To Bee Or Not To Bee

I love the end of winter. It’s as though, just when the icy mornings seem like they’ll never end, native flowers burst out and practically sing at us that the wait is over and we’re heading into spring. Wattle bursts out bright and golden all over the place. Brilliant red banksias droop down to the ground, surrounded by pale green leaves. Buzzing bees flit between flowers, wiggling their bright blue bums as they forage for nectar.

…Wait a minute…

If, like me, when someone says bee you mentally picture something like this:

…then the thought of a bee with a blue bum may be a bit surprising. Bees are yellow, right? Black and yellow, to be more specific. What’s more iconic in the bee world than the image of the yellow, fuzzy honeybee Apis mellifera? As iconic as this image is, it turns out that it only became part of the Australian landscape as recently as 190 years ago, and clearly didn’t get here on its own! The European honeybee (Apis mellifera) was introduced to provide a reliable source of honey for colonisers. The fact that they even survived the journey is pretty impressive – after all, there are notoriously few flowers in the ocean! While early Europeans may not have intended for bees to escape into the environment, inevitably it happened. Decades later, they’ve made themselves at home across virtually the entire continent. Managed hives of European honeybees continue to pollinate many of Australia’s crops, and the value of pollination and honey services from these hives is estimated to be in the billions.

As well as our crops, European honeybees visit our native plants. This results in some pretty delicious (and uniquely Australian) honey flavours, but it begs the question, what is the impact of these bees on our native pollinators?

Australia has an amazing diversity of bees, with over 1,500 species of native bees. In northern, tropical regions of the country, social species of stingless bees are commercially sold as pollinators and honey producers. However, the majority of our native species are peaceful, solitary creatures, with a variety of interesting behaviours.

Victoria is home to seven of the ten major groups of native bees – reed bees, blue-banded bees, teddy bear bees, leafcutter bees, resin bees, masked bees, and Homalictus bees. The behaviour of these groups is incredibly diverse. For example, the small but beautiful Homalictus bees have large, intricate branching nests, some of which house many females that all take turns guarding the nests from intruders. Those familiar with leafcutter ants may have a clue as to the behaviour of leafcutter bees, which cut disks out of leaves and use them to build their nests.

My personal favourite, resin bees collect resins and gums for their brood cells and nest holes, and on occasion may try to ‘borrow’ some resin from the nests of stingless bees. Some of these species are dazzlingly beautiful, with species of Homalictus bees ranging from golden-blue to coppery red. Others, such as masked bees and reed bees, are mainly black in colour, with only a few bright markings. One of the most dynamic of the bee groups, the blue-banded bees are delightfully rotund and have bright stripes of white or blue across their abdomens.

The alluring blue-banded bee ( Amegilla cingulata ). 

The alluring blue-banded bee (Amegilla cingulata). 

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of feral European honeybees in the last 80 years. As many of our native pollinating species have considerable environmental overlap with European honeybees, this spread could indicate considerable trouble for our natives. There has been a number of investigations analysing potential impacts of European honeybees; however, a review by Paini (2004) found that most of these studies suffered from confounding factors or low replication, making it difficult to ascertain how much of an impact invasive honeybees are directly having on native pollinators. As recently as 1992, the bumblebee species Bombus terrestris has inhabited Tasmania, spreading widely across the state in the short time it’s been there. While there is some evidence of displacement of native bees, the major concern is how B. terrestris increases seed production of invasive weeds, helping them to disperse further.

This seems to be the issue on the mainland as well: European honeybees are also fond of non-native plants like Scotch broom, resulting in a decrease in native flora and feeding opportunities for our native bees and pollinators. While the impact of invasive bee species may still be unclear, what researchers generally agree upon is that deforestation and loss of floral and nesting resources is one of the major concerns for our native bees. Clearing of land for agricultural use decreases their available habitats, whilst constant grazing can restrict the regeneration of particular plants, restricting their range.

All of this raises the question: how can we ensure our native bee species are preserved so that we don’t lose them forever, as has been seen in parts of Europe? One answer may be in commercial applications. For example, the blue-banded bee is currently being investigated as a potential pollinator for tomato plants, thereby eliminating the need for B. terrestris on the mainland. Another avenue is an increase in public interest. In the UK, the Bumblebee Trust has taken off in recent years, as the public became aware of their decreasing numbers and sought to save the species that remained.

In the last decade, the persistence of the drought has led to a push for Australians to plant native species in our gardens. Appreciation for our native flora has been slowly and steadily increasing. Combining this with an awareness for our native bee species could be a way of encouraging public engagement and enthusiasm for our natives, and ensuring their survival as factors such as climate change become increasingly unavoidable. 

After all, who wouldn’t want to save our bright blue beauty? 

For more information on Australia's native bees, refer to Tim Heard's book on the topic and this article about their conservation.  

Mary Shuttleworth

Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.

Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.

Banner image courtesy of

A Question of Balance

Australia is famous for its battles with invasive species. A memorable episode of The Simpsons shows Bart releasing a bullfrog in an Australian airport; half an hour later, the country is brimming with bullfrogs (or ‘chazzwazzers’ as a local naturally names them). The impact of the poisonous cane toad in its inexorable spread across the country since 1935 is already legend. Today, these amphibians inhabit approximately half the continent and are believed to number in the billions. Yet despite having been a part of the landscape for longer than the living memory of most of Australia’s human population, cane toads are still considered an invasive species. So at what point does an animal stop being considered ‘invasive’ and become ‘native’?

Dingo ( Canis dingo ). Photo: Alex Mullarky

Dingo (Canis dingo). Photo: Alex Mullarky

It’s hard to imagine an Australia without dingoes, but 4,000 years ago this country had never seen anything like a wild dog. Dingoes are believed to have migrated to Australia alongside several groups of humans, spreading across the country over the subsequent four millennia. So why are dingoes considered native when cane toads have a similar story? It appears to be a question of their ecological impact. “For a long time, dingoes were blamed for the demise of thylacines and devils from the mainland, as these losses occurred at about the same time as dingoes arrived,” says Dr Sarah Legge, one of the leaders of the National Environmental Science Program’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub. “But more recent research instead implicates human impacts and climate change as the primary agents causing the mainland extinctions of thylacines and devils.

“Whatever the case, dingoes have since taken on a key role as an apex predator in Australian ecosystems (along with some of the largest reptiles, large raptors and of course humans). Apex predators play a critical role in regulating populations of smaller predators and prey species, as well as promoting ecosystem diversity and stability.” The dingo may once have been an outsider, but it has since found a place in Australian ecosystems, making it an invaluable part of the landscape. According to Dr Legge, where dingo numbers have declined, cat and fox numbers have increased and have had a major impact on small native mammals.

Dingo tracks in the sand. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Dingo tracks in the sand. Photo: Alex Mullarky

These predators are another issue entirely. “I consider feral cats and foxes to be introduced, because they arrived extremely recently,” says Dr Legge. One school of thought places all ‘invasive’ animals in concurrence with the arrival of European colonists in Australia: 1788. Animals that were introduced after this date, including rabbits, foxes, camels, donkeys, horses, cats, and cane toads, are considered invasive. There are even dozens of species of earthworm which have been introduced for agricultural reasons (or by accident) that now populate Australian soils.

Cats and foxes in particular have upset the delicate balance of many ecosystems in the country. “They have been destabilising, causing a large number of mammal and some bird extinctions, simplifying faunal communities, and they continue to exert negative impacts on Australia’s unique fauna,” explains Dr Legge. Estimates place the number of feral cats anywhere between 5 and 23 million, and these cats aren’t happily eating kibble in urban apartments. Research has demonstrated a devastating impact on Australia’s native fauna, which aren’t adapted to this kind of predation.

While dingoes appear to have slotted relatively easily into the landscape, cats are upsetting the balance. Australia has seen as many as 30 mammal extinctions since European colonisation: a clear indicator of how ecosystems have been changed by introduced species.

Feral horses cause enormous problems for Australia's biodiversity, but an immense cultural connection remains. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Feral horses cause enormous problems for Australia's biodiversity, but an immense cultural connection remains. Photo: Alex Mullarky

Large herbivores such as horses and cattle obviously aren’t going after the quolls and numbats, but their impact has nonetheless been measured. Australia has no native large herbivores or hoofed animals that its ecosystems would be prepared for, so grazing decimates native plant life while making hunting easier for feral predators – giving native mammals nowhere to hide. Horses and cats are inadvertently working together. However, it can’t be denied that the feral horses of Australia – numbering around 400, 000 – have worked their way into the national psyche. A search for ‘High Country Victoria’ brings up images of horses cantering across streams in mountain ranges. The Man from Snowy River and The Silver Brumby are some of the country’s most famous literary works. Unsurprisingly then, large-scale removal of these particular feral animals is always likely to encounter vocal opposition.

Invasive species could be defined as those that are introduced with the movements of humans. However, we’ve already seen in the case of dingoes that it isn’t always so simple. Perhaps, then, only recent arrivals should be considered truly invasive, although this too feels simplistic. Maybe the only real test of an animal’s ‘invasiveness’ is its impact on the existing flora and fauna. Predators like cats and foxes cause more harm than native species can recover from, leading to irreversible changes in the Australian landscape; this makes them invasive. It’s a contentious issue that’s difficult to navigate, but if a species can’t exist in harmony with its surroundings, perhaps that’s what we should call ‘invasive’. ‘Native’ doesn’t mean it’s been around forever - it simply indicates an ability to coexist. 

Cover image by Billy Geary

Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.

A Berry Nice Native Indeed

Anyone who has ever walked through a national park or driven through agricultural land has most likely seen the scrambling, thorny tendrils of a European blackberry bush. A Weed of National Significance, this plant was once hailed as a solution to the erosion of riverbanks, and was planted in suburban backyards for its delicious fruit. Today, however, the public do not view Rubus fruticosus in such a favourable light.

When ripe, European blackberry fruit is dark purple, or even black in colour.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

When ripe, European blackberry fruit is dark purple, or even black in colour. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Farmers and conservation volunteers alike now try frantically to eradicate this prickly weed. But did you know that the European blackberry’s cousin, Rubus parvifolius, is indigenous to many areas of Victoria, even Melbourne?

That’s right, we have our very own native raspberry! Native raspberry is a slender, rambling shrub with hooked thorns and sweet edible berries. Its leaves are bright green on top with a silvery underside, and its small, pink flowers appear over the spring and summer months. From summer to autumn, this species produces small berries that turn bright red when ripe. Native raspberry is found in a range of habitats including grasslands, scrublands, woodlands and riparian areas.

Our native raspberry is a slender, scrambling plant with bright green leaves and small, red berries.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

Our native raspberry is a slender, scrambling plant with bright green leaves and small, red berries. Image: Wikimedia Commons

If you are weeding and come across a prickly, scrambling shrub, and you are unsure whether it’s native raspberry or European blackberry, there are a few key characteristics to look out for. Look at its leaves: native raspberry has bright green leaves with a silvery underside, while the leaves of the European blackberry are a darker, duller green. If the shrub has flowers, think about their size and colour: native raspberry has small pink flowers which measure 1 to 1.5cm wide, while European blackberry has larger white-pink flowers which measure 2 to 3cm wide. If it is bearing fruit, observe the ripest looking berries. Native raspberries bear small berries that are bright red and measure 1cm in diameter when ripe. If the berries are larger and purple to black in colour: you guessed it, you’ve got European blackberries!

The European blackberry has leaves that are darker green than their cousins.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

The European blackberry has leaves that are darker green than their cousins. Image: Wikimedia Commons

If indeed you do find European blackberry on your property, use a woody weed herbicide such as glyphosate to kill it. Unless the plant is very small, don’t try to pull it out, as it will just re-shoot from any roots that remain in the soil. Please don’t leave it alone: as a Weed of National Significance, this species causes a myriad of problems for farmers and ecosystems alike. Especially large infestations can even pose a fire risk. If, on the other hand, you find native raspberry on your property, treasure that little shrub, and enjoy its delicious fruit!

Secret Ingredients: Native Foods for a Warmer Australia

For those who love food culture – and especially those who love talking about food culture – Melbourne is a city catering to many tastes. From the iconic cookery competitions of the Royal Melbourne Show, to immensely popular markets and festivals, to restaurants like Attica and Vue de Monde holding their own amongst the world’s best, the endless variety is always underpinned by quality and a respect for authenticity.

And our appreciation is easy to understand. In a city built and enriched by migrants for two centuries, each culture brings with it unique dishes and techniques - where else would you search for authentic Greek, Vietnamese, or Ethiopian, except in the communities that brought them here? Even the Melbourne Immigration Museum has a regular rotation of food-based exhibitions and celebrations in recognition of our shared love.

Amongst all this enthusiasm for the international, however, there has been a home-grown cuisine and culture continually overlooked. Only recently has mainstream attention begun to focus on the fruits, nuts and vegetables of Australian ecosystems, growing out of a curiosity to explore yet more novel tastes and combinations. Of course, to First Australians, native foods aren’t novel at all.

The edible fruits of an Australian native garden. Image: Daleys Fruit

The edible fruits of an Australian native garden. Image: Daleys Fruit

Australia’s vegetation supported Aboriginal culture for tens of thousands of years. Recent research has shown how careful cultivation practices, with precise fire management and seed distribution, shaped a landscape of consistent abundance that still adapted to the changing seasons. This was helped by the immense array of native food plants to choose from - so much more than just macadamia nuts and wattleseed. In research for an upcoming book, botanist and Monash alumnus Claudia Green has documented almost two hundred plant species with confirmed or anecdotal use in diet: “There have been people living across this entire continent, that’s known. And they had borders and nations, that’s known too. Once you start looking, there’s so much evidence of a rich and diverse agriculture – it’s different to the rows and fields of a European monoculture system, but it was still definitely productive enough to support permanent habitation.”

Some plants have slid into the public notice already. The delightful lemon myrtle, Backhousia citriodora, has been grown in plantations for decades as a source of oil and leaf – its citral content has been measured as one of the highest in any plant. Australia’s iconic Eucalyptus trees created an international industry in the late 19th Century, after the traditional medicine was recognised as containing antibacterial and anti-inflammatory oils. The quandong, Santalum acuminatum, has had a tough road to recognition despite findings that its vitamin C content is much higher than most citrus – now it’s commonly available in jams and sauces.

The iconic gumnuts of Australia's Eucalyptus trees.

The iconic gumnuts of Australia's Eucalyptus trees.

One of the common objections to Australian food plants is the inherited belief that they just don’t taste all that nice. It’s a comment that has carried from English settlers right through to today, and the key point in this is that it’s a European perspective. In the Northern Hemisphere, centuries of intensive agriculture have produced apples, stone fruits, and grains that bear very little resemblance to their wild ancestors. By selecting for the sweetest, the juiciest, the largest of fruits and grains, the best of each generation gradually became the new average and our tastes adjusted. But while flavour and abundance have increased with these modifications, so have the requirements for a successful crop – meticulous regimes of fertilising, irrigating, and applying pesticides. Our native food plants, on the other hand, have been left largely unaltered thanks to the less intrusive ideology of First Australian cultivation.

The vibrantly coloured quandong fruit.  Image:

The vibrantly coloured quandong fruit. Image:

It’s an important point to consider when thinking about the future challenges of growing domesticated foods. This past December, Melbourne has blanched under a heatwave that set records for overnight temperatures. Apart from this one of many notches in a series of new extremes, long-term weather modelling has predicted that south-eastern Australia will continue to receive less and less rain as the 21st Century continues - forecasts for our fruit-growing regions in the Goulburn Valley show a potential 10% loss in rainfall, along with perhaps the loss of over half the water in the Goulburn and Broken Rivers. Irrigation of current orchard species is already made difficult by water restrictions and a narrow growing season between late winter frosts and summer blasts.

A shift in production and a shift in attitudes toward native foods could help the country adapt. Seed from the Acacia genus has been grown both here and internationally as a protein source from trees that can survive long periods of dryness. Lilly-pilly trees, Syzygium smithii, are already grown as a drought-tolerant ornamental and are familiar to many people – the berries are edible. CSIRO has been conducting research into the commercial viability of Australian food plants for quite some time, with promising results.

With the variety of international foods here in Melbourne, and a willingness to explore and combine different ingredients, it’s no surprise that Australian native foods are gaining a hold. Exploring them further, as a serious enterprise rather than another flavour to incorporate, could stave off the worst consequences of future droughts while opening up new ways to feed our growing population.


Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.