11 Australian bee species closer to extinction after 'black summer' fires

·3 min read
11 Australian bee species closer to extinction after 'black summer' fires
11 Australian bee species closer to extinction after 'black summer' fires

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Australia's devastating bushfires in 2019-2020 took a significant toll on the environment, scorching more than 20 per cent of the country's forests.

They were also quite impactful on wildlife, particularly on several of its native bee species. A new study led by Flinders University says that the "black summer" bushfires, as they've been referred to as, resulted in the dwindling of 11 bee species -- with nine assessed as vulnerable and two as endangered.

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After examination, researchers found that the 11 species now meet the requirements to be added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The two genera that fit IUCN's criteria for endangered classification are the Leioproctus nigrofulvus -- known as the solitary bee -- and Leioproctus carinatifrons, due to sizable areas of their native habitat that were severely burnt.

Before the fires, just three Australian bee species were considered threatened.

The disastrous fires burnt millions of hectares of Australia’s land area. Scientists say the casualties among bee fauna, other insects and invertebrates are evident after reviewing 553 species -- about one-third of Australia’s known bee species -- and the long-term environmental damage from the fires.

L gracilipes bee
L gracilipes bee

L gracilipes bee(Ken Walker/Museums Victoria (iNaturalist Australia))

“Our research is a call for action, from governments and policymakers, to immediately help these and other native populations most in danger,” James Dorey, lead author and Flinders University PhD candidate, now a postdoctoral researcher at the Yale University Center for Biodiversity and Global Change, said in a news release.

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The troubling news doesn't end there. The analysis also stated that the number of threatened Australian native bee species is expected to increase by almost five times as a result of the blazes, which destroyed thousands of homes and killed or displaced an estimated three billion animals.

Published in Global Change Biology, the examination cautions that far-reaching wildfire fire damage isn't just limited to Australia. From North America and Europe to the Congo and Asia, the fires are bringing "catastrophic" impacts on biodiversity, as well as unexpected and distinct declines in population sizes of numerous species, according to the study.

List of Australia native bees
List of Australia native bees

A selection of some of Australia’s hundreds of native bees. (James Dorey Photography)

“In these circumstances, there is a need for government and land managers to respond more rapidly to implement priority conservation management actions for the most-affected species in order to help prevent extinctions,” said Dorey.

“Conserving insects and other less visible taxa should also be a factor in restoring and preserving some of the hundreds of bees that may not yet have been studied or recorded.”

The study puts together a foundation to review other taxa in Australia or on other continents where species are lack analysis and aren't registered on datasets or by IUCN's red list, Dorey said.

Flinders University researcher Olivia Davies, one of the 13 authors involved in the study, said most people don't know "just how vulnerable our native bees are because they are not widely studied."

Golden-green carpenter bee
Golden-green carpenter bee

Closeup of a golden-green carpenter bee. (James Dorey Photography)

“The fact that no Australian bees are listed by the IUCN shows just how neglected these important species are," Davies added.

The collective study includes researchers from Flinders University’s Laboratory of Evolutionary Genetics and Sociality, the South Australian Museum, University of Adelaide, Curtin University, University of Sydney, University of Melbourne, Murdoch University and Charles Darwin University.

Thumbnail courtesy of Ken Walker/Museums Victoria (iNaturalist Australia).

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