Australia’s native stingless bee in the paradise of the urban garden.
Bees are tiny, yet they play an enormous ecological role in the environment. They are, of course, pollinators of flowering plants, unwittingly transporting pollen from flower to flower as they go about their business, collecting nectar and pollen for food and building materials.
Bees are thus regarded as a keystone species given their role as ‘wingmen’ in the production of seed-containing fruits. They also help maintain genetic diversity amongst plants. Interestingly, it is the females who are foragers and nest-builders.
The bee we are all aware of is the famous European honey bee, however, unbeknownst to most are the almost 2000 varieties of native bees that currently inhabit Australia.
Eleven of these species are highly social, living in colonies of a queen and workers and cooperating to rear their brood and build their incredible hives.
These bees are a wonderful addition to a backyard permaculture project. They are entirely stingless, and produce a zingy and delicious honey known as sugarbag. Traditionally, these bees play an important cultural role for Indigenous Australians, providing honey for ceremonial occasions. They are great pollinators of the garden and urban bushland areas, and the local Sydney bee, Tetragonula Carbonaria, can be expected to produce 1-2 kg of sugarbag honey per year.
Dr Tim Heard, entomologist and ex-CSIRO research scientist, has been keeping Australian native stingless bees since 1985, when he transferred his first hive from a cut-down tree into a wooden box. He now keeps over 350 hives, and continues to develop and sell new hive designs as he instructs the Australian public on native bee-keeping. According to Dr Heard, we have an incredibly broad and rich diversity of native bees in Australia.
“[Keeping] stingless bees enhances awareness of the wonders of our own nature”, he says, noting bees reflect our own cooperative society.
“It is highly viable to keep bees in an urban environment,” he adds.
Indeed, recent studies in Australia reveal that urban gardens can actually increase resource intake well above rates found in natural habitats of bees. This is exciting news as it means that urban dwellers can nurture, breed and manage bees not only for the love of nature – or as Dr Heard calls it, biophilia – but to contribute to a larger vision of sustainability that promotes healthiness across all ecological organisms.
Dr Heard gives regular seminars across Australia on native bee-keeping. You can find out more at www.sugarbag.net.
Words by Lucia Moon