Prove your humanity

A recent study by Curtin and Flinders University has found that two previously distinct native bee species are in fact the same, with researchers saying the finding fundamentally alters previous thinking.

The study, published on October 27 in the Australian Journal of Taxonomy, used DNA sequencing to show that the species Xanthesma (Xenohesma) perpulchra and Xanthesma (Xanthesma) brachycera were actually the male and female of the same species of bee.

Lead researcher from Curtin University Dr Kit Prendergast says the findings showed the value of DNA barcoding in accurately identifying males and females that belong to the same species.

“It appears both sexes had never been collected in the same place at the same time, and both were described in the early 1900s, well before the advent of DNA analysis,” she says.

Female Xanthesma (Xenohesma) brachycera. Photo: Supplied.

“For many native bee species in Australia, their descriptions were based on only one sex. Identifying males and females as belonging to the same species solely through observation can be challenging, as both sexes of the same species often display noticeable differences.”

Male Xanthesma (Xenohesma) brachycera. Photo: Supplied.

Dr Prendergast hopes the findings of the study will spur agencies and government to invest in more taxonomic work.

“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.”

“I’ve got so many projects on the go but no funding for them. I’ll keep chipping away at resolving taxonomy and describing new species, but getting financial support is tricky,” she says.

Funding for scientific research is difficult to secure at the best of times, and Dr Prendergast has branched into different avenues including a Patreon where she posts updates on her research, and also through live performances.

In 2019, Dr Prendergast was named as a finalist for Young Scientist of the Year and began sharing her findings and love for pollinators through performing as a science communicator under the moniker ‘The Bee Babette’.

“I think the science and arts shouldn’t always be pitted against each other, and I love combining them. And using the arts to engage people in science can be a really effective tool in making people care.”

“My main passion is circus. I often dress up as a bee and do all kinds of events, from roving photographic displays to bee hotel creation workshops, to circus performances,” she says.

Dr Prendergast is performing a science comedy show all about pollinators next month, on December 9 at The Goodwill Club at the Rechabite.