The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams” – Henry David Thoreau.

Did you know that Australia has over 2,000 native bee species?  They range in size from the 24 mm great carpenter bees (Xylocopa species) to the miniscule 2 mm Quasihesma, the world’s tiniest bee.

As an ecologist who primarily studies relatively large vertebrates (fishes, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals), it can be easy to overlook the tiny creatures. However, my wife recently gave me a multi-award winning book written by Dr Tim Heard entitled The Australian Native Bee Book. Heard is a giant among native bee researchers, and an accomplished author. I was glued to the book from start to finish.

The next day I began noticing insects in my yard that I’d never seen before. My eyes had been re-opened! My enthusiasm has infected my household and my children now race inside to alert us to the presence of ‘new bugs’.

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” – Rachel Carson

Bees ain’t bees

To demonstrate how easy it is to overlook native bees, I’ve provided two images below. One shows a European honeybee (Apis mellifera) and the other a ‘native dives colletid’ bee (Trichocolletes dives). Even the somewhat-vague common name of the native hints at its relative obscurity.

The following image is of the honeybee.

European honeybee. Source: “bee” by David Elliott – Under Creative Commons licence

Below is the ‘native dives colletid’ bee.

Trichocolletes dives. Source: “Native Bee” by Jean and Fred – Under Creative Commons licence

Would you notice the native bee if it landed on a flower beside you? Or would you simply think it was a common European honeybee?

Let me introduce you to a few more of Australia’s native bees.

The burrowers and their cuckoos

Cuckoo bees (Thyreus species) don’t make nests of their own, or rear their young. Instead, they seek out the nest of bees (usually) from the genus Amegilla and attempt to sneak their eggs into the unguarded brood cell within their burrow. Amegilla species tend to build their nests in close proximity, presenting plenty of targets for the sneaky cuckoo bees. Once a female Amegilla has finished her nest building and has provisioned it with food, she seals the entrance. The cuckoo bee larva hatches first, and by the time the ‘baby’ Amegilla hatches it will find nothing but a  fat Thyreus larva and a nest devoid of sustenance.

Below is the stunning, neon cuckoo bee (Thyreus nitidulus) and its primary host, the comparably-spectacular, blue-banded bee (Amegilla cingulata).

Thyreus nitidulus

Neon cuckoo bee. Source: “Neon Cuckoo Bee” by John Tann – Under Creative Commons licence

Amegilla cingulata

Blue-banded bee. Source: “Blue banded bee #1” by James Niland – Under Creative Commons licence

Next we have the domino cuckoo bee (Thyreus lugubris), and its host, the adorable teddy bear bee (Amegilla bombiformis).

Domino cuckoo bee. Source: “Domino Cuckoo Bee” by Jean and Fred – Under Creative Commons licence.

Amegilla bombiformis

The teddy bear bee. Source: “Teddy Bear Bee” by Debbie Ballentine – Under Creative Commons licence

I’m sure you’ll agree……..they’re marvellous!

Stingless bees

Australia has eleven species of stingless bees, belonging to two genera:

  • Austroplebeia – five species
  • Tetragonula – six species

Like honeybees, Australian stingless bees live in hives ‘ruled’ by a queen. Unlike honeybees, they’re native fauna and are not potentially harmful to Australian ecosystems.

They naturally occur in subtropical and tropical areas, and do extremely well in places with a high diversity of flowering plants, so suburban gardens are perfect. Of these, the most commonly kept by humans are T. carbonaria, T. hockingsi, and A. australis.

Tetragounula sp.

Tetragonula sp. visiting a Grevillea flower Source: ” Joel Anderson “Sugarbags” – 1st” by Campbelltown City Council – Under Creative Commons licence.

Heard refers to T. carbonaria as “the flag-bearer of stingless bees in Australia”. It produces comparatively large volumes of honey, by stingless bee standards (average of 850 ml a year), and its relatively southern distribution overlaps with approximately half of Australia’s human population.

T. carbonaria

Tetragonula carbonaria. Source: “Native bee sideshot” by James Niland – Under Creative Commons licence

The internal structures of Australian native bee hives are more complex than their honeybee counterparts. Possibly the most well-known is T. carbonaria’s, in which the brood comb (layers of cell in which they raise their larvae) spirals in an assortment of wonderful patterns. Others are less intricately patterned but just as wonderful.

Australian stingless bee species construct a number of variations of the structures that they use to contain pollen, honey, and their brood. Conversely, honeybees, store everything within sheets of homogenous ‘honeycomb’, with which most of you will no doubt be familiar.

Tetragonula carbonaria hive. Source: “Brood” by Stephan Ridgway – under Creative Commons licence

Stingless bees live up to their name. Unlike honeybees, they are unable to sting and are therefore more active in protecting their nest entrances. They achieve this by constructing long entrance tubes, which are defended by guard bees. The guards use their strong mandibles to bite soft-bodied intruders, or apply resin to hard-bodied attackers. In the video below, of one of my hives, you can see the guard bees moving in and out to protect the entrance and allowing foraging bees to come and go.

You may also have noticed the different coloured pollen on the bees’ legs as they return to the hive. Although the hive is generalised in its use of pollen and nectar (the bees within a hive will visit a broad range of species), individual bees specialise on one species only. In this way, each foraging bee transfers pollen within flowers of the same species. It’s easy to see why they are such effective pollinators!

What about reports that bee populations are declining?

It’s true. Insect populations around the world are in trouble.

For example, standardised insect surveys conducted across 63 nature reserves in Germany estimated a 75% decline in flying insect biomass over 27 years.

Recent work in Puerto Rican rainforest found massive declines in arthropods (insects, spiders etc.); simultaneous declines of arthropod-eating frogs, lizards, and birds were also observed.

Insects play a vital role in ecosystem health and function. As the eminent biologist, naturalist, and author E. O. Wilson recently asserted, insects and other small organisms, which are less conspicuous than vertebrates, are the “little things that run the world”.

Without them we’ll be in big trouble!

Five easy ways you can help native bees

It’s not all doom and gloom. We can turn things around. However, as much as I’d like to, I can’t save the world in a few hundred words. However, here are a a few easy ways you can help conserve Australia’s native bees.

  1. Learn more about them so that you can understand how to preserve their ecological requirements – You’re already off to a great start by reading this post!
  2. Avoid pesticides (if safe to do so) – Pesticides don’t just kill ‘pests’ they kill all manner of animals, many of which are beneficial. However, this needs to be weighed against human safety concerns. For example I live in areas where Dengue occurs, so I do wear insect repellent when I work in locations where I could be at high risk.
  3. Create foraging, roosting and nesting habitats – This could include building bee hotels, artificial hives, or mud banks, or planting species that they use for food and shelter. Some local Councils supply native plants, and even bee hives (e.g. Ku-ring-gai Council in Sydney). Clumps of flowers at least one-metre across (ideally more) are best. Plant a range of species to ensure nectar and pollen throughout the year and try to use locally sourced species (i.e. species that are native to the area where you live, not simply Australia). You could do it on a small scale in your yard, or on a grander scale by getting involved in revegetation projects.
  4. Preserve suitable habitats where they already exist – The simplest way …….and some of you will appreciate this…….is to let your garden tools get rusty! Wildlife, including bees, generally do better in structurally-diverse habitats, and what we see as clutter they see as a resource-rich paradise. For example lawn that’s a little unkempt has flowers for foraging pollinators. Hollow logs and piles of debris provide shelter and suitable microclimates for all manner of creatures. Exposed soil, sand etc. will allow burrowing bees to do their thing.
  5. Participate in citizen science projects- These projects are a great way to get outdoors, meet people, learn about nature, and do good for the environment by improving our understanding of native species and their ecological requirements. It’s also a great way to get children interested in nature.

Enjoy the wonderful world of bees 🐝

Author: Damian Morrant