There are over 1,500 species of native bees in Australia and around 200 live in the Sydney region.
Bees belong to the insect Order Hymenoptera, which includes wasps, ants and sawflies. In Australia there are four main bee families: Apidae, Colletidae, Halictidae and Megachilidae.
Many Australian these bees are solitary nesters, while others may share a nest. Others are fully social species.
Although some bees sting, they are not considered to be pests as they play an important role in the Australian environment as key pollinators of many native plant species. Indigenous people have long used both the honey and the nests of native bees as valuable sources of food and wax.
Commercially, the introduced Honey Bee is vital to the production of honey, but the cultivation of native bee species is also being investigated as a viable industry.
What do bees look like?
- Stout or elongate and constricted at the 'waist' (not always obvious).
- Body has forked hairs.
- Can appear hard or soft and fluffy.
- Thread-like and distinctly elbowed. First segment much larger than the others.
- Large to very large. Well separated in females and close together in males.
- Used for cutting and lapping, held downwards at rest.
- Two pairs.
- Both pairs are membranous and clear with few veins and cross-veins - but have visible cells.
- Veins do not extend to wing margin.
- Hindwing always shorter and narrower than forewing.
- Fore- and hindwing coupled tightly by a row of minute hooks (hamuli).
- At rest wings are held flat over the body, overlapping in some species.
- Six legs.
- Hindlegs are enlarged and have forked hairs.
- Cerci (tails) absent and they occasionally have a stinger.
Where are bees found?
- On plants especially around flowers.
- Holes, hollows or burrows in wood, soil, plant stems and rock crevices.
- Some species can be found in nests of unrelated bee species.
What do bees do?
- Most bees live alone in nests. However, some nest alongside each other in small to large groups occupying the nest similar to flats in an apartment block. A few bees are truly social, forming colonies where individuals share the responsibility of providing care for the young. Social bees have a queen bee, reproductive males and a large number of sterile workers.
- When disturbed bees fly away, sting or swarm (rare). Most bees sting as a last resort, although true social bees can become aggressive and attack when their hive is threatened.
- They are strong fliers. Many bees are capable of flying long distances as well as hovering. They tend to buzz loudly when they fly.
- Bees hold their antennae in front when walking.
- The majority of bees are pollen or nectar feeders.
- They provide food for their young. Bees transfer pollen using special arrangements of hairs that form pollen baskets on their hindlegs and the underside of the abdomen. They may also ingest pollen and nectar, then regurgitate it once they are back at their nest.
- They are extremely important plant pollinators.
- They are mostly active during the day. Many species have been observed sleeping in groups at night.
What looks similar?
- Wasps are closely related to bees (in the same Order) and so share many common features. Wasps can be distinguished from bees by having one or more of the following: an obvious constriction at the waist; fewer hairs; hindlegs not enlarged to form baskets of hairs for carrying pollen; very few veins and cross-veins on the wings; and long antennae.
- Sawflies are closely related to bees (in the same Order) and so share many common features. Sawflies can be distiguished from bees as they have no constriction at the waist, lack enlarged hindlegs and forked hairs, have a saw-like spike extending from the abdomen; have more veins and cross-veins on the wings.
Features of bees:
- They are vegetarian throughout their life cycle, eating nectar and pollen.
- They are generally furrier than wasps and have feathery or branched hairs.
- Some native bees use a special pollination technique called 'buzz pollination', which certain native flowering plants require for pollination.
- Stingless bees (Trigona and Austroplebeia species) are the only native bees that do not possess a sting.
- The females of all the other native bees have a sting but many are too small to deliver an effective venom dose to humans.
- Although not aggressive, the largest native species can deliver a painful sting.
CSIRO Entomology. 1991. The Insects of Australia. Melbourne University Press.
Dollin, A., M. Batley, M. Robinson & B. Faulkner. 2000. Native Bees of the Sydney Region: A Field Guide. Australian Native Bee Research Centre.
Hadlington, P. & Johnston, J. 1998. An Introduction to Australian Insects. UNSW Press: Sydney
Zbrowski, P. & Storey, R. 1995. A Field Guide to Insects in Australia. Reed Books: Sydney