Wild and Wonderful: Native Bees in Australia
It goes without saying, I love bees of all shapes and sizes. And although it’s beyond amazingl that honey bees have entered the popular consciousness and people are starting to understand how absolutely vital they are for human and environmental survival, indigenous bee species across the world go underacknowledged. Native bees are hugely diverse across the globe and often possess unique abilities, but due to their smaller populations and less understood needs, their food supplies and homes can be threatened, with some species even facing extinction.
Australia is also home to a number of very special, unusual and useful native bees, that are an important part of the bushland. Before the introduction of honey bees in 1823, there were, and still are, some 1600 species of indigenous bee in Australia! They come in all shapes, sizes and colours, be that black, yellow, red, metallic green, blue polka dotted and striped! Some are fat and furry, while others are sleek and shiny. At their extremes, Australia’s tiniest native bee of just 2mm comes from Cape York and is known as the Quasihesma bee; on the other end of the spectrum, Australia’s largest native bee, the 24mm long Great Carpenter Bee, can be found in the tropical north and northern NSW. Due to their general small size, some native bees can be confused for flies.
While there is obviously great diversity among species, there are some similarities between the native bees of Australia. Unlike the introduced honey bee species that tend to live in large colonies, these native varieties are usually solitary, and raise their young in burrows in the ground or in tiny hollows in timber. There are also 11 species that do not sting (genera Tetragonula and Austroplebeia). Interestingly, the honey of these native stingless bees has been found to be delicious and is becoming a local delicacy, making stingless beekeeping more popular.
The ten major groups of native bees are: Stingless Bees; Yellow and Black Carpenter Bees; Green Carpenter Bees; Reed Bees; Blue Banded Bees; Teddy Bear Bees; Leaf-Cutter Bees; Resin Bees; Homalictus Bees; and Masked Bees. Preferring warm climates (and not residing in Victoria), the Stingless Bee is the only bee currently available for sale in Australia. Beekeepers transfer the nests into small hive boxes and can propagate the nests by splitting these hives. These hives can be used for both honey production and crop pollination; however, the hives will only survive in the cooler climates of NSW, the ACT, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania with special artificial support. I’m always excited to learn more about less-known creatures (especially bees of course!), so let’s keep learning together about native species so we can help them stay a vital part of our local ecosystem.