Australia has over 1,500 species of native bees in a rich diversity of colours and sizes. These species are a valuable resource for the future for Australian agriculture. Techniques for keeping the stingless Australian native bees are well established and research is underway into the use of blue banded bees for greenhouse tomato pollination.
Australia currently depends almost exclusively on one bee species, the introduced European honeybee, Apis mellifera, for its honey production and crop pollination. However, Australia has over 1,500 species of native beesthat are a vital resource for the future for agriculture.
Diversity of Australian Native Bees
Australian native bees range in size from the tiny Quasihesma bees of Cape York, less than 2 mm long, to the large and furry Great Carpenter Bees, Xylocopa, 24 mm long. Some species are shiny and hairless while others have thick feathery hair.
Above: A magnificent photograph of a 24 mm long Great Carpenter Bee kindly contributed by Peter O.
For general information and photographs on Australian native bees, visit the Aussie Bee website: http://www.aussiebee.com.au
The vast majority of Australian native bee species are solitary. This means that just one female bee lives in each individual nest. She excavates the nest, builds and provisions brood cells and lays eggs without assistance from other females. Most adult solitary bees die at the end of autumn and only the immature young (larvae) remain alive in the nest burrows during the winter. Leafcutter bees, Megachile , blue banded bees [ video 1 ], Amegilla , and teddy bear bees [ video 2 ], Amegilla, are examples of solitary Australian native bees.
Other Australian native bees are semi-social. A number of female bees may cooperate to build a nest burrow and guard it but each female lays eggs within the nest. The carpenter bees, Xylocopa, are examples of semi-social bees.
Finally, about ten species of Australian native bees are true social bees. These bees have a queen, drones and hundreds or even thousands of sterile workers in each nest. Generally only the queen bee lays eggs in the nest. These nests are active all year round though the bees may be rather dormant during cold weather. Australia’s social native bees are all in the genera Trigona [ video 3 ] and Austroplebeia and they are stingless bees. They are found in warm areas in the northern and eastern parts of Australia. The native stingless bees produce an aromatic honey but in much smaller quantities than that produced by commercial honeybees.
For further information about Australian native bees, visit:
Are There Any Bumblebees in Australia?
Australia has no native species of bumble bee. Australia’s large furry native carpenter bees, teddy bear bees and blue banded bees are sometimes mistaken for bumblebees. However, bumblebees are a very different group of bees with a different nesting behaviour. See: Aussie Bee’s guide on how to identify a bumblebee .
There is, however, a widespread feral population of European Large Earth Bumblebees, Bombus terrestris, on the island of Tasmania in southern Australia. These feral bees were first detected in the capital city of Hobart in 1992 and have since spread over most of Tasmania.
Keeping Australian Stingless Bees
Techniques for keeping the stingless bees (genera Trigona and Austroplebeia) were first developed by Australian beekeepers over 40 years ago. One of the earliest pioneers was Queensland’s Bill Milne who developed a box design with inner and outer layers separated by an air space for added insulation.
Techniques soon followed for propagating stingless native bees by splitting the nest. This technique was first published by Dr Tim Heard in 1988  . The nest must be housed in a hive with separate top and bottom compartments to allow splitting to be done efficiently  .
A wide variety of box designs are currently in use  . Many beekeepers add foam covers for extra insulation. John Klumpp developed a cylindrical design made from PVC pipes with specialized features to allow flow through ventilation  .
Australian stingless bee honey has been harvested by Australian Aboriginal people for thousands of years and is known as ‘Sugarbag’. Today, beekeepers in warm areas such as Queensland can extract Sugarbag by adding a honey super box to their hive design. Dr Tim Heard has added much expertise to the modern techniques of Sugarbag extraction and sells Sugarbag honey. For further details, visit Tim Heard’s website: http://www.sugarbag.net
Australian stingless bees have also been found to be efficient pollinators of some agricultural crops. One of the earliest pioneers of crop pollination with Australian stingless bees with 30 years of experience is Tom Carter of Rockhampton, Queensland. Stingless bees have been successfully used to pollinate field crops of watermelons, avocados, lychees and macadamias. They can also be used to pollinate crops inside greenhouses.
Native Bee Pollinators for Agriculture
Australia is highly dependent for crop pollination on the introduced European honeybee, Apis mellifera. However, events overseas have shown how vulnerable honeybees are to destructive pests and diseases. For example:
• The Varroa Mite, Varroa destructor, has caused major declines in feral and managed honeybee populations in many overseas countries. This mite has now spread as far as New Zealand, very close to Australia.
• The South African Small Hive Beetle, Aethina tumida, caused a loss of 20,000 commercial honeybee hives in Florida in the two years following its introduction there. This exotic beetle was found in New South Wales in 2002and has now become established throughout much of eastern Australia, though its spread was limited in the earlier years by persistent drought conditions.
• Little understood factors known as ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ have also recently been causing severe and widespread losses of honeybees in USA and Germany.
It is urgent that alternative pollinators be developed in Australia to support Australian agriculture in the likely event that our commercial honeybees are impacted by pests and diseases such as those listed above.
Introducing exotic bees such as the European bumble bee, Bombus terrestris, to Australia for crop pollination poses serious and, in our opinion, unacceptable environmental risks. A better option would be to develop alternative pollinators from our native insect species.
Suitable alternative pollinators amongst our Australian native species include the following:
• The stingless social bees, Trigona and Austroplebeia, as discussed above, show considerable potential as pollinators of both field and greenhouse crops. They can be effectively hived and transported. Their short flying range makes them especially suited for greenhouse environments. Research on the use of stingless bees for pollination of greenhouse crops is currently in progress at the University of Western Sydney – Hawkesbury.
• Native blue banded bees, Amegilla, show great potential as pollinators of greenhouse tomatoes according to research at the University of Western Sydneyand the University of Adelaide.
• Leafcutter bees and resin bees, Megachile, could also be valuable pollinators for crops such as lucerne and almonds.
• Other groups of insects also show potential for pollination of agricultural crops such as Nitidulid beetles (custard apple) and hawkmoths (papaya).
The main constraint on the use of these Australian native alternative pollinators is a lack of research into their husbandry and effectiveness.
Given the serious threat posed by exotic pests and diseases to commercial honeybees in Australia, it is urgent that research and development funds be allocated to the development of alternative native insect pollinators in Australia.
1. Dollin A, Batley M, Robinson M and Faulkner B (2000). Native bees of the Sydney Region. Australian Native Bee Research Centre.
2. Hingston AB et al (30 authors) (2002). Extent of invasion of Tasmanian native vegetation by the exotic bumblebee Bombus terrestris (Apoidea: Apidae). Austral Ecology 27, 162-172.
3. Dollin A and Heard T (1999). Tips on stingless beekeeping by Australian beekeepers. Volume 1. Australian Native Bee Research Centre.
4. Heard TA (1988). Propagation of hives of Trigona carbonaria Smith (Hymnenoptera: Apidae). Journal of the Australian Entomological Society 27, 303-304.
5. Dollin A, Zabel R and Zabel J (2001). Boxing and splitting hives. Australian Native Bee Research Centre.
6. Dollin A (2002). Tips on stingless beekeeping by Australian beekeepers. Volume 2. Australian Native Bee Research Centre.
7. Klumpp J (2007). Australian stingless bees: A guide to sugarbag beekeeping. Earthling Enterprises.
8. Cunningham SA, FitzGibbon F, Heard TA (2000). The future of pollinators for Australian agriculture. Aust J Agric Res 53, 893-900.
9. Sammataro D, Gerson U, and Needham G (2000). Parasitic mites of honey bees: life history implications and impacts. Annual Review Entomology 45, 519–548.
10. Zhang Z (2000). Notes on Varroa destructor (Acari: Varroidae) parasitic on honeybees in New Zealand. Systematic & Applied Acarology Special Publications 5, 9-14.
11. Gillespie P, Staples J, King, C, Fletcher MJ, Dominiak BC (2003). Small hive beetle, Aethina tumida (Murray) (Coleoptera: nitidulidae) in New South Wales. Gen Appl Ent 32, 5-7.
12. Dollin A (2007). South African Small Hive Beetles: A Serious New Pest of Bee Hives in Australia. Aussie Bee website.
13. Hingston AB, McQuillan PB (1998). Does the recently introduced bumblebee Bombus terrestris (Apidae) threaten Australian ecosystems? Australian Journal of Ecology 23, 539-549.
14. Dollin A (2006). What harm could exotic bumblebees do in Australia? Aussie Bee website.
15. Heard TA (1999). The role of stingless bees in crop pollination. Ann Rev Entomol. 44, 183-206.
16. Heard T and Dollin A (1998). Crop pollination with Australian stingless bees. Australian Native Bee Research Centre.
17. Heard TA, Dollin AE (2000). Stingless beekeeping in Australia, snapshot of an infant industry. Bee World 82, 116-125.
18. Bell MC, Spooner-Hart RN, Haigh AM (2006). Pollination of greenhouse tomatoes by the Australian bluebanded bee Amegilla (Zonamegilla) holmesi (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Journal of Economic Entomology 99, 437-442.
19. Hogendoorn K, Gross CL, Sedgley M, Keller MA (2006). Increased tomato yield through pollination by native Australian Amegilla chlorocyanea (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Journal of Economic Entomology 99, 828-833.