monitoring our native bees, so we don’t have good population data,” she said.
“Some native bees have been only collected from a few locations decades ago, and there’s been no collection since.
“They might have gone extinct in those locations — it is something that we need to be concerned about.”
ABC News, 5 November 2022