Where the blue bees fly

article by Carolyn Galbraith

BLUE-BANDED BEES fly around The Garden, shaking the flowers to release pollen. They have a loud, vibrating buzz, louder than any honeybee, and they hover like helicopters before diving down to land on a flower. Their stripes are sometimes white, sometimes a vibrant, electric blue; and they love the blue flowers, the lavender plants and the blue Dianella. Sometimes I see the male bees roosting at night on a blade of grass, changing places, flapping to balance, then settling to sleep. The female bees sleep apart from the males in their separate nests, small burrows they’ve made in the side of a riverbank.

Strangely, although most gardens in mainland Australia will have blue-banded bees flying around them, few people notice these bees. We notice honeybees—we recognise their orange stripes, their buzz. But the blue-banded bees seem invisible.

Are they unnoticeable because they don’t make honey? But the reason all bees are special is not because of honey at all. It’s because they have a special talent—they can spread pollen from plant to plant, from flower to flower. If that doesn’t happen, the flower doesn’t form a fruit, with seeds inside. No seeds? No more plants. Bees are essential for our plants, especially in Australia, because most of our plants are pollinated by bees, not the wind. Maybe that’s why we have so many kinds of bees. Not just a couple of different species—but more than 1500!

Can a thousand bees be invisible? A thousand, thousand bees? They’re small, to be sure, although some native bees are far bigger than honeybees. There’s the teddy bear bee, for example, a fat, fluffy golden bee which hums as it moves from flower to flower. It’s not trying to hide. The masked bee, on the other hand, may be trying to disguise itself, as it wears a superhero mask of bright yellow over its dark face.

Some bees really do use camouflage, like the wasp mimic bee, discovered on Captain Cook’s voyage. Some only try to trick other bees, like the neon cuckoo bee, which sneakily lays its eggs in the nest of blue-banded bees, allowing its larvae to hatch first and eat up the little packets of nectar and pollen which the more thoughtful blue-banded bees left as food for its own grubs.

If we can’t see the bees, can we see what they leave behind? If you have roses, you might have noticed some of the leaves with quite perfect circles cut out of them. Caterpillars, bugs? No; leaf-cutter bees need the soft leaves to cradle their eggs, and these bees cut out little circles or ovals for their nests. Those bees are black and yellow, not striped, and they make their homes in crevices. Their nests are also invisible to us, because we expect bees to live in hives, but so many of the Australian bees are solitary, making their own nests, concerning themselves with their own eggs, not those of a queen.

There is one kind of Australian bee with a queen, though, and honey, too. The little sugarbag bees, Tetragonula carbonaria, are almost like mosquitoes, tiny buzzing creatures, seeking nectar and pollen from flowers that other bees are too big to enter, such as the grevillea and the kangaroo paw. The honey from sugarbag bees is sharp and strong, and their honeypots are rounded, not neat flat hexagons like honeybees’.

Stingless bees!

There’s an Aboriginal story about two kangaroos fighting over the delicious sugarbag bees’ honey, with the smaller kangaroo cheekily tricking the other kangaroo into grabbing spiders instead. Who would want to give up even a drop of that tasty tucker?

The kangaroos didn’t have to worry about getting stung, because the sugarbag bee is
stingless. How much easier to harvest the honey! Did you know that some Aboriginal people farmed this honey carefully, not taking more than was needed, using everything from the special resin, like beeswax, for their art to the little growing bee-grubs as food? The resin could also be used as glue, and as polish, and could be moulded into figures and shapes.

If you knew where to look, even today, you would see the remnants of the ancient Aboriginal bee farms, the hollow paperbark trees marked by stone axes. The Aboriginal people would track the sugarbag bees patiently, following them across the land, sometimes marking a bee with a feather to make it more easily detectable in flight. Aboriginal people used plants that attracted the bees so that they could access the honey when they liked. When it was time for harvest, they would carefully make a hole in the hive using a stick, and gently plug the hole up again with mud.

Welcome bees

We can do the same; using plants that bees like, and finding good places for the bees to nest. In our cities and towns the bees might have to search hard for their nectar and for a safe place to burrow. We can help by planting bee-friendly flowers in our homes and schools. Australian native plants and trees such as grevillea and bottlebrush, honey myrtle and tea tree attract bees. Herb gardens with basil, rosemary, thyme and lavender are very popular with bees too. Their tiny flowers are perfect for our tiny native bees.

Providing a riverbank may be a challenge, but bees have no problem staying in ‘hotels’—special boxes with different crevices and spaces for different bees. The open boxes can contain hollow twigs from hydrangeas and bamboo for the reed bees, rammed earth so the burrowing bees can make a home, and holes of different sizes drilled in wood. These ‘bee hotels’ can shelter the bees and ensure their eggs survive winter safely, so that there are generations of bees to come.

Stop, look and listen

You may never see all thousand bees that exist in our land; you might not be able to follow the sugarbag bees across the land to find their hives, or see the ancient farms in the paperbark forests. The quiet caves with their special bee resin art might remain unseen.

But you can always search for the invisible bees in your own garden. If you stay quiet and watch carefully, listening for a buzz, watching for a darting movement, then, one day, the native bees will appear to you. And once you’ve seen them, they’ll never be hidden from your eyes again.