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Bees Down Under!

By Darryl Cox, Science & Policy Officer

I recently went on a trip of a life-time to Australia to visit my family for Christmas and take in the sights. While I was there I was delighted to be able to meet up with Aussie bee researcher, Dr Toby Smith of Queensland University. Toby and I met up on an uncharacteristically overcast day in Brisbane and explored a few different city farms. The aim was to find some of Australia’s native buzz-pollinating bee species.

Blue-banded bee (Amegilla cingulata) - Photo credit: Chiswick Chap (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The first place we went to had plenty of tomato and chili plants in bloom – the ideal spot to see some buzz-pollination in action. We weren’t disappointed either – as before long we noticed numerous bees darting at high-speeds, zipping between flowers and chasing each other around. These were Blue-banded bees (Amegilla spp) and they really are striking insects. Their colourful metallic eyes and darting motion reminded me of the flower bees we have in the UK – to which they are close relations. These bees are highly capable buzz-pollinators (the much coveted skill that bumblebees are so effective at), however they go about it in a totally different way to bumblebees. Instead of gripping the flower with its limbs and mandibles, and using its flight muscles to rapidly vibrate the flower – these quick flying bees grab hold of the flower and head-butt it at high frequency to force the pollen out. Some research suggests the technique deployed by blue-banded bees is even better at pollinating tomato plants than the way bumblebees do it.

Photographing them was an issue – they are really fast! I did manage to get a short video clip though – listen out for the characteristic high pitched buzz as they head-butt the tomato flower’s anther cone to dislodge the pollen.

 

**Note** There are no bumblebees native to Australia and the Aussie authorities would very much like to keep it that way, although there are Buff-tailed bumblebees in Tasmania after they were illegally imported there in the 1980’s – most probably from New Zealand, quite surreptitiously following research from the Netherlands which showed how good bumblebees are at pollinating tomatoes. Despite the ecological issues a foreign pollinator can cause (passing on new diseases to native pollinators, pollinating sleeper weeds, and disrupting plant-pollinator relationships), tomato growers in Tasmania are keen to be able to use their non-native friends to pollinate their tomatoes officially in glasshouses. Their argument is that bumblebees are already there so they may as well put them to use. On the mainland however, the search is on for a native pollinator which can do this work without the same negative ecological consequences. Blue-banded bees are a potential candidate, however in order to be successfully deployed, research is required to figure out exactly how to rear these bees so that they will fly happily in glass houses and poly-tunnels. Should these efforts fail, there are plenty of other candidates to try out as Australia boasts over 2000 different bee species – that’s 10% of the 20,000 described species on the planet!

Unfortunately the weather began to grumble and we had to take shelter. Not to worry though as we avoided the rain on a journey to Toby's place just out of town. There Toby was able to show me his main interest – native Aussie stingless bees. He had several small hives consisting of boxes which could be split along a horizontal seam, with an entrance hole in the bottom half. These bees are mainly kept for enjoyment and the provision of pollination services, they only produce a tiny amount of honey which can be harvested – known locally as sugar-bag honey. Toby informed me that this honey actually contains more anti-microbial activity than Manuka honey, although so little is produced that it probably isn’t commercially viable to sell. He did offer me a free taster though and I was very impressed – it had a definite sharper destinct tartness than honeybee honey and a moreish, lasting after-taste.

These small black bees have totally fascinating lives. As the colony gets bigger, scouts are sent out to neighbouring hives on reconnaissance missions. These scouts bring back information about the size of the colony they have visited, until eventually one day the colony decide to mount an attack. When this happens you can literally see a cloud of bees outside the hive – the approaching assault is met with a full defensive swarm. Bees from each side collide into one another and fall to the ground. While clasped together the bees are able to sense whether or not the other bee is a nest mate or a foe. Nest mates are released to allow both bees to get back to the fight. Foes are held on to and battled to the death, usually the death of both bees. This is why those early scouting missions are so important – because it is normally the colony with the sheer numbers which will win the fight. For this reason - even the very young bees are not exempt from their defensive service.

Photos - left: Traditional Stingless bee hive set up, right: adapted set up using a rescued colony's original shelter.

In the wild these bees often make their homes in hollowed out trees and other large cavities. Toby showed me a colony which had been rescued after the branch it resided in fell from its tree. He managed to glue this branch back together and adapt it with a couple of hive boxes at either end so that he can keep the bees. While I was there Toby opened up the small box at the top of the branch to see if there was any honey to be harvested. There wasn’t on this occasion, however, opening up the hive provoked a defensive response from the bees – much to Toby’s surprise. As he opened the box, some of the bees escaped and when they tried to return to their hive via the opening in the box below – they triggered a defensive swarm to erupt from the box. In this case all of the bees were nest mates and any that fell to the ground clasping on to each other quickly let go again. It was great to observe and you can see the scale of it in the video below.

Before long we were both covered in bees – they can’t sting, but they can bite so we took refuge around the corner to have a look at an observation hive which Toby had built. The video below gives an inside view to the workings of a stingless bee hive. As the video progresses you can see structures made out of resin (which they collect from Eucalypts) and the lighter coloured brood cells which the workers are tending to.

From there we went on to meet Toby’s colleague, Dr Tim Heard, an Australian native bee expert, for lunch to talk about Aussie bees and (of course) bumblebees. Toby and Tim were keen to learn more about how the Trust operates, while I was really interested to know more about their stingless bee business – which looks and sounds like great fun.

As well as generously buying my lunch, Tim also kindly gave me a copy of his book ‘The Australian native bee book’ – which I took great pleasure in reading through over the course of my trip and would highly recommend to bee enthusiasts at home and down under! As well as offering a beautifully written beginners guide to bees and pollination, the book depicts some of Australia’s fascinating bee species and is a user manual for anyone interested in keeping their own stingless bees for pollination and sugar-bag honey harvesting.

I’d like to thank Toby and Tim for a fantastic day learning about Aussie bees – it was a pleasure to meet two incredibly knowledgeable bee-enthusiasts on the other side of the globe!

Dr Tobias Smith (right)  is a researcher at Queensland University, stingless beekeeper and founder of Bee Aware Brisbane.

Dr Tim Heard (middle) is a retired researcher, stingless bee keeper, author of ‘The Australian native bee book’ and runs Sugarbag bees; a business producing stingless bee hives and colonies.

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