Many of us feel we are too busy to stop and smell the roses.
Even when we do, few of us would notice how the behaviour of native bees buzzing through the garden varies from the introduced variety. However, research students like Melanie Bottrill who are working under the guidance of Dr Peter McQuillan (senior Lecturer in Geography and Spatial Sciences) have identified behaviour of more than 60 species of native Australian bees that could help save several plant species from extinction.
“Native bees are more effective at spreading pollen because of their messy feeding style. They become covered in pollen after visiting a flower – unlike the introduced species, which carry it neatly on their back legs,” Dr McQuillan said.
Pollinating insects play an integral role in many of our food production industries, and some of our native bees are likely to be more effective in this role.
“Our hope is that this research aids the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens to increase the seed production of various threatened plants they are hoping to grow, and also helps guide policy decisions to avoid harming our native bees.”
Recommendations from the research by Dr McQuillan’s team include establishing more nesting sites in and around the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens where there is limited human disturbance. Unlike honeybees, native bees individually nest in undisturbed soil or in hollow stems and do not form hives.
The team also found that native bees were strongly drawn to blue, yellow and white flowers, rather than brighter colours such as red.
This is vital information for farmers and conservationists aiming to promote growth through more effective pollination. Even quite small patches of remnant vegetation, such as on roadsides or paddock margins, can support a breeding population of native bees which will visit nearby crops to gather pollen to feed their young.
Tasmania’s plant-based food industry is in the top 10 contributors to the state’s economy, demonstrating the importance of research that will help protect crops and increase production. Dr McQuillan warns that some of the practices used to protect this industry can be harmful to the native bee population.
There is a laundry list of threats to our native bees, including habitat loss, competition from introduced species, climate change, poorly timed use of pesticides and herbicides; in other words, 'death by a thousand cuts' if we don’t manage these issues with care.
“We also want to encourage farmers to
attract native bees onto their land by conserving or planting stands of native plants
like banksia and prickly box which are a favourite of many native bee species.”
Does this research have you buzzing? Find out about becoming a research student here.