Are you worrying about what’s happening to the bees? If so, you’re probably thinking of just one type of bee: honey bees.
Recently there has been a surge in concern for honey bees, driven by fears about declines in bee populations. But the honey bee is only one of roughly 20,000 different species of bee, around 2,000 of which are thought to call Australia home.
With all the attention focused on honey bees, native bees and other wild insects tend to get overlooked — but these amazing Australian animals could be instrumental in helping us feed a growing world population.
The familiar yellow-and-black-striped honey bee is known to scientists by the name Apis mellifera. The honey bee is common throughout the world, and was introduced to Australia in 1822.
Australia’s many species of native bees come in a rainbow of colours, patterns and sizes from our smallest species, the diminutive yellow Quasihesma bee which is only 2mm long (slightly larger than the head of a pin), to our largest species, the great carpenter bee, which grows to 24mm in length.
The iconic blue and white blue-banded bees and the adorably fuzzy teddy bear bee are both common visitors to urban and suburban gardens.
Honey bees just don’t have the right buzz for some veggies
Like honey bees, native Australian bees also feed on nectar and pollen from flowering plants. Native bees can act as pollinators, fertilising plants by moving pollen from one flower to another.
About one third of the world’s food crops depend on insects for pollination and many other crops have higher yield and quality if visited by a bee.
Recent research suggests that wild bees and other insects — not honey bees — may be responsible for the lion’s share of pollination in agriculture. We don’t yet know if the same is true in Australia, but recent research already suggests that a range of native insects, including native bees, play an important role in the pollination of crops such as macadamia, blueberry and mango.
In some cases, native bees are actually better pollinators than honey bees. Flowers of tomato and eggplant only release their pollen when vibrated at a specific frequency. Honey bees are not able to buzz at the correct frequency and so cannot pollinate these types of flowers. But some Australian species — such as blue-banded bees, carpenter bees and teddy bear bees — are excellent buzz pollinators, vibrating their bodies at exactly the right frequency to release pollen and facilitate fertilisation.
As the world’s population continues to grow, there will be increased demand for insect-pollinated foods such as berries, avocados and nuts. Although honey bees are not threatened or endangered, there is concern that managed honey bee stocks may not be able keep up with the increased demand for pollination services.
Native Australian bees can help by providing a “plan bee” — a backstop against the loss or decline of honey bee populations and a way to make our pollination systems more resilient.
Harnessing the pollinating power of native bees may require a shift in the way we manage crops. In monocultures, where only one plant species is grown, flower bloom represents a wonderful buffet of food which rapidly turns into a barren food wasteland after the flowering has ceased. Ensuring there are ample flowers available before and after the crop’s main flowering period could help feed hungry bees during the lean times of the year.
Another strategy is to begin managing other bee species, such as stingless bees. There is already a rapidly growing group of stingless bee enthusiasts and keepers who could lend their expertise towards developing a strong alternative bee industry.
Like bees around the world, Australian native bees are under threat from habitat loss, insecticide misuse and climate change. Some of our native bees feed primarily on native plants, so the conversion of bushland into agricultural or urban land can remove their valuable food sources.
Improper use of broad spectrum insecticides can kill bees, along with other beneficial insects. Neonicotinoid insecticides have lately attracted attention as a potential cause of bee declines but it is important to remember that any broad spectrum insecticide — including organic preparations such as permethrin — can harm bees.
How you can help our native Australian bees
Bees need flowers, so one of the simplest things you can do to help our native bees is to plant as many flowers as you can. Aim for a mix of species, with something in bloom at all times of the year.
Some native bees feed primarily on native plants, while others are less picky. Native plant species such as callistemon, brachyscome and melaleuca are good choices, as are non-natives like perennial basil, salvias and lavenders.
Many bees and flies love brassicas (broccoli, kale, mustard), so allowing a few plants to go to flower will delight your buzzy friends!
And don’t worry if you live in a highly urbanised concrete jungle. Research has found that even inner city gardens can support a large number of bees as long as there are plenty of flowers.
If you plant it, they will come. In fact, some research suggests that cities may be important sites for bee conservation due to their lower insecticide uses and high numbers of flowers in places like private and community gardens.
No matter where you live, you can help protect our native bees by creating a beautiful flower garden. That’s a win-win situation for both humans and bees!
Dr Tanya Latty is an entomologist from the University of Sydney. Watch part one of Catalyst’s The Great Australian Bee Challenge on iview.