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  • Identifying Bees: A DNA-Based Approach to Bee Taxonomy

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    Male Xanthesma (Xenohesma) brachycera

    In a recent study by researchers from Curtin and Flinders Universities, what were initially believed to be two distinct species of native Australian bees were discovered to be one. This discovery was based on native bee surveys carried out in Perth at Wireless Hill, Shenton Park, and Russo Reserve.

    Dr. Kit Prendergast, the lead researcher from the Curtin School of Molecular and Life Sciences, discussed the innovative methods that led to this revelation. “Essentially the research team used DNA sequencing to show that what we used to think of as two different species of bees are actually just the males and females of one, single species,” he explained.

    The challenge with many of Australia's native bee species is that their classifications were often based on a singular sex, either male or female. Visually identifying both sexes as part of the same species is often difficult, given that both male and female bees from the same species can exhibit distinct differences.

    Uncovering the Bee Identity
    Dr. Prendergast elucidated, " “In this study, I collected what appeared to be the female of a bee species that has been described only from the male—a species at the time called Xanthesma (Xenohesma) perpulchra. The team then used DNA analysis to confirm these female bees were in fact the same species as the male.."

    Interestingly, the DNA analysis had another revelation in store. The DNA of these bees also corresponded with another species, known solely by its female description—Xanthesma (Xanthesma) brachycera. This led the team to the conclusion that the two were indeed the same species.

    Given that these bee sexes hadn't been concurrently collected in the same location, they were described as two separate entities in the early 20th century, a period that predated DNA analysis techniques.

    The DNA Barcoding Advantage
    The findings of this research underscore the importance of DNA barcoding in the precise identification of male and female bees from the same species, especially since distinct appearances can characterize the sexes of a single species. In contrast, bees of the same sex across different species might look remarkably alike.

    Highlighting the broader implications of the study, Dr. Prendergast said, “Our findings are significant because being able to correctly identify species is fundamentally important to virtually every aspect of biological sciences. Accurate species identification enables us to determine how many species are present in an area, helps us understand the evolution of life on Earth, and how species are related. It also allows us to assess conservation needs.”

    The hope is that this study will pave the way for further taxonomic research on Australian native bees, especially focusing on the Euryglossinae, a significant but inadequately researched group of bees native to Australia.

    The research, co-authored by Dr. James Dorey from Flinders University, was published in the Australian Journal of Taxonomy. The study, titled “Xanthesma (Xenohesma) perpulchra and Xanthesma (Xanthesma) brachycera are conspecific based on DNA barcodes” is accessible online.

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