Bees made their appearance about 120 million years ago. There are currently 25,000 species of bees documented worldwide, although it is believed the number might be closer to 30,000 species. Australia is home to about 2,000 of the world’s bee species. In addition to the native species, 6 species of bee have been introduced into Australia, this includes the European honeybee. Like most bees in the world, Australian native bees have a range of sizes, colours, nesting requirements,behaviours and complex social interaction. Australian native bees have evolved into 7 families all with their own behaviours, colours and traits. Of the 7 families of bees, one of those families only occur in Australia and nowhere else in the world. There is currently a lot of interest in the Australian Native stingless bee that is being used with great success to pollinate crops, increasing the yields by as much as 600%. Less is talked about the solitary native bees that by all accounts are even better at pollination than both the honeybee and native stingless bee.
Diversity & Importance
Apart from the varying colours of native bees they also build their nests in different places using different building material. Other differences include how they accumulate or carry pollen. Some bees have pollen sacs that they use to collect pollen, others cover their entire body with pollen, and others carry pollen in their crops. There is one species of bee (Persoonia bees) that only feed on the flowers of one plant and that plant can only be pollinated by this bee, no other. Thus there is a co-dependence between bee and plant for survival.
When it comes to nesting there are many differences. Some bees nest in mud on the ground. Others build a nest made from leaf cuttings or inhabit cracks or holes in pieces of wood. The way that bees behave when visiting a plant also differs: some are what are termed buzz pollinators, they vibrate their entire body when visiting flowers thus ensuring pollen all over their bodies and in the air. Tomatoes are a good example of a plant that requires buzz pollination to produce fruit. Some bees are parasitic and lay their eggs in the provisioned cells of other bee species.
The importance of bees is well known with at least 70% of all our food requiring some type of pollination. Therefore their survival is very closely linked to ours. It is no secret that there has been a significant decline in bee populations throughout the world that is cause for great concern.
The challenges bees face are numerous. The biggest of these being chemical. Many of the pesticides being used for crops and other plants have a detrimental effect on bee populations. Research done in the US has shown that bees have declined from 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million in 2008. This is more than 60%. The number of bee colonies per hectare has declined by 90% since 1962.
The biggest culprit is the group of pesticides named neonicotinoids which is chemically related to nicotine with nicotine-like effects. As a result, in Europe and the US, these pesticides have been banned. Secondly, pests such as Verroa Mite, Hive Beetle and others plague the honeybee and our social native bees. Luckily in Australia, we do not have Verroa Mite and our honeybees and honey is sought after for its purity and quality. The third threat facing bees is the ongoing destruction of habitat and thus people are encouraged to create habitat for the dwindling bee populations.
What We Can Do to look after our bee populations:
- We need to lobby our own government to ban the destructive chemicals that are not only harming our bee populations but all other beneficial insects as well. Landowners should be encouraged to change their cropping practices to more sustainable approaches using fewer chemicals.
- More people should be encouraged to keep bees and manage the hives in a responsible way to keep bee pests to a minimum.
- We should all be encouraged to create habitat and shelter for bees. Habitat creation includes planting a lot of native trees, grasses, and flowers for the bees to have an abundance of food. We should also provide shelters for bees to nest and multiply. An important aspect of a garden is to allow some of our vegetables and flowers to go to seed. Also, allow some spots in your garden to be wild with little cutting and neatening up, this is ideal habitat for bees.
Planting For Bees
Below is a list of plants that create food and habitat for bees. Please note this list is not exhaustive but indicative of the types of plants that bees like.
|Spotted Gum||Fan flower||Basil (particularly Thai or cinnamon)|
|Broad-leafed red iron bark||Pigeon Pea||Rosemary|
|White bottlebrush||Flax lilies||Broccoli|
|Silky oak||Paper/everlasting daisy||Egg Plant|
|Sugar gum||Tea tree||Mustard Greens|
To Learn More
List of resources below
The Australian Native Bee book – Tim Heard
Valley Bees – http://mrccc.org.au/valley-bees/
Bob Luttrell – bobthebeeman.com.au
Youtube – The hidden beauty of pollination
YCG will be hosting Keith Upward in February who will teach us how to build insect hotels for native solitary bees and other beneficial insects. Click here to book.