The humble bee is an animal not normally seen as part of routine veterinary practice, unless perhaps when removing the bee sting from the paw of a pet who has been stung. However, Australia’s native bees play an important role in pollinating flowering plants, and with the often close co-evolutionary relationships between Australia’s native flora and fauna, flowering plants in turn provide food and shelter to a wealth of other fauna. As research into Australia’s native bees grows, more is becoming known about their welfare requirements and the threats facing the approximately 2000 native bee species which call Australia home.

One of the biggest issues facing native bees in Australia is a lack of awareness and effective monitoring. There is currently no requirement for native bee surveys to be carried out in environmental impact assessments, and the methods used in monitoring bees can often be flawed resulting in biased measurements of bee diversity. Curtin University Forrest Scholar, Kit Prendergast is a native bee scientist, who has just submitted her PhD research into native bees, and the influence of the introduced European Honeybee on plant-pollinator networks. 

“My research has involved identifying the biodiversity of native bees in urbanised habitats, along with their foraging ecology and habitat preferences, the structural properties of urban plant-pollinator networks, and the effect of the introduced European honeybee – which is the main exotic bee species in Australia – and the honeybee along with only a few other exotic species make up only a tiny fraction of the bees here. There is a lot of taxonomic work needed on our native bees, there are hundreds of species that have yet to be described”, said Ms Prendergast. 

Compared with honeybees, relatively little is known about the diseases that affect native bees, and whilst native bees are attacked by numerous parasites and parasitoids, these generally exist in equilibrium with the native bee populations. 

“It is known that honeybees can transmit diseases to wild bees. Fortunately Varroa mite and the associated diseases it transmits is absent from Australia. Even if it did arrive, it would impact the European honeybee populations, and the native bees would be unaffected – another case for ensuring our native bees are preserved. Because the introduced honeybee can compete with native bees, minimising beekeeping, ensuring any diseased hives are exterminated, and good biosecurity – are very important”, said Ms Prendergast. 

Native bees also are not as aggressive as honeybees, and Ms Prendergast highlights that there are no known cases of animals suffering anaphylactic shocks from native bee stings. “There are already too many honeybees in urban environments, and they can compete with native bees for food. Poor beekeeping husbandry can lead to disease, and there is also the risk of the colony swarming and going feral. This in turn poses a disease risk to other honeybee colonies, but critically, the feral honeybees usurp nesting hollows of hollow-nesting parrots and other birds, and possums”, said Ms Prendergast.

Native bees not only need flowers for food, but they also need nesting resources, and the nesting biology of native bee species is another focus of Ms Prendergast’s research. “The concept of building a bee hotel in your backyard is a great way to support the native bees, together with creating a garden haven for native bees by planting plenty of native flowers to attract the greatest number and diversity of bees to your garden. In particular, planting species that are most attractive to native bees as well as honeybees – such as eucalypts, melaleucas, bottlebrushes, native pea plants and other species depending on your location, such as Hibbertia and Eremophila here in Western Australia”, said Ms Prendergast.


Photo source: Kit Prendergast