Wednesday, the 20th May, was officially named World Bee Day, honouring the importance of bees and other pollinators in the world’s ecosystems.
Bee Day is a recent Slovenian initiative, reflecting the great love of bee-keeping in that country. Its focus is almost entirely on the honey bee, even though honey bees comprise just 7 out of the 16,000 or so species of bees worldwide. This is a typical European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera), photographed in the Sydney Botanic Gardens:
Because of its role in pollinating so many food plants, it was inevitable that European settlers would eventually introduce the honey bee to Australia. This duly happened in 1822. It was a remarkable achievement when one considers the difficulties of keeping a beehive thriving for two months on board a leaky ship sailing through the doldrums and the roaring forties, as well as the challenge for the surviving bees to adjust to a seasonal reversal on arrival. Once the bees had settled, however, they loved the place, adapting happily to native flowers like this callistemon:
Soon enough, some bees swarmed beyond their hive boxes, and found that the local eucalypts provided plenty of suitable hollows for them to settle into:
These eucalypts and angophora trees had plenty of suitable flowers right on each feral hive’s doorstep:
There were wattle flowers laden with pollen too:
And other flowers like this hibiscus.
The bees could also visit familiar Old World plants, like this bee on a citrus flower:
Other bee habits remained unchanged, including brushing off accumulated pollen on fur and wings:
And not forgetting to wipe off the antennae, before visiting this cumquat:
Australia is a dry continent, but the bees were able to drink extra water from raindrops or dew or from any receptacle that was available:
In spite of all these home comforts, the feral honey bees did not fully displace Australia’s unique native bees such as the much smaller Stingless Bees (Tetragonula sp). These are also social bees, with colonies nesting in hives made from a mixture of wax and resins called cerumen.
Here is a stingless bee overflying a honey bee as they both forage for nectar and pollen. Each bee has her corbiculas or pollen baskets laden with pinkish pollen:
The stingless bees produce their own honey (sometimes called “sugar bag” honey), albeit in much smaller quantities than honey bees. This is a small vial in front of a regular honey bee product:
Just as honey bees have taken to many native flowers, the little stingless bees have happily adjusted to many introduced flowers such as this crepe myrtle:
Other native bees are also still thriving, and in many cases contributing their pollination abilities to food plants. One example is the Blue-Banded Bee, which because of its buzz-pollination technique is well-matched with tomato flowers:
Another is the Teddy Bear Bee, here seen visiting a lime blossom.
Other native bees visiting imported plants include this Domino Cuckoo Bee, just lifting off from a rosemary flower:
And this is another Blue-Banded Bee, burrowing deep into a sage flower.
There are 2000 more species of local bees than the few I have shown above. Even my tiny photo portfolio of different native bee species is far too extensive for a single post - and I haven’t mentioned any other type of pollinators!
You may wonder why this blog, which ordinarily concentrates on local wildlife, should focus today on the imported honey bee, but 20 to 30% of the human world’s food depends on pollinators, with honey bees making much the biggest contribution. Dependent foods include potatoes, pepper, coffee, pumpkins, carrots, apples, almonds, and tomatoes, to name just a few. Because honey bees play such a critical part, World Bee Day was created to promote understanding and concern about them.
Furthermore, over the last two centuries honey bees have become an accepted part of the Australian ecosystem, so I thought it appropriate to give them star billing for World Bee Day!