Thousands of native bee hives were incinerated during Black Summer. A kick-start donation from Volkswagen is helping the Australian Native Bee Association revive this vital part of the eco-system.
By Paul Gover
Tiny buzzing bees provide the heartbeat for vast areas of the Australian bush.
As they go about their daily duties, flying from plant to plant to harvest pollen for their hives, they provide the key to the reproduction that allows hundreds of species and millions of individual plants to regenerate and grow.
Most people know about the common honeybee, because they have seen and heard them in their gardens, but it’s a much smaller and far more at-risk species of bee that was hit hardest by the giant bushfires of 2019.
It’s the Australian native stingless bee, which flies and pollinates through most of the warmer areas north of Sydney on the Eastern seaboard.
Those tiny bees, through the Australian Native Bee Association, received a lifeline to create new lives and new hives as one of the recipients of a donation from Volkswagen.
“We have purchased 50 stocked hives and purchased 50 empty boxes with the $38,500 we received from Volkswagen. We will propagate from those,” says Tim Heard, president of the Australian Native Bee Association.
“They have been placed in strategically-important areas on the mid-north coast of NSW, in the area that was hit by the huge bushfires. That area suffered very destructive fires. It was not a normal type of fire because it burned so hot and was very damaging.
“The fear is that the fires wiped out so many animal species over such a large area that it will take a long time for them to recover and re-colonise. Rather than wait for that to happen with the bees, we are introducing our new-hives strategy.
“What Volkswagen has funded is really just the start. We will continue, one way or another, and the hives will continue to provide ongoing benefits throughout the whole area.”
There are about 1650 different species of native bees but, from all of those, there are only 11 species of highly-social bees who live in hives and are recognised for the work – and creation of honey – that is associated with honeybees.
A typical hive will have around 10,000 individual worker bees but only one queen, who is responsible for laying eggs and providing new life in the colony. The queen can live for one to two years while the workers are all sterile females and typically live for several months, working for the overall good of the colony.
“There are native bees all over Australia, but the ones that really captivate people are the native stingless bees,” says Heard.
“There is a rich diversity of bees in Australia, but the best-known group is the social ones. They are the ones that live in a large colony with a queen and a division of tasks like honeybees. They are what we call central-point foragers. They learn where their home colony is, the nest, and forage up to 500 metres from their home and then return to it.
“They are perennial, so the hives live for many years. It’s almost unlimited, how long they can live. It is like a city. The individuals are turning over all the time, but the colony goes on.
These bees are very good at pollinating tree species like macadamia, avocado, blueberry, lychee and Mango. They are good at opportunistic foraging.
“The other native bees are solitary. They live on their own. A female will make a nest on her own and just raise a few bees. They don’t store honey. They just collect enough food to produce a few cells. So, the bees emerge from the cells and continue the pattern.”
Heard says his association is relatively new, and composed entirely of volunteers, but growing fast.
“The current membership is 575 people. We didn’t know what to expect, but we’re doing better than we expected and there is room for growth. Really, we’ve only just come into our third year, so I expect we’ll be around 100 people in a few years.”
Heard says a lot of work has been focussed on helping the recovery from the catastrophic bushfires.
“It might sound like the contribution we are making is small, but these hives naturally reproduce. By placing them strategically they will reproduce and re-colonise. Possibly a million hives were destroyed. And that’s just in the mid-north coast of NSW.
“I you look at the areas that burned, there were 5 million hectares burned in NSW and about half of that was where native bee populations occur. We estimate there is one hive for every five hectares.”
Heard says the Native Stingless bees were hit so hard because of where they live.
“They are in key areas are where it is warmer. If you look at the distribution that occurs naturally, it’s right across the top of Australia. So, it’s all of Queensland and NSW north of Sydney. It starts to get a bit marginal south of Sydney.
“Basically, if you can grow bananas, and get them to grow fruit, you can probably keep stingless bees. But you certainly cannot do it in Melbourne.”
It’s not just the East coast, and not just social bees, who are benefitting from the work of the Association.
“WA there are social stingless bees in the Kimberley and the Pilbara. But further down it is very dry and there are huge expanses with no trees. The shrubs are small and don’t have the cavities for these bees to create a hive.
“We are working with solitary bees, funded by the Federal Government’s bushfire recovery fun. You can encourage those species by providing nesting sites like hollow stems.
“Again, it’s a modest scale. But we set up bee hotels, which have material suitable for nesting. That could be something like bamboo. We know how to prepare them, and protect them, and put them into the environment for nesting sites.”
The Australian bee story is an interesting one, from native versus introduces species through to social versus solitary bees.
“There are not many species of introduced bees in Australia. It’s only about six,” says Heard.
“If you think about all the mammals and birds, they are huge. But in the case of bees there are a couple of introduced species, and the best-known is the European honeybee, which has become a very important part of the economy and eco-system.
“You can think of them like cows. But, like cows, you don’t want them roaming throughout national parks.”
The Native Bee Association has no paid employees, although that is a future objective, and part of its work is scientific research. The bushfire recovery work is being used as a focus for learning.
“We’re monitoring what’s coming and looking at how we can boost that and improve it in the future. We want to use this as an opportunity to learn.”
For Heard, native bees are a passion project.
“My motivation is that I love what I do. I love bees. I love the fact that you can manage this aspect of the environment. There is so much bad news about the natural environment.
“Often you just throw up your arms in horror and ask what can do. We know the koala is in pretty bad shape. With bees, you can do something. We can keep these animals, we can manage them, we can breed them. We can both conserve them for the benefit of the natural environment and also manage them for the benefit of humans, to produce honey and also to pollinate our crops.”
He says the native bee also make a slightly different honey.
“They only produce a small amount of honey, but it contains a sugar that’s not in the honey from honeybees, and very rare. We digest it more slowly than sucrose, so it’s a low-GI sugar.
“It’s a sugar that can be enjoyed by people who might be at risk of diabetes. You don’t get such a sharp sugar spike because people digest it more slowly.”
Apart from the conservation and recovery, and research, another part of the work by the Native Bee Association is to help people set up their own hives.
“You don’t need a lot of space. You can keep a hive in your backyard or even on the veranda of an apartment building in a city. They will fly away to find vegetation. They will find food, trees and shrubs and plants. We’re lucky because Australian cities do tend to be very green.
“We are getting more and more every year. But they are quite expensive because they are in big demand. And there is a biological limit to how fast you can breed these bees,” says Heard.
“Demand is growing at least as fast as supply, possibly faster. The interest and awareness are increasing all the time. It costs approximately $500 for a hive. That would be for a premium hive in a well-made box that provides a good home for the bees, with a strong colony in it.”
Because the native stingless bees only produce small amounts of honey, people can take different approaches to keeping bees.
“You can decide own level of involvement. Some people just like to have a hive and maintain it,” Heard says. “They set it up in the garden and do nothing, even for years.
“You can extract honey from them, use them for pollination of the surrounding bush and your backyard veggie garden. You can also, once a year, propagate that hive. You establish a second hive from the first one.
“They are fantastic for education. A lot of people like to use them as a way of engaging with kids. A lot of pre-schools are getting them, and it shows how safe they are when they are placed in a kindergarten.”
As the association’s work continues to grow, Heard has no doubt about the critical importance of bees in Australia.
“Bees are very important. They are crucial to the ecosystem. Not just to the natural ecosystem, but also our agricultural landscape. We have a responsibility to look after and preserve our natural areas, but also a responsibility to provide food.
“Bees are responsible for about $350 billions of food production globally, each year. That is is about five per cent of total food production in the world.
“One third of our crops rely on bees, to a greater or lesser extent. Some don’t have a 100 per cent reliance, but it affects the yield. We would lose 10 per cent of total food production if bees were to go extinct.
“Our natural systems, and our farmlands, rely on flowering plants for the basis of both of those systems. And flowering plants rely on bees for reproduction and the seeds they produce.
“If you don’t have the seeds, you don’t have the next generation of plants coming through.”