In 2000, pollination services provided by the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) were estimated to be worth $4 – 6 billion per year, to Australian agriculture. Unfortunately the honey bee industry is in crisis, due to pest, disease and pesticide pressures resulting in the loss of thousands of hives world wide. Our reliance on this unstable industry demonstrates the need for exploration into and utilization of alternative insect pollinators, such as native bees. Without effective crop pollination the Australian consumer, that's you, will lose many of the food choices currently enjoyed. Good flower pollination results in improved seed set. Seeds produce plant hormones which stimulate the development of fruit flesh. Therefore, pollination improves crop quality and yield. Bees can improve the yield and quality of many fruit, berry and nut crops. They allow us the indulgence of chocolate, coffee and spices. They enable seed production for edible oils as well as for most of our vegetable crops and many stock fodder crops. Demand is increasing for this dwindling resource – the humble pollinator.
There are over 1,800 species of native bee in Australia. Of these, we have 15 species of stingless bee which are social. Like the European honey bee, stingless bees (in the sub family Meliponinae; tribe Trigonini) are “highly social” or “eusocial”. Other highly social insects include most ant and many wasp species. Highly social insects live in colonies of hundreds to thousands of workers (sterile females), with dozens to hundreds of drones (males) and one queen. Occasionally, in some overseas species, there may be more than one queen but this is very uncommon. The things that distinguish highly social insects from “primitively social” insects are that; colonies have overlapping adult generations, the workers cannot survive without the queen and the queen cannot survive without the workers. If the colony is without a queen, for any number of reasons, the colony will die out. The queen cannot fly or forage for food and cannot, therefore, feed her young. Many social bees can be managed in hives and utilised as crop pollinators. The hives can be ‘migrated’ into crops as the seasons dictate.
Most of our native bee species are solitary, where all females are capable of mating and producing off–spring. Some are semi–social and produce small colonies (up to 20 individuals) which contain several reproductive females and some non–reproductives. To learn more about some specific types of solitary and semi–social bee go to the dialogues page on this website.
Solitary bees do not produce honey, but they are important pollinators. Eighty–seven percent of all plants require animals to pollinate their flowers and of all the animals, bees are the superior pollinators. This is because they actively collect pollen to feed their young. The pollen is their protein source and nectar is their carbohydrate, or energy, source. Once the female emerges, at the beginning of the season, she mates and then needs to locate or build a suitable nesting site. Once she has found a safe place to produce her young, she collects pollen and nectar from flowers, pollinating the flowers as she goes. She returns to the nest and then forms a pollen patty, or bee bread, with the nectar and pollen. She then lays an egg on top of the patty and seals the brood cell. Brood is the term used for bee off–spring, just like chooks. After a few days, the egg hatches and the larva feeds on the food provisions. When the food is completely consumed, the larva spins a cocoon and metamorphoses into a pupa. The pupa continues to develop, often over the coldest seasons. When the warm seasons return, the fully developed adult emerges and the cycle starts all over again.