Honey bee pollinating lotus flower

Pollen Nation - The Buzz from the Australian Native Bee Conference

There was a real buzz in the air at the recent Australian Native Bee conference in Brisbane. Academics, farmers, educators, hobbyists and those purely and simply interested in bees were treated to presentations that showcased the latest research and developments relating to our pollinator friends.

Radio station ABC Brisbane 612 featured our B & B Highway and the latest research on native bees in a special morning feature. As Professor Saul Cunningham from the Australian National University said on the show, researchers and environmentalists around world are now flocking to Australia to learn more about our native bees, which are just as interesting and unique as our kangaroos and koalas.

Prof Cunningham spoke of how some of our Australian native bees ‘buzz’ to pollinate – this process involves bees transferring vibrations through their body via rapid contraction of their flight muscles, in the process releasing pollen.

Said one University of Queensland presenter, Dr Tobias Smith, a bee researcher, educator and stingless bee keeper based on the Gold Coast, ‘Identifying native bees that have the ability to buzz pollinate is an important first step towards the commercialisation and widespread use of an environmentally-safe pollinator for Australian glasshouse crops such as tomato, capsicum and eggplant.

‘Identifying native buzz pollinating bees that can be mass reared and used on a commercial scale will benefit crop growers and Australia’s biodiversity.’

So the bees are buzzy but for different reasons than what you thought.

Our B & B Highway was also focused on as an innovative program encouraging pollinators in the urban environment and involving Sydney and NSW school children in citizen science and outdoor learning opportunities.

The presentation attracted much interest from other educators, academics and beekeepers with other Australian states interested in initiating the program.

There were many fascinating presentations among the 60 featured – revealing why it is that native bees are now having their moment in the sun – and will continue to do so as we realise their importance for the pollination of food crops and our native flora and their appeals as they socialise, make ‘sugarbag’ honey and generally appear super cute.

Speaking to Wildlife Australia magazine, organising committee chair Tim Heard, an entomologist and author, said the conference welcomed beekeepers, farmers, industry leaders, educators and researchers to share their knowledge, ‘with the aim of discussing issues required to unlock the potential of our native bees, a valuable but under-utilised natural resource.

‘The speakers at the conference tackled some of the biggest issues facing bees globally but with a special focus on the Australian environment,’ he said.

Bee amazed by the following facts:

  • European honeybees were introduced to Australia in the 1820s but before that Australian native bees were the ones doing all the pollinating bee work in this country. Feral populations of European honeybees are established in all Australian landscapes and may be doing harm to our native bees.
  • There are five Australian bee families represented in the open access AUSBS (Australian Native bees) project in the Barcode of Life Data system (BOLD).
  • To a rough approximation, bees do not make honey, are solitary and do not live in hives. Furthermore, many of them do not sting and do not work (some do neither). The reason for these misconceptions is obvious – the domesticated western honeybee (European) possesses all of these properties, but it is just one of over 20,400 described bee species, of which over 1650 are found in Australia.
  • Only Malaysia has successfully created a stingless bee honey standard (in 2017). In Australia, we also have a deep history of using stingless bee honey, and our modern beekeepers are creating a market for this unique Australian product.
  • In stingless bees, males are expelled from the colony once they reach sexual maturity. From that moment on, their goal is to search for a virgin queen with which to mate. When males detect a colony containing a queen ready for mating, they will congregate in swarms outside the colony waiting for the receptive queen to appear.
  • Research indicates that Australia’s stingless bees can learn to find flower food through honey bee odours that their European cousins leave on flowers. In the lab, studies have found that the native stingless bee T. carbonaria can learn to associate a common honey bee pheromone with food as efficiently as they can learn the odours of flowers.

To see some photos from our time at the #ANBC2019 event, head to Instagram and check out our story highlights under B & B Highway.