Australia has native bees - why keep European Bees in Australia?
We have been asked the question why beekeepers had to import European Honeybees to Australia as there are already over 1,600 species of native bees in Australia.
We don't claim to have the right answers but here are a few thoughts.
Most of the food plants for us and our animal stock, like Broccoli, Carrots, Peas, Beans, Blueberries, Raspberries, Blackberries, Strawberries, Cherries, Almonds, Apples, Apricots, Pears, Sunflowers, Canola, Cucumber, Pumpkins, Melons, Zucchini etc. have been introduced by the European settlers. These plants do not naturally occur in Australia.
European Honeybees are the natural pollinators for these crops as well as for the flowers we have also imported, therefore they are best suited for pollinating these plants.
Although Australian Native Bees can be found in most of Australia's diverse habitats, not all of them are suitable for crop pollination as they are not living in large colonies, most types of native bees are solitary bees. As we grow our crops in concentrated areas we also need the pollinating bees in those areas when required, which can only bee achieved when larger bee colonies, kept in beehives, can be transported.
Of the 1,600 species of wild bees native to Australia about 14 species are stingless. Some Stingless Bees have been "cultivated", i.e. kept in boxes which can be brought to the fields for pollination. Australian Stingless Bees however live only in the warmer (tropical) climates and the number of hives being kept by beekeepers at present is limited. Stingless bees are starting to be used for crop pollination of crops such as Macadamia and Avocado in Queensland and northern NSW. However, the vast majority of crop pollination in Australia is currently done by European honeybees.
And then there is the honey; mankind has had an interest in European Honeybees for thousands of years for their honey. As the honeybees originate from cooler climates they have developed the ability to gather and store great amounts of honey during the warm season to survive through the cold season. Bees from warm climates store very little honey if at all. And what is the reward for beekeeping without the honey?
The Australian stingless bees only store about 1 kg of honey per year in their hives. A small niche industry is starting in Australia with this tangy 'Sugarbag' honey. However, the stingless bees cannot produce enough honey to supply Australia's large scale commercial needs. In comparison, on average here in Australia European Honeybees store 70 to 100 kg of honey per year in their hive. (World record is over 300 kg)
There is also a research program at the University of Adelaide right now working on the domestication of native blue banded bees for pollination of greenhouse tomatoes. It will be some years though before these bees are available commercially.
Native Australian stingless bees are under threat from human development. Bob the Bee Man aims to rescue and relocate colonies of the stingless native bees of Australia - his website is especially for tree loppers and vegetation management workers, firewood cutters, earthmoving contractors, timber getters of all types and the farming community.
You find good information on Australia's Stingless Bees in an article "Stingless bee rescue" in ABC Science, published 08 May 2003.
There is a role in Australia's future for the use of both European honeybees and native bees. They have different strengths and weaknesses in crop pollination and Australia would benefit from having commercially available stocks of both European bees and native bees. Likewise, the Sugarbag honey will become a useful niche bush tucker type industry for Australia but due to its limited volume will never replace honey production by European bees.
Many thanks to Anne Dollin from Aussie Bee for her contributions about Australian native bees!