Bee study boosted by scholarship

Tobias Smith.

A childhood interest in bees has resulted in the receipt of a prestigious Queensland-Smithsonian Fellowship for a PhD student from Queensland University (UQ), Tobias Smith.

The fellowship, valued at $17,000, will allow Smith to further pursue his research on the diversity patterns of bees and flies in tropical rainforests areas, at Smithsonian Research Centres in North and Central America.

Smith is researching pollinator communities in Far North Queensland and exploring the impacts of habitat fragmentation and other landscape change. He has already collected a comprehensive data set on bees and flies during six months of surveys on the Atherton tablelands and aims at highlighting the significance of these insect communities in Queensland’s tropics.Receiving the fellowship will enable Smith to travel to Panama to work at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute with David Roubik, a world expert on tropical bees.

“There are about 2000 bee species native to Australia and an estimated 30,000 different species of flies. Pollinators, such as bees and flies, play an integral role in the functioning of our ecosystems and yet we know little about their communities in the Australian tropics, or how these communities respond to landscape change,” Smith said.

“The bulk of existing research stems from Central America, so I intend on using Panama as a source of reference communities, with which I will compare diversity patterns of Australian bee and fly communities, to find out more about what might be unique in the way our rainforest ecosystems operate.”

Smith will collect samples from rainforests and farming landscapes in Panama and compare these with data he has collected from Far North Queensland. He claimed there was a tendency to overemphasise the similarities between tropical regions around the world.

“This will be one of the first studies to do a direct comparison of the structure of pollinator communities between the two continents and identify some of the key similarities and differences,” he said.

The fellowship will also provide Smith the opportunity to work with leading fly expert, Christian Thompson at the Smithsonian Museum of National History in Washington.

“People often overlook flies as pollinators and one element of my research will be to determine whether flower-visiting flies are more abundant in Australian tropical rainforest ecosystems than in other areas,” Smith said.
Having completed his undergraduate degree in Tasmania in the area of plant ecology, it was his childhood fascination with bees and his interest in ecology that led him to a research degree at UQ.

With his research, Smith hopes to assist people to better understand the importance of Australian rainforest areas, pollinators, and the significance of human interactions with natural ecosystems.

“Pollination is a critical ecosystem process, and an important ecosystem service. We rely on pollination to maintain natural ecosystems as well as to enable crop production. The changes that we are making to landscapes around the world have the potential to have serious implications for pollinator communities, and pollination systems,” he said.
“Society derives a number of economic benefits from healthy, functioning ecosystems. We need to better understand how human practices are affecting communities that are directly involved in vital ecosystem processes, such as pollinator communities, so we can ensure that these ecosystems continue to function into the future.”

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