It was only a couple of years ago that I got really interested in bees and was hooked on the idea of having our own hive after attending a short course in natural bee keeping with Tim Malfroy. It’s not for everyone because it does require a bit of work but if you like the idea of bees in your garden but don’t have the time to manage a honey bee hive, why not think about keeping a sustainable native bee hive instead.
I’ve always known that we have native bees in Australia but when I discovered there are 1500 known species I was completely blown away and wondered why I hadn’t seen more of them. Looking into it a bit further, I found out that most of our native bees are quite small and the majority of them are ‘solitary’ bees so are much more difficult to spot and identify as bees. We also have some of our own ‘social’ bees that do colonise, form hives and produce honey and incredibly, this group of bees don’t sting so are commonly referred to as the ‘stingless’ bees.
While different species are found all over Australia, the majority of them live in the tropics and warmer parts of Queensland but one of the stingless species, Tetragonula carbonaria is fairly common around Sydney. Because they’re only about the size of a small ant most people don’t recognise them as bees at all but if you take the time to look more closely you will start to see their unmistakable bee features and behaviour.
Look closely and you might be able to see their four wings, a common feature of all bees and in flight, they display the familiar slow, deliberate bee flight with a similar dangly leg appearance to that of the honey bee. At this time of year you might even see little parcels of pollen attached to their back legs as they make their way around the garden.
We love bees, and welcome all kinds into our Permaculture garden because of the wonderful work they do in pollinating our plants and providing us with a healthy source of food. A few months ago we decided to set up a native food forest in our front yard which got us thinking about keeping a purpose built hive for native bees. But before we launched into it, we decided to do a bit of investigation to make sure it was right for us.
The first principle of Permaculture is to ‘observe and interact’ and by simply engaging with nature we can learn how to ‘design solutions to suit particular situations’. We always take the time to watch and learn from our garden and we’ve noticed an increase in the number of beneficial insects which has coincided with our garden expanding into it’s second year of production. We’ve seen dragonflies, praying mantis, hover flies, wasps, net casting spiders, lady beetles, solitary and stingless native bees and European honey bees.
Although the little Tetragonula are dwarfed by the European honey bee, many times I’ve seen both species harmoniously foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants and sometimes together on single flowers. The busy stingless worker bees seem unperturbed by the presence of the giant honey bee and you know all is well when you see them making their way back to the hive with their back legs loaded up with little parcels of bright golden pollen.
Observing this co-operative arrangement led us to the decision of purchasing a purpose built hive which came fully prepared with an established colony of Tetragonula.
The hive entrance is the diameter of a pencil which allows the bees to comfortably enter and exit the hive while keeping out larger intruders. There’s always plenty of action at the hive entrance as the guards watch over the workers as they bring their fare back to the nest.
Neither the native or honey bee are aggressive toward each other, but as hives develop and numbers of each species increase, the efficient honey bee is bound to dominate if food sources are limited so to reduce competition, there must be plenty of foraging opportunities for both species and a geographical separation of hives is preferable.
We grow the majority of our food in our backyard and this is where our Warré hive will be set up for our honey bees in Spring. Because of their foraging range, they’ll have direct access to endless eucalyptus blossom in the bushland below our house and a bounty of flowers from the myriad fruit trees and companion plants that fill our Permaculture garden.
Our native bee hive is located in our front yard among a range of flowering native plants and food forest trees. These include macadamias, davidson plum, finger lime, lilli pilli, elderberry, blueberry ash, midyim, dianella, trigger plants, xanthorrhoea, banksia, firewheel, callistemon, melaleuca and dendrobium orchards.
Our native bee hive is a lot smaller than the Warré hive but needs to be managed just as carefully. Tetragonula’s optimum habitat is the warmer north coast and tropical parts of Australia and while this species is quite common in Sydney, it is at the southern most extent of its range. For this reason the hive needs to be located in a nice warm, sheltered position, away from menacing winds and frosty conditions. Our front yard provides the perfect environment.
In warmer areas, Tetragonula can produce about a kilo of honey each year which is traditionally harvested by Aboriginal people who call it ‘sugarbag’. But we won’t be disturbing our hive to remove the honey as our native bees will need every single drop to survive our cool winters. They won’t fly when it drops below 18° C but instead they’ll hunker down in the hive to conserve energy and stay warm, slowly eating through their honey and pollen supplies until the Spring.
In preparation for winter our native bees have been nice and busy and if we could look into their hive, we would find a resinous nest with a queen, males drones and maybe a couple of hundred female worker bees. The comb would be fascinating to see as it would be built in a spiral shape and at this time of year, the little honey pot cells would be loaded up with honey, each one carefully capped to preserve their winter supply.
Like all native bees, they are very important garden pollinators especially when it comes to our unique Australian native plants so growing a range of flowering plants will help our native bees survive. In our front garden, the native banksias are loaded with flowering candle shaped bottle brushes at the moment which are providing a wonderful last minute supply of pollen and nectar for the bees that live in and visit our garden.
I find the world of bees truly fascinating but tending to native bees has taken my interest to another level. Stay tuned for some updates along the way.