Australian Native Bees: A Photo Story

A Bee’s Life in Australia

Photo a Day Challenge: Week 49 — November 11th to November 17th

So what happens in a bee’s life? They’re fascinating little creatures. To be clear, I’m talking about Australian bees, not European Honey Bees.

The feature photo shows an Australian social bee. Australia has more than 1700 species of bee, but very few are social like the European Honey Bee. Australian social bees do have one very important difference. They are stingless.

This little lady has just finished pupating and she’s about to emerge into the hive for the first time. She will likely be a worker and eventually, that white sheen will gain pigment and by the time she ventures outside the hive to forage, she will be almost entirely black.

Megachile species — ©Jane Frost

By contrast, this Australian native does have a sting. She’s considered a solitary bee because she builds a nest, provisions it, and lays her eggs, all on her own. She is a Leafcutter Bee which means that she cuts moon shapes out of leaves and uses them to line her nest before she provisions it and lays her eggs. The larvae emerge into this cushiony comfort to devour the provisions and pupate before emerging.

Honey drips from a hive as it is opened — ©Jane Frost

On this day I was fortunate to attend a workshop led by Australia’s leading stingless bee expert, Doctor Tim Heard. The event was run by the local branch of the Australian Native Bee Association and I am the branch’s photographer which means I got to snap away all day. The feature shot was taken during a hive split — when one hive is opened, the brood is “split” and half is transferred to a new hive.

Australian stingless bees haven’t had the same cultivation as European Honey Bees, so they don’t produce a lot of excess honey. This means that you can harvest honey from your hives OR split them. Harvesting from a split hive may not leave the bees enough to survive in the hive if the weather cools or if there is a lot of rain.

During the splitting process on the day, the inevitable breakage of honey pots during splits had us all drooling. You can see it in the photo above. Broken honey pots can cause fermentation which is not good for a hive so we got to have tiny drops of taste. Delicious!

I tried honey from three different hives. My favourite was the one that is usually situated in close proximity to a citrus orchard. It had a delicious citrus tang!

Inside a Tetragonula hockingsi hive — ©Jane Frost

This photo was taken the next day when I checked on my own hive. You can see the workers busily preparing brood cells. The open “cups” are waiting to be provisioned. Afterwards, the queen will arrive and deposit a single egg in each cell.

When a new bee pupates and emerges, its first duties are in this section looking after the brood. Later they will be assigned to provision the cells, then to help with food storage, before graduating to guard duty and then rubbish removal. The oldest bees are the foragers and this duty is one that they perform for the rest of their lives.

Wasps and bees using the solitary bee observation block — ©Jane Frost

This is my solitary bee observation block. It mimics the holes in wood that solitary bees and wasps usually use to make their nests. You can see the wasp in the centre has been provisioning her nest with caterpillars which are paralysed and left alive for consumption by the growing larvae.

This demonstrates a major difference between wasps and bees. Essentially, wasps are carnivores and bees are herbivores. That’s right! Bees are just vegetarian wasps!

The nest directly to the right of the wasp is a bee’s nest. Unfortunately, the pupa appear to have died. This is the tragedy of the solitary nest. If a bee in the line dies then the bees behind can’t emerge and they perish too.

Tetragonula clypearis bee builds a “door” to close up the hive — ©Jane Frost

This is the entrance of my rescue hive. On this day I noticed that they were closing up the entrance. As they have very few workers in residence, I thought they might be creating a smaller entrance to keep guard duties manageable. Over the following days, however, they continued until it was completely closed.

I’ve peaked inside and the population is rapidly growing. Perhaps they’ve closed it up to concentrate on rearing brood to ensure the hive’s viability. Perhaps there is a pest threat that they are keeping away. Time will tell.

Rhipidura leucophrys — ©Jane Frost

I didn’t take any bee photos this day! Confession time… The day before they had announced the winners of the Australian Pollinator Week Photography Competition. My favourite photo didn’t get a mention. I was sad. Another photo got an honourable mention and another was nominated for a People’s Choice award. The feedback from the judges reminded me of how far I have to go in understanding photography. I refrained from photographing bees while I let the feedback sink in.

In the meantime, this is a bee predator. Yes, the cheerful Willie Wagtail that delights us with his antics on our water feature is also a threat to my beloved bees. I can’t begrudge him that. He’s part of the cycle and he only has access to the oldest bees as they forage.

The product of pollination — ©Jane Frost

As I searched the final day’s photos for something bee relevant, these caught my eye. These are Native Tamarind fruit and they are delicious! They are a little sweet and a lot tart.

We were tasting them and then planting the fresh seeds as a part of a project at my workplace. I was delighted to see the students enjoy the experience!

Ultimately, this is the main contribution of a bee’s life to our health. They help many species of plant produce the fruits that help us achieve optimal nutrition. Thanks, bees!

This was originally published as a part of the “Photo a Day Challenge” run by online publication Weeds and Wildflowers.

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