How many native bees fit into six car parking spaces?

Two-fifths of a tennis court. About six car park spaces. Three-tenths of an IMAX screen.

That’s the size of my front yard. Yet despite its limited expanse, and its densely urban situation 10 km north of Melbourne CBD, my yard is habitat for at least five species of native bees.

I began watching the bees closely last year in lockdown. The tiny, faintly metallic Sweat Bees (Homalictus) are most common. They appear first in Spring, visiting the Wahlenbergia, the Oxalis weed in the lawn, the strawberry, and rocket flowers; anywhere there’s pollen.

Later, the bold and stripey Lipotriches turn up. Like rock-climbers gripping an overhang, they lock themselves upside down to the anthers of dangling Dianella flowers, emitting short zip-like buzzes as they work with methodical focus.

Then when Summer days begin to blaze, the hyperactive Resin Bees (Megachile) arrive, with that distinctive ember thumb print on their behinds. They fire around the yard like deranged bullets, collecting pollen and scouting for cracks to nest in.

That such biodiversity endures in this landscape—once grassy woodland, now houses, roads, and light industrial—is a testament to these species’ resilience. But their persistence also begs the question of which species might now be absent, less tolerant of such drastic change.

The White-headed Digger Bee (Amegilla albiceps) is one such bee. Large, rotund, and covered in a pelt of golden and white fuzz, one has not been recorded in Melbourne for at least 70 years, perhaps longer. In a Summer free of travel restrictions, I’ll leave town to seek the White-headed Digger. But for now, I’ll keep discovering the delightful locals. It’s Homalictus season now.

This mini essay was originally written for the Urban Field Naturalist Project

The native bees of Moreland City

Bees are an effective treatment for depression. Well, my depression. And specifically the kind of malaise that comes from being locked out of our national parks and wild places for a second Spring running.

After monitoring my small front yard last Spring-Summer, I knew there was a set of small but diverse native bees that revealed themselves when the weather was warm and the yard was blooming. This year, I’ve decided to go deep and get to know them a whole lot better.

Getting even a basic knowledge of the 2000 native bees of Australia is a very big task. Getting to know the native bees of a single 50 km2 local government area (where I live) is much easier. So I set out to reconcile all the official and unofficial records for native bees within Moreland City LGA (just north of Melbourne CBD), to build a species list. And after going to that effort, I figured the local community would probably also like to have that information. So here is version one of the ‘Native Bees of Moreland‘ infographic (PDF link):

Building the inventory of Moreland’s bees

I started by pulling all of the records for bees in Moreland LGA from Atlas of Living Australia. After taking out the two introduced species, there were 12 species-level identifications plus 52 records for bees identified only to genus or subgenus. I then validated the species identified against their geographic ranges to exclude any obviously erroneous records. After that I reviewed iNaturalist records for bees in Moreland to see if I could identify any species that did not appear in the Atlas records.

My summary from this process is in the table below:

SpeciesStatusNotes
Amegilla (Zonamegilla) assertaReliably presentA. chlorocyanea also possible given distribution, observations in nearby LGAs, and iNaturalist records
Lasioglossum (Homalictus) sp.Reliably presentNo species-level identifications confirmed. But the genus is very common. At least two species are in Moreland. Possibly L. punctatus, L. brisbanensis, L.urbanus, L. sphecodoides
Hylaeus (Prosopisteron) littleriReliably presentUnlikely to be the only Hylaeus species in the area
Hyleoides concinnaRare and presentNo record since 1946, however one record from neighbouring LGA, Mooney Valley, 2017
Lasioglossum (Chilalictus) calophyllaeReliably presentCommon and recent records
Lasioglossum (Parasphecodes) hiltacusHistoricalNo record in the LGA since 1956
Lasioglossum (Chilalictus) lanariumHistoricalNo record since specimen from 1894
Lipotriches (Austronomia)Reliably presentNo identified specimens, but iNaturalist observations confirm the genus is present
Megachile (Eutricharaea) obtusaHistoricalNo record since specimen from 1906
Megachile erythropygaReliably presentPinned specimen from 1987. iNaturalist observations since
Megachile (Rhodomegachile) deaniiDoubtful recordFar outside known distribution. Must be erroneous.
Braunsapis sp.Doubtful recordB. unicolor and B. plebeia specimens from 1958. Very far from known distribution. Must be erroneous records.

Clearly, for a very populous area, there are very few records. This is the case for not only bees, but insects in general. An added challenge is that it is often difficult to diagnose bees to species level. Together, that means it has been very easy to find bees that have never been recorded in the area.

For example, the most common small bee in my yard is a tiny, dark Homalictus with a faint green wash on the thorax. It most closely resembles Lasioglossum (Homalictus) sphecodoides, but this species has never been recorded in the area – presumably because no one with the right taxonomic expertise has collected bees, or examined Homalictus specimens from Moreland. Indeed, no species-level identification for a Homalictus has been made for Moreland at all.

In the first-bee hunting trip I took outside my yard this Spring, I even recorded a new genus for the area. I caught both male and female reed bees – Brevineura sp., flitting around a flowering Diosma in the cemetary.

Then there are those historical records – bee specimens collected 60 – 100 years ago and not seen since. How tantalising! Perhaps they are extinct in the area? Or maybe they are just so rare and scarcely recorded. Well not long after finalising the infographic, I rendered it instantly out of date by finding a Lasioglossum (Parasphecodes) hiltacus for the first time in Moreland since 1956.

In just two short trips outside the house I’ve recorded a new genus to the area and made the first local observation of a species since 1956. While I’m aware that our small, arbitrary local government boundaries bear no influence on ecology, it does make a useful context for illustrating just how under-studied is our urban bee biodiversity.

Pollinators of Slender mint bush (Prostanthera saxicola var. bracteolata)

With Melbourne in lockdown and my change in career, time in the bush has been scarce for me this year. So it was with some relish that I recently headed out to Pyrete Range for a therapeutic communion with some native plants and pollinators. Most of Spring flowering had passed already, but I found a large population of Prostanthera saxicola var. bracteolata in peak flower. It’s a pretty restricted and uncommon shrub, so there are not likely to be many other floral visitor observations that have been made on this species.

The Slender Mint Bush (Prsotanthera saxicola var. bracteolata)

I spent a relaxed hour or two on a warm day wandering between plants, making informal observations of flower visitors, and photographing interactions. The most frequent floral visitor was a native reed Bee (Exoneura sp.) which was in high numbers and reliably visiting flowers. I must have observed around 50 or more foraging bouts by reed bees, crawling deep into the flowers for nectar and collecting pollen from the anthers in the upper corolla.

I have known reed bees to nest in fern fronds (in wet forest) and in rushes and sedges (in the high country). Quite where they are nesting in this dry sclerophyll habitat, I do not know. But there is obviously a very large population of them.

Exoneura native bee covered in pollen from Prostanthera saxicola var. bracteolata

Honey bees were also somewhat common visitors, as were some striking iridescent blue-green forester moths (family Zygaenidae). I saw six forester moth visits, but am not convinced they could be effective pollinators. They usually perch on the outside of the flowers, extending their proboscis into the base of the corolla for nectar, scarcely contacting the anthers.

One surprise was a single visit observed by this jewel beetle (Castiarina sp.), which was enjoying a feed on Prostanthera pollen.

Reed bee (Exoneura sp.) in flight

Does Australia’s farting bird pass the sniff test?

Legend has it that skulking on Austalia’s forest floors is a bird which forages for earthworms by farting. The hapless worms are so startled by the sensory assault of a Bassian thrush’s fart that their dismayed writhing puts them in mortal danger. Following a quick toot, the gaseous bird simply plucks whichever vermiform vittles volunteer themselves from their humic harbour.

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The Bassian thrush (Zoothera lunulata) is a bird of gullies and damp forest floors. Its predominant distribution is south east Australia. Image by Leo (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Today, for those who believe this marvel of natural history, the world becomes a little less magical.

Having incorrectly answered a trivia question on Bassian thrush farting, I was recently moved to fact-check this suspect nugget. My initial searches found nothing but a few webpages referring to one another, a book without citations, and nowhere could I find a reference to the primary source. A literature search also turned up nothing useful apart from a 2016 paper describing observations of Bassian thrush foraging ecology, yet there was no mention of the birds venting vapour.

Following a plea to Twitter’s sharpest bird and fart minds, the primary source was soon unearthed for all by Alex Berryman.

The original observation appeared in a 1983 paper published in South Australian Ornithologist. The reason I couldn’t find anything was that both the bird’s common name and scientific name have changed since the publication of that article.

So what is the evidence that has carried this remarkable phenomenon into Bassian thrush canon? The paper describes a behaviour of dipping the tail (“vent-dipping”), coincident with a noise “similar to a jet of air”. Probing of the soil surface for worms immediately follows. Between vent-dipping, the birds also “shiver”, and whilst shivering there is audible a “very soft sound somewhat similar to an inhalation gasp”. We aren’t told how many birds were observed doing this, and on how many occasions (the paper records 29 total observations of thrushes), so it is up to the reader to decide how common or deviant this behaviour is.

The speculative leap made from this unusual behaviour is that the fart is a strategy to induce the worms to suddenly convulse in repulsion, and reveal their location to the flatulent forager.

From Edington, JSL. 1983. White’s Thrush: Some aspects of its ecology and feeding behaviour. South Australian Ornithologist, 29, pp.57-59.

“The louder of the two noises described (that accompanied by a downward movement of the vent) may well be a ‘scare tactic’ to induce earthworms to contract reflexly (or other prey to move away) and so betray their presence to the Thrush through noise or litter movement and vibration. That these louder noises were made only during foraging, were antecedent to the probing and were more frequent with more intensive foraging, suggests that they were indeed somehow used to detect prey.”

Further, that shivering serves to reload the bird’s cloaca for another blast.

“If the source of the louder noise is assumed to be from the quick passage of air through the vent, then the softer, antecedent noises (each accompanied by a body shiver) might be explained as aerophagia – the gulping of air.”

Now this sphincter-percussion all sounds a bit bizarre, but is not without some scientific precedent. One expert to chime in on Twitter was Dr Dani Rabiotti, author of the book Does it Fart? The Definitive Guide to Animal Flatulence

Dani suggests this could be a case of ‘cloacal popping’, or simply a sick bird.

After scratching through the litter of evidence here, I feel it’s time to clear the air. There is simply no compelling evidence that the Bassian thrush uses farts to scare and catch worms. There are some curious but unquantified observations of a bird or birds at one site making some noises that could be due to aspiration and expulsion of air via the cloaca. There are no observations tying this to success in foraging. There have been no subsequent observations supporting the behaviour described in the original paper.

I’m afraid we, as lovers of truth and nature, must let the air out of this myth. Finally, we must all commit from now on, whenever we see a Bassian thrush, to carefully watch its arse, for science.

Project update: Contrasting bird and insect pollination through use of novel camera and genetic technologies.

I recently put together some material on my work for the University of Melbourne open day. As a teaser for the papers in current preparation, here’s an abstract and some visuals on the project.

While we simply do not know what pollinates many of Australia’s plants, there is good evidence emerging showing Australia to be a global hotspot for bird-pollination. This raises questions about what ecological and evolutionary factors might encourage plant lineages to adapt to use birds as couriers for their pollen. As well, we might ask what the outcomes are when a plant species ties its reproductive fortunes to a bird, rather than an insect.

My project employs custom cameras designed for motion-capture data capture of insect visitors to flowers, in order to demonstrate contrasting bird versus insect visitation in pairs of closely related native shrubs. Fine-scale population genetic analysis in these plants is revealing evidence for systemic differences in the movement of pollen under these different pollinator regimes.

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Styphelia stomarrhena is pollinated exclusively by birds.

The video below shows bird visitation by a number of honeyeater species, as well as the way in which floral morphology excludes bee pollinators from accessing pollen or nectar in Styphelia stomarrhena.

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Styphelia xerophylla is the sister species to S. stomarrhena and has evolved a tight relationship with a single species of native bee: Leioproctus macmillanii.

 

The videos below show motion-captured footage of the native pollinator of Styphelia xerophyllum, a female native bee (Leioproctus macmillani).

However the flowers are also visited by introduced honeybees (Apis mellifera).

 

A quick note on plant names: These species recently underwent taxonomic revision, moving them from genus Astroloma to Styphelia. It is rather new, hence the confusion over these shrubs apparently having two names.

Photos from the field: The Great Western Woodlands.

The Great Western Woodlands (GWW) form the largest tracts of temperate woodlands left on Earth. They hold approximately 30% of Australia’s Eucalypt species, and close to 20% of Australia’s plant species overall. This is truly an overlooked gem of Australian biodiversity. Last Spring I was lucky enough to visit for my work on pollination in our native plants.

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My target there was Eremophila, a genus of approximately 250 species largely confined to arid and semi-arid Australia. The GWW represents one of the centres of diversity for the genus, and so I chose it as a likely spot to set up a new study contrasting bird and insect pollination.

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Eremophila alternifolia was one of about 15 Eremophilas I saw flowering despite the drier than average conditions.

I was joined by perhaps the best kind of field assistant: a trained and accomplished professional ecologist who also happens to be my beautiful wife. After driving 2800km from Melbourne to field sites near Norseman, Western Australia, we spent a little under two weeks observing pollinators, surveying and mapping populations of plants, and collecting samples for population genetics.

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One of the many viewpoints south of the Nullarbor Plain.

I left in awe of the scale of these woodlands, in love with the peace and isolation they offer, and a bit concerned over their insecure future. Fully 60% of the GWW is tenured “unallocated Crown land”, unmanaged and open access. With more visitors, and more appreciation of the value of these vast woodlands, I hope we can find a way to secure more of it into ongoing reserve for future generations.

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The bluebush understory contrasts dramatically with red sand in many areas. Front left is one of my study species Eremophila scoparia.

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The whole region is dotted with salt-pans.

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As predicted from the small, violet flowers, Eremophila scoparia was visited by a host of native bees.

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Eremophila decipiens has characteristic bird-adapted flowers.

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Camera traps being expertly arranged by Samantha. Footage revealed that E. decipiens was being visited by a range of honeyeater species.

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Eremophila calorhabdos

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This spectacular Grevillea hid a massive bloom of flowers underneath it

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The inflorescences are held on stems that grow along the ground underneath the shrub. The very long style with pollen-presenter is suggestive of adaptation to birds, but mammals might not be out of the question.

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Eucalyptus loxophleba with daggy botanist for scale

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Majestic Salmon gum (Eucalyptus salmonophloia) with Samantha for scale.

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The serenity of wandering amongst giant Salmon gums at dusk was magic.

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Gleaming bark on Eucalyptus salubris

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Elevating on Lake Cowan. Photo: S. Vertucci.

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For the second half of the trip I was joined by collaborator and all-round legend Dr. Renee Catullo. I made us walk 10km to collect camp gear following a single poor decision.

Stay tuned as research results emerge. The study should tell us about the way pollen moves under bee and bird pollination, and how those fine scale patterns play out on a grand landscape level.

Wild yeasts are everywhere. Some of them will even make beer for you.

I spend a lot of time thinking about flowers and beer. Thinking about flowers is part of my job, and beer—that’s my current obsession. Thoughts collide, and I recently found myself dwelling upon what they have in common: that most marvellous microbe, yeast.

Yeast is that critical fungus that converts sugar solutions into beer and wine, and while we’ve got a handful of domesticated strains harnessed for beverage production, diverse and untamed wild yeasts are everywhere. They are in the air, on plants and animals, on your skin, in your hair. Wild yeasts are particularly abundant in flowers, and that’s because flowers provide a source of freely available sugar by way of nectar.

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Brewers/baker’s yeast (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Given this obvious overlap, a natural and totally irresistible work-hobby collaboration sprang to mind. Could I capture a wild yeast from flowers of my study species and use it to make beer?

Now I am not the first to try this. Wild yeasts and other microbes have had a long history of use in creating beer. Belgian brewers have perhaps the most celebrated and storied traditions in this area—their Lambic beers are created by leaving fresh, unfermented beer (wort) to be inoculated by whatever yeast and bacteria the atmosphere may gift them. Wild fermentation is a growing global trend now, with numerous craft breweries here in Australia (e.g. La Sirene and Wildflower), and internationally (e.g. Allagash, Trinity) establishing strong reputations for artisanal ales fermented with the help of local microbial biodiversity.

While the diversity of wild yeasts might be wide, not all are useful for producing beer however. Many yeasts die in the presence of moderate alcohol, many cannot ferment all but the simplest of sugars, many produce unpalatable by-products during fermentation.

So where are we most likely to find the best, most useful wild yeasts for beer production? This is where floral biology meets brewing.

Floral biology meets beer brewing

Nectars are produced by flowers as rewards for the service of pollinating animals. Because some flowers specialize in being pollinated by particular kinds of animals, they evolve specific traits that cater to the biology of those animals. For example, moth-pollinated flowers are white so that they are visible in low light, bee-pollinated flowers evolve UV-reflective runway markers to guide accurate landing and foraging, carrion-fly pollinated flowers smell like rotting flesh. In the same fashion, nectar is shaped by evolution to cater to the specific creatures most likely to consume it.

One way nectar becomes tailored to its consumer is by its sugar concentration, which varies wildly. At the concentrated end, exceeding 50% sugar by weight, nectar is very viscous and sticky and difficult to suck up through long or thin mouth parts. These nectars cater to insects with short tongues like bees, flies, wasps and beetles. On the other end you have dilute nectars, with 10 – 25% sugar concentrations, and these are perfect for birds to lap up. By a happy coincidence, the sugar concentrations of bird-adapted nectars are in the same range as unfermented wort. Recognizing this was what led me to try hunting for yeasts in the flowers of my study species—the bird-pollinated shrub Prostanthera walteri.

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Monkey Mint-bush (Prostanthera walteri)

Also known as the Monkey Mint-bush, this is a rare shrub growing amongst boulders on a few misty, granite peaks in remote East Gippsland, Victoria. I have been getting to know the plant for a couple of years now, using it in a study to understand how bird-pollination might differ from insect-pollination. And so on a January field trip to collect some data, I took the opportunity to collect some fresh flowers and take them back to my home lab (kitchen bench) for bioprospecting. At home, I made up a test wort: a low concentration malt-extract solution to mimic the conditions of beer, then I syringed out the nectar from several flowers and spiked the test jars with whatever might be living in the nectar.

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Kitchen-bench inoculation of test wort

And it worked. Most of the test jars began fermentation, and sniffing the results revealed various aromas of bright apple juice, white wine, earth and smoke. After months of re-culturing these initial samples I now have what I think are two different strains* of nectar yeast, one of which just produced its first beer.

So how does it taste?

Interesting, and not bad… and that’s all I’m willing to venture at this stage of the experiment! The yeast fermented very quickly, and chewed through 79% of the available sugars (which is more than some domesticated brewing strains). It has a somewhat Belgian Saison-like character, with strong pear and floral esters, some smoke and spice, and a very slight tartness.

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I was quite blown away at how well this yeast performed, fermenting much like a domesticated yeast, yet with a much bigger, bolder, dare I say “wild” flavour. It is stunning to think that it has probably existed in flowers in remote eastern Victoria for some thousands to many thousands of years, and one can just go and pick it up and persuade it to make interesting beer. And as I get to know it better, perhaps that beer will become both interesting and delicious.

 

Thanks to Ruth Barry (Boatrocker Brewery) for inspiring conversation and advice on this.

*These are technically mixed cultures, but I believe they each have come to be dominated by single strain of yeast.

We don’t know what pollinates most Australian plants.

Australian flowering plant diversity is legendary. Within an hour trip outside of our major metro centres anyone can quite easily witness unique Australian plant diversity in subtropical forest (Brisbane), grassland (Melbourne), and sandstone heath (Sydney). The diversity close to home is fairly well catalogued, and while it is hard to discover a new plant species, merely spending time around our native plants is very likely to reveal something that has never before been documented.

Something like 90% of our native plants rely on animals for pollination in order to set seed. Despite this, we simply do not know what pollinates most of our Australian native plants. The fact that the private lives for many of our native plants remains mysterious is due to their great diversity and the limited time and resources available to document what’s going on every day in the bush.

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Two native bees (Hylaeus (Rhodohylaeus) sp.) visiting flowers of the Broom Bush (Eremophila scoparia) in Western Australia.

And these uncharted interactions are totally critical for the functioning of our native ecosystems. Pollination underpins production of seed for the next generation, builds seed banks for post-fire regeneration, and also produces fruits and seeds that are critical food resources for our native animals.

Our ignorance of native pollination networks is therefore vastly out of step with their importance. This is illustrated in the example of bee declines, where we have all heard about the threats impinging on honeybees and pollination service for food crops, yet when it comes to Australian native bees, we lack the basic benchmark data needed to make a solid judgment about whether they too are declining*. It is therefore imperative that we commit effort to recording native pollination networks now, before they are lost to us. While it is hard for long term ecological monitoring projects to attract funding, ongoing development of automated imaging of flower visitors and large scale citizen science projects offer some promise for increased capability in filling this ecological blind spot.

But our ignorance here can also be thrilling. This means that every time you are in the bush, and witness an insect or bird taking nectar or pollen from a flower, there is a reasonable chance it has never been documented before. In my work with University of Melbourne I have been studying several native shrubs to understand their pollination, and for many of these species, it is gratifying to know that my work will be the first documented evidence of what is visiting them. But you don’t have to be a trained scientist to do this, you just need some patience, luck, and some fine weather. And while discovering and photographing an unusual native bee pollinating one of our native flowers won’t win you a Nobel Prize, I guarantee it will provide any enquiring mind with a hit of electric discovery every single time.

 

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Photographed on Mount Buffalo, Ken Walker (Victoria Museum) later identified this bee as the very rare Lasioglossum (Callalictus) callomelittinum. Few photos of it exist. This individual is buzz-pollinating a Fringe Lily (Thysanotus tuberosus).

 

Links for pollinator observations:

Bowerbird: Nature observations database

Wild Pollinator Count

Government pollinators repository

*But given native bees need native habitat, and native habitat is being cleared at astonishing levels, we can, with a high degree of confidence, say that native bees are declining too.

Photos from the field: Northern Sand-plains, WA

Peaceful woodlands of widely spaced gnarled Eucalypts lie in mosaic with spiny, scratchy, shrubby heath on the sand-plains north of Perth. They form one of the most floristically diverse regions on earth, with estimates of over 60 species of plant per 0.01 ha (an area smaller than half an an IMAX screen).

With so many species packed on top of one another, it is perhaps not surprising that in the effort to co-exist, some plants have been forced to flower outside the traditional Spring-flowering window. Winter in the sand-plains, while often wet and cloudy, is therefore anything but dull. While daily insect activity is very low, resident birds and honey possums must still feed, and so there are a comparatively high number of vertebrate-pollinated species in full flower at this time of year.

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Omphalina chromacea in its diminutive but sulphureous glory

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Bird-pollinated Astroloma glaucenscens excludes insect visitors with a tiny corolla-tube opening

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Pterostylis sanguinea: a sexually-deceptive trap-pollination orchid

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Astroloma stomarrhena, bird-pollinated. This individual has curiously short corolla tubes.

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Calothamnus sanguineus mixed in with Conostephium

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Calothamnus sanguineus

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An early-flowering Caladenia latifolia

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Diuris corymbosa

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Tiny pgymy Drosera

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One of the most common orchids in the area, but I’ve never seen it flower. Pyrorchis leaf.

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Very rare, and while this specimen is a little tired late in the season, the winter-flowering Cleopatra’s Needles (Thelymitra apiculata) is a stunning contrast of hues.

First video of bird pollination in Astroloma stomarrhena

I’m thrilled to share this never-before seen sequence of birds feeding on Astroloma stomarrhena, a winter-flowering shrub endemic to Western Australia.

Earlier this year, I decided A. stomarrhena looked like a perfect candidate for my new study on pollinators and gene flow. What I needed was a bird-pollinated species of plant, closely related to an insect-pollinated species. This one seemed to match all the criteria I needed, except there was no evidence that it was bird-pollinated. But with those long, tapered corolla tubes, and that pink-red coloration, I believed that birds absolutely had to be the pollinator.

The danger was, that while birds might be visitors, the plant could be somewhat “generalized”, and also use insects. This is pretty common, especially in places like Australia where European Honeybees (Apis mellifera) have invaded ecosystems that evolved in their absence, and honeybees will visit absolutely everything whether the plants are adapted to bees or not.

By deploying a new camera-trapping method that I am developing to record insect visitation, I was able to gather several days of pollinator observations, despite some very bad weather. After initially being baffled as to what honeyeater might visit such a low ground-hugging shrub, I got my answer after day one, when I captured video of my new favourite bird: the Tawny-crowned Honeyeater (Gliciphila melanops) feeding on the flowers. Furthermore, the recordings of honeybee fly-bys are sufficient to rule them out as pollinators.

This little result is a win on two fronts: a successful trial of new pollinator-monitoring cameras, and vindication of predicting pollinators from flower morphology.

Click here for the full HD video.

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