Australia has over 1500 species of native bees ranging from the spectacular 24 mm yellow and black carpenter bees down to the tiny 2 mm Quasihesma bees. With their wide array of shapes, sizes and behaviours, Australian native bees are important pollinators of our magnificent wildflowers.
Beyond their importance to Australia’s environment, our native bees also have a significant value for Australian agriculture. Australia currently depends almost entirely upon the introduced honeybees, Apis mellifera, for crop pollination. However, our native bee species, too, could make a valuable contribution in this area.
Overseas, native bees are used together with honeybees for crop pollination. Native bee species such as leafcutter bees, mason bees and alkali bees have been developed as efficient pollinators of crops such as lucerne and apples. Here, in Australia, the blue banded bees and the stingless bees already show great potential as specialist pollinators.
Australian Blue Banded Bees
The blue banded bee (Amegilla) is capable of a special type of pollination behaviour called ‘buzz pollination’. In some plants, the pollen is trapped inside tiny capsules in the centre of the flower. The blue banded bee can curl her body around the flower and rapidly vibrate her flight muscles, causing the pollen to shoot out of the capsules. As she collects some pollen for her nest, she transfers some of the pollen to other flowers, successfully pollinating the flowers.
Only certain types of bees can perform buzz pollination. In Australia these include the blue banded bees and the carpenter bees. The introduced Apis honeybees are not able to buzz pollinate flowers.
Some key Australian crops require buzz pollination for proper development of their fruit. These include tomatoes, kiwi fruit, eggplants, blueberries, cranberries and chilli peppers.
In many overseas countries, bumblebees are used to buzz pollinate these crops. However, Australia does not have any native species of bumblebees and applications to import European bumblebees to Australia have been refused due to the significant harm these bees would cause to the Australian environment if they became feral. So research is currently underway at the University of Adelaide in the use of Australian native blue banded bees to buzz pollinate our crops.
The researchers need to solve a range of technical problems to allow timely and large scale production of these native bees to meet the massive needs of our greenhouse crop producers. However, the potential benefits are huge if we can safely use one of our own native bee species to do this work instead of importing European bumblebees.
Australian Stingless Bees
Our native social stingless bees (Trigona) are already being successfully used for pollination of crops such as macadamias, mangoes, watermelons and lychees in Queensland. Our native stingless bees are particularly efficient pollinators of macadamias. Research has shown that the native stingless bees mainly collect pollen from these flowers, whilst Apis honeybees mainly collect nectar. Also the native stingless bees are far more attracted to the macadamia flowers than are the Apis honeybees.
Our native stingless bees prefer to forage much closer to their hives than do the Apis honeybees. This can be a major advantage in a field crop where the native stingless bees will work the crop flowers close to their hive, rather than flying further afield in search of other types of flowers. However, this behaviour is also a great advantage for the pollination of crops inside greenhouses. Our native stingless bees adapt rapidly and well to the confinement of a greenhouse and are currently being trialled at the University of Western Sydney in the pollination of a range of greenhouse crops.
Our native stingless bees also produce a unique type of tangy honey called ‘Sugarbag’. Each hive can only produce up to one kilogram of honey per year so they will never rival the far more productive Apis honeybees for general honey production. However, Sugarbag honey has recently been shown to have substantial antibacterial properties. Sugarbag honey should be developed as a special niche honey product for Australia, not only for its delicious flavours but also for its medicinal properties.
Very few of our 1500 Australian native bee species have been investigated so far for their potential contribution to Australian agriculture. More research into the use of our Australian native bees in agriculture is urgently needed.