How to identify and help native Aussie bees
When you think of a bee, you probably picture a classic, yellow-and-black striped honey bee, or its furry cousin the bumblebee. You’re probably not imagining metallic green, shiny red, or blue-polka-dotted insects. But that’s the kind of variety you find when you get to know Australia’s native bees. We have more than 1500 species of native bee, and they come in a huge range of shapes, sizes and colours.
Although most native bees don’t make honey, they’re still a valuable part of our ecosystem, pollinating native and introduced plants and trees. In some cases, they compete with introduced honey bees, which have far greater numbers thanks to commercial hives. Helping these struggling bee populations can be as simple as planting your garden with natives, avoiding pesticides, and building a DIY ‘bee hotel’.
Here are just a few of the 1500 Aussie natives to look out for:
This tiny native is Australia’s smallest bee, at less than 2mm in length. Found in Cape York, Queensland, these miniature bees are shiny and hairless, with yellow and black splotches. They feed on eucalyptus blossom and nest in tiny borer holes in tree trunks.
Great Carpenter bee
At the other end of the scale is the largest native Australian bee – the Great Carpenter. At around 24mm, these bees are definitely easier to spot than their smaller cousins. They have a distinctive, furry yellow thorax and a smoother black abdomen. As the name suggests, the Great Carpenter bee burrows into soft timber to make its nest.
Stingless Social bee – Tetragonula
Previously known as Trigona, these small bees are some of the few Australian natives that produce honey. Unlike most native bees, Tetragonula nest in large colonies made up of thousands of bees. They tend to nest in hollow trees and rock crevices, but can be kept in hives as well. Stingless Social bees are easily mistaken for flies – they’re predominantly black, with shiny wings and large eyes.
Blue Banded bee
Shiny blue stripes on the abdomen make the Blue Banded bee fairly easy to identify. At around 11mm, it’s roughly the size of a honeybee, but that’s where the similarities end. Blue Banded bees are a solitary species, nesting in shallow burrow underground.
Teddy Bear bee
As the name suggests, these large bees are covered with soft brownish-gold fur. They’re found all over Australia, apart from Tasmania. Like other natives, Teddy Bear bees tend to be solitary. Each female bee digs a shallow burrow in soft soil to make a nest.
The Leafcutter bee has a long, narrow body with black and white stripes on the abdomen. Female bees use their powerful jaws to cut tidy circles from leaves, which they then use to make tiny bags to store their eggs.
Masked bees are almost hairless, with bold black and yellow colouring. Yellow face-markings give them their name. They create narrow nest burrows in plant stems, or use existing holes in trees or felled logs. They seal their nests with a clear, cellophane-like substance.
Supporting native species
Like all bees, Australian natives need food, water, and places to live. Here’s how to help them thrive in your garden.
Plantlarge clumps of flowering plants, as bees find it easier to locate massed blossoms. Choose a range of plants, including natives and introduced species, and try to make sure you have at least some plants flowering year-round so bees always have a source of food. Winter and early spring are particularly lean times for bees, so try to find a range of plants that flower at those times.
Builda bee hotel. Drill holes in a log or large piece of wood, or use narrow tubing to create an inviting place for native bees to nest. If you’re not the DIY type, you can also buy a bee hotel.
Avoidusing pesticides on your garden, as these can be harmful to both native and introduced species of bee. If you must use them, try to avoid applying the chemicals while plants are flowering, as this is when most bees will visit your garden.
Provide waterfor bees, particularly in the heat of summer. This can be as simple as a shallow dish or trough of water with stones, pebbles, or sand for bees to rest on. Without the stones or sand, bees may drown as they try to drink.
Leavesome areas of soil unplanted, to give native burrowing bees space to build their nests. You don’t need to leave a huge patch of bare soil in the middle of your garden, but if you can leave smaller areas empty, the bees will thank you for it.
Preserve the unique
Like all our Australian wildlife, native bees are unique and worth preserving. To find out more about identifying native bees in your garden, check out the guide at Aussie Bee.