The Buzz on Native Bees ‘n Bugs with Tobias Smith

Words by
Georgina Reid
Images by
Will Reid
| December 18, 2017

Gardens should be wild, untamed and full of flowers, according to pollination ecologist Dr Tobias Smith. Tobias is passionate about the  Australian native bees and insects that pollinate our local flora. These gals and guys aren’t into lawn or clipped hedges. They want places to live, reproduce, hide and eat. They want complexity, diversity and abundance. Don’t we all?!

In comparison to the big and brassy European honey bee, the 1660 species of native Australian bees don’t generally receive much press. Like every other single living element of the web of existence, however – from microscopic mycelium to the ancient trees in the Tarkine rainforest – they have an incredibly important job to do to contribute to biodiversity. It’s pollination. They keep our flora keeping on.

Tobias is passionate about native bee and insect pollinators. He’s the founder of Bee Aware Brisbane, an organisation devoted to raising awareness of Australia’s native bees and other native pollinators. In addition to this, he’s also researching the potential of native bees as alternative pollinators for food crops (find out more about this in a video by my brother, Will Reid, for SBS Viceland here).

Dr Tobias Smith, Pollination Ecologist

Can you please tell me a little about your life with bees/bugs? I have been working in ecology for 15 years now, and started focusing on bees almost 10 years ago. Prior to that I was interested in, and worked in, botany. It was during a research project focusing on the only epiphytic orchid in Tasmania (Sarcochilus australis) that I started getting interested in pollination. The orchid populations I worked on had relatively low reproductive output, and I always wondered if it was due a low availability of pollinators, or some other factor. I didn’t ever see a pollinator visit one of those orchids in all my time watching them and never did get to answer the question of their reproduction. I finished the project, and then a year later moved on to bees and pollination.

As I began to get to know the biology and ecology of bees, I became more and more addicted. I know I’ll work on bees for the rest of my life.”

My initial interest in bees started with honey. As a kid I loved honey, and I loved nature. I watched bees. In high school we had European honey bees in my agricultural studies classes, and I got my first experience of looking inside bee hives and collecting honey. When I started studying ecology at university, I began to learn about other bee species, and about their roles in natural ecosystems.

My love of honey and honey bees slowly morphed into a love of all bees and their role in ecosystems, in parallel to a love and deepening understanding of biodiversity.

Can you please share a few of your favourite facts about Australian native bees?
1. The smallest bee in the world is just 1.8mm long, and the only place in the world it’s found is in Queensland.

2. Australia’s largest bee (not the world’s), the great carpenter bee, hibernates over winter. These bees use their impressive jaws to chew holes in dead wood, and make small tunnels in which they raise their babies. In autumn they fatten up, and then hibernate over winter, before becoming active again in spring. These bees can live for multiple years.

3. Australia has about 1660 known native bee species, and we estimate that there are over 2000 in total. Every year new species are discovered. In my 10 years of working with native bees, I have found two new species. These two specimens right now sit in a museum, awaiting formal description and naming. There are only a few bee taxonomists in Australia (those who do the formal descriptions and naming), and they have backlogs of new species to work through. These taxonomists are either nearing retirement, or are retired and working on bees in their retirement. My two species may not be described for years to come!

4. There are over 20,000 bee species in the world. Less than 600 of these make honey. In fact, the ‘typical’ type of bee lifestyle in the world is the single mum style: single female bees nesting all by themselves (no queen or workers), doing all the work, laying all the eggs, and dying of exhaustion before their children become adults. They may live just a couple of months if they’re lucky. These are the solitary bees.

A Rhiniid fly pollinating a macadamia flower

Can you please list 3-5 ways Australian gardeners can provide habitat for native bees in their garden?
Provide diverse food for bees. Bees eat pollen and nectar, and the more different sources of these available to them, the better. Plant lots of plants that produce flowers. Natives are best, but there are many non-native plants that are very attractive to our native bees as well.

Bee messy. Bees and other pollinator insects benefit from structural complexity in the environment, for nesting and shelter. Leave dead stems (and branches where possible), rocks in gardens, leaf litter, ‘overgrown’ shrubbery and flowering lawn weeds, and your local bees will thank you!

Messy is good when it comes to urban biodiversity. Stop mowing part of your lawn, and let some flowering plants grow there instead.”

Stop, or reduce, using pesticides in your garden. In particular, insecticides and fungicides. Insecticides kill or weaken insects, and fungicides can indirectly harm bees by harming their microbiome. Even herbicides can indirectly harm bees. Why not let those lawn weeds grow and flower, and provide some food for bees, rather than kill them with a spray?

Is it best to plant native plants for native bees, or are they not that discerning? Some native bees are generalist foragers – they will collect pollen and nectar from a wide variety of plants, both native and exotic. However, other species are specialists, only collecting pollen and nectar from certain native plants.

To help as many bees as possible, have a wide mix of plants rich in native species and try to grow plants that flower at different times of the year.”

Is it possible for gardeners to have both European bees (for honey production) and native bees (for biodiversity and pollination)? Or can you only have one or the other? Many backyard beekeepers successfully keep both native stingless bees and European honey bees in close proximity. Many macadamia and blueberry farms use European honey bees and native stingless bees in conjunction for pollination. European honey bees, do however, have a range of known potential negative impacts on biodiversity and may compete with native bees and other native insects for pollen and nectar. They also may transfer pests and diseases to native bees.

Your research into pollination doesn’t end with native bees – you’re also into insects. Do you find they don’t get as much popular attention because they’re not as sexy as bees? What interesting things can you share with us to convince people of the awesomeness of insects? I mostly focus on bees, but I am part of a research group that looks much more widely at other insects. They get less attention for two main reasons: 1) less is known about their importance in crop pollination (although this is changing very rapidly, and we are learning more and more about how important they are), and 2) they are often thought of as less exciting than bees.

There are a range of different fly species, most notably the hover flies, that have strong roles in crop pollination. And of course, out in natural ecosystems, there are countless more fly, beetle, wasp, butterfly, moth species and more that are contributing to pollination.

Dr Tobias Smith is a pollination ecologist based in Brisbane, Australia. Find out more about his work via BeeAwareBrisbane.org and BeeAwareKids.com.au and/or follow him on Twitter


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