Tiny, unassuming and strangely beguiling, Tasmania’s native bees don’t get as much notoriety as the Tassie devil or the swift parrot. But they are incredibly important to the health of the state’s forests and fields. Australia is home to over 1,500 native bees, more than 100 of which call Tasmania home.
Like most of the world’s bee species, female Tasmanian native bees live in tiny little tunnels that they find or make themselves. According to entomologist and science communicator, Shasta Henry, females still lay eggs and collect pollen, but they do not return to a big colonial hive. Most queens live solo in bachelorette pads.
While female native bees are living the solo high life snoozing in their bachelorette pads, male bees spend their nights out in the elements — and to survive, they snooze in cuddle puddles to insulate each other at night.
Honey bees might be the most common bees you will find in your garden, but they are not native. The imports from the northern hemisphere are prized in agriculture for their honey and their power as pollinators. “The reason that they’re so useful is because they live in hives,” Dr Henry said. “That means that if you move the queen around you move this whole resource, it’s like having a fleet of drones that provide this incredible pollination service.”
Native bees in comparison are harder to direct. “You can’t control and manage a population of independent solitary queens,” Dr Henry said.
The only place in Australia big fuzzy bumblebees buzz about is Tasmania — they are easily recognisable as they are the largest bees in the flower patch with big, round abdomens. Despite being a common Tassie sight, bumblebees only showed up in the island state in 1992. The species came from New Zealand, and many believe it was illegally smuggled into the state. Bumblebees perform “buzz pollination” where they vibrate their wings in a specific way that induces very efficient pollination of certain crops such as tomatoes and eggplants. “That is the reason why there’s a whole lobby of people who want more bumblebees in Tasmania for tomato pollination,” Dr Henry said. But this is a contentious issue as they are also invasive and outcompete our native bees.
In an orchard, the most efficient pollination occurs when honey bees and native bees work together, at least in the same patch. While it is harder to move around a disparate population of independent queens, many native bees are better pollinators than honey bees.