Clockwise from top: Carpenter bee (Xylocopa) in mid flight; Homalictus species with its scopa full of pollen; Blue banded bee; Making nests for reed bees. Photos by Megan Halcroft
Mention bees and people invariably think of the European honey bee, Apis mellifera. However, this species is only one of 20 000 species of bees worldwide. Australia is home to about 2000 species of native bees and most of them are very important plant pollinators.
Native bees have a symbiotic relationship with a permaculture garden. Many of permaculture’s non-interventionist techniques support native bee populations. In return they support us by providing valuable pollination services, which help to produce high crop yield and good quality seed.
Types Of Native Bees
Basically, native bees are divided into two categories, solitary and social. Of the 2000 Australian bee species, only 11 are social, forming colonies and making honey. Most species are solitary and do not make honey, but they are very important pollinators.
Solitary bees live their lives independent of other bees and nest in a variety of nesting materials. Once a female has mated, she finds a safe nesting place to raise her brood. She forages for floral resources, returns to the nest, unpacks the pollen from her scopal hairs and regurgitates swallowed nectar. As she collects her precious cargo of pollen and nectar, she pollinates the plants.
There are 11 species of social stingless bees in Australia, and they make and store small amounts of honey. In temperate areas, honey harvest is not recommended, as the bees need the honey to survive winter, but it is possible.
Some Native Species
Native bees species are grouped together according to either their nesting behaviour or by distinguishing body markings.
- Reed bees generally nest in hollow or pithy-centred reeds or plant stems.
- Carpenter bees burrow into soft wood.
- Resin bees collect plant resin to seal the brood cells.
- Leafcutter bees cut discs from soft, young leaves to make their nests.
- Masked bees have distinctive bright markings on their faces.
- Blue banded bees have iridescent hair-stripes (from white to dark blue) on their abdomen.
- Teddy bear bees have thick, orange hair.
- Parasitic cuckoo bees lay their eggs in the nests of other (host) bees.
Supporting Native Bees
Use flowering plants
One of the best ways to support bees is to plant large numbers of flowering plants. By ensuring access to food resources throughout the year, you support their reproduction.
Conserve and create habitat
Conserving areas of natural habitat enables female bees to find safe nesting sites and helps increase existing populations. Allow plants to bolt and go to seed, as this provides bees with much needed floral resources. Let plants, especially those with hollow or pithy stems, break down insitu or to slowly rot in piles in isolated corners of the garden. This provides nesting sites for some masked bees and reed bees.
Don’t use chemicals
Avoiding chemical pesticides in your garden is vital to the health of all bee populations, as well as many other beneficial insects such as wasps, hoverflies, robber flies, predatory shield bugs and lady beetles. These beneficial species help to control pest species such as caterpillars, aphids, mites and grasshoppers.
It’s easy to create habitat for bees in your garden. By drilling deep holes in wood blocks or dead stumps, you will be providing natural nesting substrate which mimics old borer-holes (don’t use treated wood).
When pruning plants, check to see if any have hollow or pithy-centred stems. Bundle them up with some wire and hang them in a tree or on a fence. It’s also desirable to leave some small areas of bare earth for ground dwelling bees to burrow.
Blue banded bees will nest in rammed earth blocks. You can fill hollow concrete blocks with a mix of damp soil and ram tight with a blunt tool.