The 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires took a heavy toll on our native wildlife. The footage of charred koalas being pulled from the wreckage of their homes is emblematic of the three billion animals that were killed or displaced due to the extreme fires. Native bees were a hidden casualty of the bushfires that we cannot continue to ignore.
The Metallic green carpenter bee was recently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species due to extreme mortality rates during the Black Summer bushfires. This outcome serves as a poignant reminder that climate change is harming every level of the ecosystem.
Sometimes referred to as the 'jewel of nature', the Metallic green carpenter bee is one of our most iconic native bees. Clocking in at a body size of approximately 2cm, this thick and eye-catching insect has been listed as extinct in mainland South Australia since 1906 and Victoria since 1938. They survived in relatively intact woodland areas of Kangaroo Island, Sydney, and the Great Dividing Range, until the Black Summer bushfires tore through their homes in 2019-2020.
The Black Summer bushfires destroyed 50% of the species' NSW range, and 95% of their Kangaroo Island range. Scientists believe that the extraordinary habitat destruction from these fires contributed to more than 50% population decline in the species, overall. This rapid habitat and population decline, coupled with historical local extinctions was enough to get this iconic species internationally recognised as endangered on the IUCN Red List in December 2023.
In the fight for their life, Metallic green carpenter bees are fortunate to have researchers like Dr Tobias Smith, dedicating their careers to protecting our unique pollinators. Dr Smith, a Queensland-based researcher with a self-proclaimed 'obsession' for native bees, is concerned that the story of the Metallic green carpenter bee is a harbinger for declines in other native pollinators.
Of the 20,000 bee species in the world, Australia is fortunate to be to home over 2000. As Dr Smith puts it, our bees are "diverse and amazing", coming in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours. He believes native bees are a "fundamental pillar of the ecosystem", although "people don't often recognize native bees for what they are."
"They're out there quietly doing their thing, holding our ecosystems together by being involved in the process of pollination, " said Dr Smith.
As is so often the case with environmental science, native pollinator conservation reiterates the importance of using the precautionary principle, also known as the better-safe-than-sorry principle.
"While we don't have a lot of data on native bee populations over time to look for declines, we do know that there's habitat loss going on around the continent, and that's going to impact native bees," said Dr Smith.
"Habitat loss for native bees can come at various scales. We could be talking about the loss of an entire ecosystem, which would obviously be devastating for native bees, but we can also be talking about the loss of just one single native tree in an urban environment. When that native tree flowers each year, it might produce food for thousands of baby bees."
"We don't specifically know a lot about how climate change might affect Australia's native bees. But we know some broad things about bees and climate change. One of those is flowering times being different to emergence times for native bees. So as warming occurs, flowers can flower earlier. Bees may then come out at their normal time and we can get a mismatch that can lead to less food for the bees and less pollination for the plants."