The short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) is the rarest of four bumblebees introduced to New Zealand from the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century for pollinating clover and other important crops. Recently the same species has gone extinct in the UK, the last recording of it there being in 1988. Not surprisingly, the New Zealand population has been proposed as a source for re-introduction of this species to the UK. However, very little is known about the biology of this species and research is hampered by the difficulty of exact identification as it co-occurs with two morphologically similar species (B. hortorum and B. ruderatus).
Dr Roddy Hale at Lincoln University and Dr Marie Hale at the University of Canterbury developed an undergraduate summer scholarship program to developed simple PCR-based molecular identification tools for these species. In a recently published paper in Conservation Genetics the student Lucy Stewart was able to rapidly, cheaply, and reliably identify not only B. subterraneus, but also the two other similar-looking species. We combined a species-specific internal primer with two non-specific external primers that amplify 426 bp of the Bombus Cytochrome b gene, to produce a presence/absence PCR test that is combined with a positive internal control. The result is a set of molecular tools that will allow us to separate three cryptic species and facilitate basic research on the biology of New Zealand’s rarest bumblebee.