Our Work Biodiversity Open Forum: Blue-banded bliss

Open Forum: Blue-banded bliss

Dr Marion Carey writes that with an estimated 40% of insect species now threatened with extinction, we can all do more to notice and appreciate our wonderful native bees and give them a helping hand- and with so little effort also comes great personal reward. 

My garden is not very large but within it lies a magical spot. There by some serendipity, rather than my good planning, pink salvia, blue rosemary, purple lavender, and red grevilla flowers come together. It’s where I go after a stressful day, or when I just need peace and connection with nature. 

For around me unconcernedly buzzes a drift of beautifully formed tiny foraging insects with brilliant blue stripes, gliding from petal to petal, seeking nectar and pollen. Watching them is like meditation. 

Blue-banded bees (Amegilla cingulata) are just one of around 2000 species of native bees in Australia. 

These treasured visitors are getting rarer to find, as their natural nesting sites in clay soils are destroyed by ever increasing development of cities. They are also under threat from agriculture, land clearing, exotic plant species and climate change. 

Yet paradoxically cities may be important sites for bee conservation in private and community gardens. 

While the introduced European honey bee is a long-distance forager who will fly several kilometres in search of food, the foraging range of most of the native bees we know about is just 400 metres. This makes home gardeners really important in providing habitat and food for local native bee populations. 

Their needs are basic and fairly predictable- food, water, shelter, protection from hazards. 

Make friends with your neighbourhood bees 

 A bee-friendly garden needs a diverse range of plants providing year-round flowers for pollen and nectar. 

Natives are great, but so are some exotics such as salvia and lavender. 

Leave a few weeds, let some herbs and vegetables such as brassicas go to seed, and leave some areas of unmulched bare earth. 

Native bees are solitary and many species, including blue-banded bees, build their nests in the earth. 

Different native bees need different types of shelter such as holes in hardwood, bundles of sticks, pieces of reed, and mud bricks or old mortar. 

You can even build them a “bee hotel”. 

Having a bird bath is great, but bees can drown in open water, so add some pebbles or provide some wet sand. 

Resist using pesticides in your garden. 

And if don’t have a garden? Even flowering plants in pots can help. 

Apart from the joy these insects provide, they are vital for our health and well-being. 

Blue-banded bees provide “buzz pollination” that can’t be provided by introduced honey bees. 

This is important for a range of produce including tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, pumpkin and blueberries. 

Although our commercially grown tomatoes tend to be grown in hothouses with buzz pollination imitated by a vibrating wand, local research has found blue-banded bees not only do this task naturally, but produce fruit that is heavier, larger and better tasting! 

Perhaps over 40% of insect species are now threatened with extinction. 

We can all do more to notice and appreciate our wonderful native bees and give them a helping hand, with so little effort for such a great reward.

First published in Open Forum on 29 February 2020