A "Sugarbag" bee. Photo: Peter O.
A "Sugarbag" bee. Photo: Peter O.

I was in the old High School at Katherine in the NT recently and came across this sign: “Please be careful of our native Honey Bees (They Do Not Sting)“.

beesignkathThat arrow pointed to a small, black greasy smudge at the base of the wall – as I watched I saw a couple of small, fly-sized insects leave the spot – Sugarbag bees. Sugrbag bees have become remarkable adopters of the buildings in our towns and cities in the NT – particularly buildings of a certain age that were built to a price rather than a standard.

One house I lived at in Darwin for a few years had several large sugarbag bee nests in the walls. They’d drilled into the gaps left by the crumbling soft mortar between the bricks – an old builder’s dodge was to use an extra shovel or two or three of sand in each mix – no-one would know for a few years and by that time the builder was long gone.

But good for the sugarbag bees.

The wonderful photo by Peter O above is one of a series of similarly beautiful photos in a gallery of his shots of Australian native bees at the homepage of the Australian Native Bee Research Centre, which is dedicated to:

Promoting the preservation and enjoyment of Australian Native Bees. The Australian Native Bee Research Centre is a privately-funded organisation based in the lower Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, NSW. It publishes information booklets, a field guide, a video and other products to distribute information on all native bee species to the Australian public and help ensure the bees’ survival in Australia.

I’ve spent quite a few hours in the scrub, mostly with local Aboriginal people, chasing these small insects around looking for their hives – which can be in the ground, there usually amongst rocks, and in trees, there usually inside a hollowed-out Eucalypt tree.

The product from those hives is an absolute wonder – far richer and less sweet that industrial honey from European honeybees and with the added bonus of the sugarbag-wax – a very useful byproduct that is most commonly used for mouthieces for digeridoos but has a host of other uses.

The Australian Native Bee Research Centre tells us that:

There are over 1,500 species of “true blue” Australian native bees.

Commercial honey bees (Apis mellifera) are not native to Australia. They were introduced from Europe in about 1822.

Australian native bees can be black, yellow, red, metallic green or even black with blue polka dots! They can be fat and furry, or sleek and shiny.

Australia’s smallest native bee is Cape York’s minute Quasihesma bee. It is less than 2 mm long.
Australia’s largest native bee is the Great Carpenter Bee of the tropical north and northern NSW. It is up to 24 mm long.

Most Australian bees are solitary bees which raise their young in burrows in the ground or in tiny hollows in timber.

Australia also has 10 species of social native bees (genera Trigona and Austroplebeia) which do not sting!

Stingless bee honey is a delicious bush food and stingless bees can be good crop pollinators. So stingless beekeeping is becoming increasingly popular.

Native bees are also important pollinators of Australia’s unique wildflowers and are a vital part of our Australian bushland.

fg_coverAnd native bees aren’t just found in the tropical north – I’ve seen them in the suburbs of Sydney and thoughout NSW.

The Australian Native Bee Research Centre has a useful guide to which bees can be found where and they have also prepared a (sadly out of print) Field Guide to the Native Bees of the Sydney Region.

The Research Centre’s website has a great deal of other valuable information about these most useful of native insects – you can find information about setting up a home hive of native bees, watch videos and find out more about the species in your area.

And I have some references on the cultural significance of native bees to Aboriginal people – but not to hand as I write this – so I’ll update this post when I get to that information.

Got a native bee story? Send in a comment!