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Mapping Australian native bee foraging patterns in altered and natural landscapes using pollen DNA

Internationally there is emerging evidence of the need to retain both managed and wild bee populations to mitigate disruptions to pollination services. Foraging requirements for many bee species, however, are poorly understood. Rachele's research uses a new method of genetic analysis known as pollen DNA ‘meta-barcoding’ to investigate the foraging patterns of Australian native bees. The method is an extension of the barcoding technique used to create unique DNA ‘barcodes’ for plants, which allows for faster identification of plant material. Rachele is aiming to map plant-pollinator networks for several stingless and solitary bee species in different natural and altered landscapes, thus providing a better understanding of what vegetation is required to support such species and the pollination services they provide.

Previously, researchers would have to follow and observe direct interactions between bees and the plants they were visiting, or catch bees and take pollen from them for expert visual identification under microscope. With this new method, Rachele will be able to match entire seasons of pollen from hives and nests to databases of plant DNA barcodes from all the plants in the area, which is far more efficient. Rachele has recently returned from a trip to the University of Würzburg in Germany, where she worked with colleagues to develop the project’s meta-barcoding technique. 

Rachele works with farmers and private landholders, who host the stingless bee hives and wild bee habitats that she samples pollen from seasonally. With European honey bee populations in decline internationally, the research could suggest strategies to safeguard pollination in Australia. The project is supported by an Australian Postgraduate Award and funding from Rotary.

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