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To bee or not to bee? Unique bumblebee in Arctic is identified as new species

By The Siberian Times reporter
03 October 2017

Endemic to the remote island of Novaya Zemlya, it survived the Ice Age here, scientists believe, the only creature known to have done so.

Glacier bumblebee lived through the Ice Age on this barren Arctic island. Picture: Federal Center for Integrated Arctic Research

It was first recorded in 1902 but conclusive DNA evidence has now established that honey-making Bombus glacialis - or glacier bumblebee - is a separate species.

The findings - to be the subject of a major scientific paper - end a long running academic debate on this remarkable bee's status. 

More than that, they indicate that during the Ice Age Novaya Zemlya was either wholly or partially free of glacial cover, allowing at least some refugia where the rare insect could live, say scientists.

In other words, this species - with a distinguishing wide orange stripe on its underside - lived through the Ice Age on this barren Arctic island. To bee or not to bee? Unique bumblebee in Arctic is identified as new species


To bee or not to bee? Unique bumblebee in Arctic is identified as new species


To bee or not to bee? Unique bumblebee in Arctic is identified as new species
The discovery of the glacier bumblebee in Novaya Zemlya also gives hope that other species could have been preserved in a natural refugium in the icea. Pictures: International Union for Conservation of Nature, Atlas of the European Bees 


Prevously, it was believed there were no refugia at all between the United Kingdom and the Taimyr peninsular in northern Siberia. 

Now it seems Novaya Zemlya provided a kind of oasis in this epoch of cold. 

Today, this seems strange. 

The island is so cold and barren - inhabited by only about 2,500 people apart from military and meteorological bases -  it was seen as an ideal location in Soviet times for atomic tests. 

The glacier bee survived these, too. 

Vitaly Spitsyn, of the Federal Center for Integrated Arctic Research, Russian Academy of Sciences, said: 'We sequenced it, and it really turned out to be a separate species.'Federal Center for Integrated Arctic Research, Russian Academy of Sciences


Federal Center for Integrated Arctic Research, Russian Academy of Sciences


To bee or not to bee? Unique bumblebee in Arctic is identified as new species

To bee or not to bee? Unique bumblebee in Arctic is identified as new species
There are claims that Bombus glacialis exists on other outlying Arctic islands, for example Wrangel, and the Kanin peninsula and Kolguev island. Pictures: Federal Center for Integrated Arctic Research


Earlier, it was thought to have been a subspecies of Bombus lapponicus, which lives across the tundra from Norway to Chukotka in the Russian Far East. 

'The last glacial maximum was 22,000 years ago, with glaciers lying all the way across Northern Europe,' Vitaly Spitsyn said.  

'Finding the bumblebee in Novaya Zemlya... means that there were either no glaciers or some spots without glaciers, a few refugia where life could have been preserved. 

'Until now, it was believed that there were no refugia from England to Taymyr, with the entire fauna of this space completely wiped out 22,000 years ago - and that what we see now are migrants that moved here over the past 10,000 years.'

He insisted 'no new species could have formed over this time.

'Three million years are necessary for a species to be formed.'

There are claims that Bombus glacialis exists on other outlying Arctic islands, for example Wrangel, and the Kanin peninsula and Kolguev island.

However, so far there is no DNA proof of this. 

The discovery of the glacier bumblebee in Novaya Zemlya also gives hope that other species could have been preserved in a natural refugium in the ice.

A research article is being prepared now and will be published in Polar Biology journal.

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