The rarest bee on earth is Pharohylaeus lactiferus (P. lactiferus). It is the only species in the genus Pharohylaeus (Hymenoptera, Colletidae). 

This bee is native to Australia, but only six individual bees were ever previously identified. The most recent one was in 1923 which is almost a century ago.  It had not been seen in so long that it was thought to be extinct.

A lone Australian researcher named James Dorey rediscovered the “masked” bee. He is a doctoral candidate at Flinders University, and made the chance discovery during fieldwork in the state of Queensland. Then he decided to dedicate himself to searching for P. lactiferus and conducted a survey of New South Wales and Queensland.

The information Dorey turned up in his research is not good news for these bees. Forest fires and deforestation could make them go extinct for good.

This 1:11-minute video by Mysterious Worlds shows the masked bee. Please note the opening images as shown below of the huge bee are incorrect. The video makers confused the masked bee with a giant Australian bee. The video changes over to show live footage of the masked bee, which is roughly the same size as the European honeybee (Apis mellifera), an invasive species in Australia. 



Dorey sees the rediscovery of P. lactiferus as a lucky accident. He knew it had not been seen in a very long time, so he kept an eye open for it as he “sampled” his way up the east coast. Once he discovered the first specimen, he had a starting point and decided to search for more.

Over the next five months he surveyed 245 sites across Queensland and New South Wales searching for the masked bee. He zeroed in on the flowering plant vegetation that was similar to where the first masked bee was discovered. He watched flowers and did butterfly net sweeps over the blooms.

The survey paid off, revealing three geographically isolated populations of the masked bees across the Australian east coast. All three groups live in tropical and subtropical rainforest with specific vegetation. Dorey thinks that these masked bees are quite dependent on firewheel trees (Stenocarpus sinuatus) and Illawarra flame trees (Brachychiton acerifolius). 

Dorsey’s survey has resulted in identifying more of these bees than ever before, but there is no way to know whether the masked bee populations are increasing or decreasing, due to poor historic records.

Due to their strong preference for certain habitats, these bees live in isolated populations. Dorsey suspects that deforestation and an increasing number of severe wildfires are adding to the isolation of the masked bee. He explains that the rainforests where the bees were found have undergone habitat destruction and fragmentation, so there is less habitat available to them. This makes it harder for them to move around within what is left.

He adds that climate change, with rising temperatures, will worsen the wildfires and deforestation problem. This paints a grim picture of their chances of survival. As certain fragmented and isolated groups of P. lactiferus go extinct, they will not be able to recolonize from others that are too distant or also in similar shape.

Dorsey says protecting these scattered habitat fragments is key to their survival. But to do that, their numbers must be tracked as well as changes in their habitats.

He says that if we don’t go looking for species, we would not notice when they are in decline or be able to protect such species. This gives us a broader understanding of what is going on in ecosystems.

To read the study that was published online on February 25, 2021, click here, and scroll down you'll see some photos of the masked bee.