Australian Native bees

Image supplied by Jeremy Jones

In recognition of the vulnerability of European honey bees to colony collapse events in other parts of the world, as well as increasing pressure brought about by climate change, chemical use, and habitat disturbance and reduction, Australian horticultural industries are actively investigating the use of Australian native bees as pollinators. While offering benefits for increasing populations of individual species of native bees, little is known regarding biosecurity considerations associated with larger scale production or movement of native bee species, raising potential environmental concerns.

 

Australian native bee industry/community

There is an emerging native bee industry in Australia, with an estimated 1,158 beekeepers managing 11,971 native bee nests or hives (Agrifutures, 2022). Despite the growing interest in managing native bees as commercially viable businesses, the vast majority of these beekeepers are described as hobbyists, as evidenced in the membership base of the Australian Native Bee Association (ANBA).

As an emerging industry with mostly hobbyists, the value of the Australian native bee industry is difficult to describe. Accurate estimates for the value of the native bee industry do not yet exist. However, the Australian native stingless bee industry is suggested to be valued at $2.5m annually (Agrifutures, 2022).

The importance of native bees to broader ecological processes in Australia

Importance of native bees in sustaining native plant communities and ecosystems

Native bees play an important role as pollinators of many Australian plant species. While the majority of native bees are generalists and provide pollination across a wide range of species, some Australian bee species are oligolectic, meaning they have specialized relationships to one or a few plant species whereby they are the sole pollinator species (Batley and Hogendoorn 2009). These relationships support a fragile balance and disruptions to the health of the pollinators could disrupt the viability of plant populations.

Indigenous connection, culture, and use

Native bees are culturally important across many Indigenous lands and different communities have cultural values specific to their customs and the species of native bees on their Countries. In some communities wax and propolis from stingless bees is used to attach ceremonial decorations, to bind spears, and to coat string. The stingless bee honey can be used on skin sores caused by malnutrition and is used as an energy boost before walking long distances.

Native bees as pollinators

In subtropical and tropical Australia, where native bees are better adapted than European honey bees, there is increasing interest to investigate Australian native bees as either a supplement or a main source of pollination. In these areas, social bees are being managed in hives in increasing numbers and used to pollinate crops such as watermelon and macadamia.

In addition to the use of social bees for pollination, several native bee species, including blue banded bees and Carpenter bees, are buzz pollinators, meaning after landing on a flower they vibrate their flight muscles to loosen pollen from anthers. Australian native plant species that need buzz pollination are Senna, Hibertia and Dianella spp. Important commercial crops such as tomatoes, capsicums and eggplants also respond well to buzz pollination.