Bees of Australia

Honey Bee on Texas Bluebonnet

European Honey Bee

Most of would probably think of a bee as the yellow and black stripped European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) which lives in hives, makes delicious honey and has a nasty sting.

It’s amazing to realise that the European Honey Bee is just one of the 20,000 species of bees found worldwide. They come in all shapes, sizes and have a variety of social structure and nesting habits. However only a few of these species produce and store honey.

The Australian Cloak and Dagger Cuckoo Bee use other bee species to raise its offspring. Photo by aussiegall (CC by 2.0)

The Australian Cloak and Dagger Cuckoo Bees use other bee species to raise their offspring. (Photo by aussiegall – Creative Commons 2.0)

Australia is home to about 1500 native bee species from the tiny Cape York’s minute Quasihesma bee which is less than 2mm to the Great Carpenter Bee of the tropical north and northern NSW which is 24mm long. The majority of these are solitary and stingless. There are some species of stingless native bees that produce honey but the majority of Australian bees don’t produce honey.

Bees are one of the main pollinators of flowering plants. Unfortunately the introduction of the European Honey Bee and Bumblebee  has led to the decline in many native bee species with a flow on effect to native plants.

Most flowers release their pollen passively, but others only release their pollen when the anther is vibrated rapidly. This process called buzz pollination involves the bee to clamping its legs onto the anther cone of the flower and contracting it’s flight muscles vigorously forcing the anther to release the pollen. The vibrations are so strong that you can actually hear the drill like sound in the clip below!

In slow motion you can really appreciate all the hard work the bee has to do just to get a bit of pollen!

Plants such as cranberries, blueberries and many members of the Solanaceae family including potatoes, egglants and tomatoes can only be pollinated by buzz pollination and only certain species of bees are capable of this.The European Honey Bee is incapable of buzz pollination.

Teddy Bear Bee (by Louise Docker - Creative Common 2.0)

Teddy Bear Bee (by Louise Docker – Creative Common 2.0)

In the Northern Hemisphere Bumblebees are commonly used for buzz pollination of crops. Bumblebees are not native to Australia and so far have only been introduced to Tasmania. Some agricultural groups are lobbying for the Bumblebee to be introduced to mainland Australia but conservations are concerned that the introduction of another non-native bee species would be disastrous for native bees and plants.  Fortunately research has shown that several species of Australian bees, such as the blue-banded bee, teddy bear bee and carpenter bee are also capable of buzz pollination.


Tips to attract native bees to your garden:

1. Plant flowering native plants such as peas, eucalypts, bluebells, Christmas Bush, Boobialla, Lillies, Guinea Flower etc. Find out which native plants are suitable for your area at Backyards for Wildlife.

2. Provide nesting places. Most native bees nest in hollows in wood or in the ground. You can build a bee hotel out of bits of wood and/or leave a bit of bare ground without mulch.

After attending a talk on native bees Sustainable Communities member Jo and her grand daughter Naomi have started their own bee hotel. Jo writes:

My grand daughter, helped make the ground floor of our native bee hotel at my place after school. We used what was already in my shed: an old chair, a plastic crate fastened with cable ties and an old BBQ cover for a roof. It is facing east, because native bees like the morning sun.

Inside are lengths of bamboo, closed with a node at one end and open at the other, bundled together with cable ties. Another version we plan to add will be made up of lengths of plastic pipe, filled with paper straws, sealed at one end by heavy duty packing tape and sprinkled inside with sand so the bees don’t get stuck on the tape.

Naomi said the bee hotel needed a sign, so she made one to guide the bees there. We are looking forward to their arrival!beehotelLearn how to build your own bee hotel here.

3. Do not use insecticides.

This post was inspired by a talk on Native Bees by Dr Remko Leijs  held at the Marion Council’s Common Thread event.  The Sustainable Communities Grow Grow Grow group will be hosting a similar native bee talk in October – details will be available soon – I highly recommended you attend and learn more about these amazing creatures.

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