Native bees and macadamias

In this AMS podcast, Leoni Kojetin talks to Alyssa Gooley, a consultant and native bee enthusiast, about the fascinating world of native bees. 

Alyssa provides the lowdown on how native bees are perfectly adapted to their environment and to pollinating macadamias, and to how you can take advantage of this small native insect in your orchard.


Leoni. Can you tell us a little bit about your background and work in macadamia, Alyssa?

Alyssa. I started doing a Bachelor of Science majoring in plants at the University of Queensland after which I moved on to some conservation and land management work and then ended up at a large-scale macadamia orchard where I was doing numerous jobs. These included doing their integrated pest management plan and conducting some on-farm research into nutrition and pollination. As well as that, I was doing a bit of revegetation work and managing the native bees at the farm.

Leoni. So one of your areas of interest is native bees, but more broadly, integrated pest management. How were you able to apply that at this large macadamia organisation?

Alyssa. The main thing we were doing was regular monitoring, so getting boots on the ground and into the orchard to see what bugs were out there, not only pest species, but also beneficial species, to inform spray decisions. We were in a pretty good situation there in terms of having a lot of native vegetation surrounding the orchard, as well as spatial isolation.

Leoni. Today we're talking specifically about native bees and how they integrate with macadamia production. In your experience, what's the uptake from growers introducing bees into the orchard?

Alyssa. I've spoken to a lot of growers who are very passionate about their native bees and are either managing them on farm or have lease agreements with some of the native bee companies like the ANBC (Australian Native Bee Company) and Kin Kin Native Bees.

Leoni. Why are native bees so suited to pollinating macadamia flowers?

Alyssa. Native bees and macadamias have been evolving together over millions of years, and the floral structure of the macadamia is very attractive to the bees. They like white flowers and they like small flowers. The protein content of the pollen is really good and really attractive to the native bees. When you watch them in the orchard, they also make a lot of contact with the stigma, which is where pollination actually occurs.

Leoni. As opposed to, let’s say, a bigger honey bee, they’re probably more adapted, you’re saying, to get to the right spot on the macadamia flower?

Alyssa. Yes. Obviously, European bees still have a massive place. They're a big strong bee so they can get around and pollinate a lot of flowers and travel that bit further. But I would say that native bees are more efficient pollinators of macadamias.

Leoni. How many different species of native bees are there in Australia and how many are we likely to encounter in a macadamia orchard?

Alyssa. That number is not really well known. The number of named species at the moment is sitting around 1650, but that could be anywhere up to 2000 species of bees. There's a lot of bees in Australia and not a lot of entomologists doing the research to identify them. But in the macadamia orchard there's been a lot of research done, much of it by Dr Tim Heard. He's found that about 95% of the insect visitors to macadamias are either European bees or native bees. The ratio of European or native bees you will find in the orchard hives depends on the environment. Other bee species that we find include lasioglossums and homalictus bees, which occur to a much smaller extent.

Leoni. When we see a native hive, how many bees are in a hive and how far would they forage from that hive?

Alyssa. With native beehives, numbers can be quite varied. You can have anywhere from 1000 to 7000 bees inside the nest at one time. In terms of how far they forage, there's been a lot of recent research done into that and they've found that around 97% of the bees remain within a hundred metres of the nest, so they're not foraging very far. In comparison, European bees can forage up to a kilometre.

Leoni. That would suggest you probably have to have a higher stocking rate of native bees.

Alyssa. Absolutely. This is because of, one, the distance that they can travel and, two, the number of bees in the hive. European bees can have up to 40,000 bees in the hive. 

Leoni. That's in a managed hive where let’s say a grower's got their own. But we get a lot of benefit from wild native bees, don't we?

Alyssa. Absolutely. So again, that depends on which situation you're in. If you are on a farm that has a lot of vegetation surrounding the orchard, then you're more likely to get added benefit from wild pollinators. If you're in a sort of monoculture situation, then you're less likely to have wild pollinators in high enough numbers to contribute to your pollination. And that actually is a point for the Varroa mite incidents. In those areas where varroa has been detected, unmanaged pollination will no longer exist until the levels build up again. 

Leoni. We know that in a country similar to ours, like New Zealand, when varroa came in, it really decimated the wild populations of honey bees. Are we in a better situation in Australia because natives aren’t as susceptible?

Alyssa. Yes, natives aren't susceptible at all to varroa. There's been a lot of research done and our genera of bees exist in other locations where there is varroa and there there's been no effect on the native hives there. So yes, we are, I think, in a better position because we've got native bees.

Leoni. Being susceptible to varroa also means that honey bees are far more susceptible to diseases as well.

Alyssa. Absolutely. And what we don't know is whether some of those follow-on diseases may impact native bees to some degree.

Leoni. What would the impact be on some of those native plant species then where native bees are really symbiotic and if honey bees were eradicated and only natives were left?

Alyssa. We would be having substantially less pollination services for our native plants as well as in agricultural systems.

Leoni. If I'm a grower and I'm interested in promoting or having native bees, either wild or managed, in the orchard, where do I start?

Alyssa. There are a few good resources. Aussie Bee is a website that you can get onto and look at bee suppliers in your local area if you want to manage your own hives. Alternatively, those leasing companies with native hives can get in contact with them. I would also recommend Tim Herd's book on Australian native bees. It's a great resource for figuring out where you want start and how you're going to manage those bees.

Leoni. I know that one of the benefits of having honey bees in the orchard is certainly that they're really good to help honey bee hives build up and then we get the honey from that, which the apiarist can share or have some sort of relationship with the grower. What happens with native hives, i.e., do they produce as much honey or is the honey different? How does it work?

Alyssa. Native hives do produce honey, but a lot less than a honey bee hive - at a maximum, probably about a kilo a year. As for the honey, I don't mind the taste, but some people don't love it. It's a bit more astringent, tangier flavour, but I think it may very well add to the macadamia story. Macadamias taste great coated in honey, and there might be an opportunity in future to look at native-bee-honey-coated macadamias.

Leoni. And since you were saying they don’t forage very far, you're able to honestly say that it is macadamia honey. Sometimes with the honey bees that is difficult as they could have foraged on anything.

Alyssa. Absolutely, yes. 

Leoni. So, besides the macadamias that provide a floral resource in the springtime, what if I want to have native bees in my orchard, but there are no more macadamia flowers?

Alyssa. Okay. So that's the challenge - feeding the bees when no macadamias are flowering. At times, even when you've got good vegetation, if you're managing hives and you're bringing a large number into a small area, there is probably going to be a requirement to provide some alternative floral source. Your growers have the ability in macadamias to do that in their inter rows. It is obviously an added cost, but there's research that's shown that there's an increase in beneficial insects as well as in pollinators, in the orchard. There are also good resources out there. Helen Wallace and Rachel Wilson did some research on meta-barcoding pollen. They basically scanned the pollen, identified what the pollen parent was, what species it belonged to, and then through that they were able to identify a list of species that feed native bees in the macadamia off-season. That resource is available on the AMS website.

Leoni. We've a recipe list that will tell you what they like. I suppose growers then still have to manage that there's the right amount flowering all year, at all times of the year?

Alyssa. Yes, absolutely. Native bees are used to our native environment, which doesn’t have floral constancy. You never walk out in the bush and always find big blooms. They can tolerate times where there's low floral resource, but there certainly needs to be a consistent floral resource available for them.

Leoni. And what about water? There's so much talk about honey bees and how much water an average hive uses? Do I have to have a water source for native bees?

Alyssa. No, there is no requirement for having a water source available for the native bees. They get all of their water from the nectar.

Leoni. So, in many ways, you're saying that there are benefits and they are easier to manage, certainly from that side. Also, they don’t go as far so they're not subject to, let's say, a neighbour spraying something.

Alyssa. Absolutely. Yes.

Leoni. Compared to honey bees, what are some of the downsides of native bees?

Alyssa. That short travelling distance is both a benefit and a negative because, obviously, with that distance, you're going to have to spread them a lot more evenly throughout your orchard to get even pollination. Another impact is in the off season, when they're not in your macadamia orchard, rather they're in native vegetation. If you put the hives close to each other, there can be fighting swarms. In terms of management, you can't bring them all into the orchard, have them all spread out, take them out of the orchard and have them clustered all together in one spot like you would with honey bees. 

Leoni. What about honey bees and native bees? Do they play well together? Can you put them both in the orchard?

Alyssa. Absolutely. And I certainly would recommend doing that. European bees typically are foraging on nectar in the macadamias in the orchard, whereas 90% of the native bees typically are foraging on pollen so they're going after different resources on the one flower. And I think wherever you've got increased diversity, that's going to improve your pollination.

Leoni. You've been talking how efficient they are, but there is a view that they're lazy teenagers that don't get out of bed until midday What's that about?

Alyssa. They have temperature requirements to fly because they're such tiny little things. They don't want to come out of their home and fly when it's too cold or too windy, so the conditions need to be right for them. Luckily, the right conditions for them to fly coincide with our macadamia flowering.

Leoni. So how does that change where we place them in an orchard to get them up and out of bed sooner?

Alyssa. Ideally in an orchard setting, you want to place them where they get good morning sun, but not where they're exposed to too much hot, middle-of-the-day sun. That's an ideal position for them.

Leoni. And more generally, how can the health of native bees and other insects you were talking about be an indicator of orchard health or resilience?

Alyssa. I think a lot of people bang on about biodiversity, but it is very important. We need to have redundancy in systems and if a particular pollinator isn't available for whatever reason, we need to have another tool in our arsenal to take that position.

Leoni. And as you were saying, there's a potential secondary income source or another value-added product from native bees in the orchard?

Alyssa. Yes, absolutely. So that's through the sale of duplicated hives and the sale of native bee products, such as honey or propolis.

Leoni. Talk us through duplicated hives. What does that mean?

Alyssa. Most of the hives are in three-tiered boxes - a bottom, a middle and a top. To duplicate the hive, you separate the bottom and the middle tiers and you put a new top on the old bottom and a new bottom on the old top. That's essentially the hive duplication process although it is a bit more difficult than that in practice. There are a lot of resources available online to help people duplicate their hives.

Leoni. And I suppose more people that could help you do that splitting, and then also an avenue of where you could sell on those hives?

Alyssa. Absolutely, yes. A few of those groups that do the splitting for you will offer a consignment service and purchase those hives from you for sale.

Leoni. What's the going rate for a native bee hive, full of bees obviously?

Alyssa. Full of bees, around $500. So, if you are on a farm and you've got a hundred hives and are able to duplicate them, that's a substantial figure.

Leoni. While getting the benefit of increased pollination.

Alyssa. Absolutely.

Leoni. Which we know increases total kernel recovery yield and a range of other quality parameters.

Alyssa. Absolutely. Yes.

Leoni. So again, just to confirm, where would you start if you wanted to have bees in your orchard?

Alyssa. I would go to Aussie Bee and have a look at some local suppliers and get in contact with them. Most of them have a lot of information. Within the native bee industry, everyone is so passionate. Everyone loves their bees, and they're more than willing to talk and help people out.

Leoni. And it certainly is an amazing story of a native insect that has evolved with a native tree, and nut. Thank you so much for your time today, Alyssa, and for sharing your experience and expertise with us.

Alyssa. Thank you for having me.

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