Building the buzz: Helping New Zealand’s endemic bees blossom

Nestled in the window, its furry body panting with exhaustion, the little animal is giving up. Scooping up its weakened body, I gently carry it outside and lay it down with some food. Flying is an energetically expensive business, and once free from the glass prison the bee needs a quick sugar hit before taking off. A few minutes later, the tiny creature spreads its wings and whizzes back to its favourite mistletoe tree on the edge of my lawn.

 

One bite in three comes from a bee…

Residents in many gardens, bees are nature’s tiny pollinators. From spreading honey on toast to coating pavlovas in summer fruits, we owe much of what we eat to humble bees. True ecosystem servants, scientists and industries agree bees pollinate over 30% of global crops and 90% of wild flowers, with Landcare Research estimating bee services contribute over 3 billion dollars to the New Zealand GDP. Bees are vital not only to agriculture and horticulture industries but to the health of the planet, and while the energetic honeybee and docile bumblebee spring to mind, New Zealand has its own species of bees that are stepping into the spotlight.

 

bee tongie

The bumblebee, so common and loved in New Zealand, is actually an introduced species from the U.K

 

“Native bees come in three sizes: small, very small, and extremely small” – Jay Iwasaki, Ecologist

Despite having twice the number of native species as introduced, Aotearoa’s bees don’t have the high profile of many other endemic species. Often mistaken for wasps or sandflies, most of our 28 indigenous bee species are small, shy, solitary, and easily missed, quite the opposite of their introduced cousins. Being ground-nesting, they leave small holes on bare banks instead of hives. Our native bees and native plants have evolved in symbiosis, exchanging pollination services for food. Native mistletoe (Peraxilla tetrapetala) has explosive flowers that won’t open unless a pollinator (often Tui, Bellbirds, or bees) applies pressure. Native bees bite off the end of the flower and are rewarded with the nectar inside, simultaneously picking up pollen and facilitating mistletoe dispersal. While native bees don’t produce honey, they are continuing to prove they have a big part to play in New Zealand ecosystems, and scientists hope understanding their ecology will help regenerate our forests.

New Zealand native bees are smaller and more inconspicuous, and do not make honey nor have a stinger
New Zealand native bees are smaller and more inconspicuous, and do not make honey nor have a stinger

Although the introduction of exotic species to New Zealand has proved to be devastating and costly to native birds, lizards and insects, a recent disease may be giving native bees an edge. Professor Phil Lester, an insect ecologist at Victoria University of Wellington, explains that while varroa mites introduced to New Zealand in the early 2000’s have decimated wild and commercial bee populations, losses of introduced species are giving our native bees hope: “Honey and Bumble bees are efficient foragers, and along with their large size are able to outcompete our native species. Since the introduction of the varroa mite, more areas are becoming honeybee-free and allowing native bees to recolonize.” Native bees have a very different life cycle to introduced species, prohibiting the mites successfully infecting and propagating through native populations.

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Natives need us

Niches are opening for our bees, and planting native plants in favour of exotics not only helps bees but also our many indigenous bird and insect species. Manuka and Hebe are favourites alongside native mistletoe, but our natives also enjoy exotic species like coriander and kiwifruit. Leaving a few bare patches around your property encourages native bees to burrow, drilling holes in wood provides refuges from our ever-changing weather, and conservationists are increasingly giving them the public exposure they need.

 

As Kiwis, we are constantly reminded of how special our native species are, but we mustn’t forget our bees. Without them, we may find ourselves settling for gorse instead of mistletoe at Christmas…

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