Native bees: Living up to the buzz


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Native Bees

The benefits of bees are widely known, but few are aware that Australia is home to more than 1600 native bee species. The recently finalised Australian Native Bee Strategic RD&E Plan charts a course to maximise the potential of these native bee species and boost an industry that is ready to take flight.

Bees pollinate around 80% of all flowering plants, so if our bees are thriving, then agriculture and the wider community reap the benefits. This is the crux of the Australian Native Bee Strategic RD&E Plan, which is underpinned by recent research that identified Australian native stingless bees as a high-potential emerging industry.

“This plan sets the direction for growth and investment in the industry,” says Dr Olivia Reynolds, AgriFutures Australia Senior Manager – Emerging Industries. “It’s a resource to help everyone along the supply chain to identify the needs of the industry, as well as show investors the potential of the industry.”

Niche alternative for pollination services

The Australian Native Bee Strategic RD&E Plan outlines that native bee pollination services are likely to deliver the highest economic returns in the value chain. Ian Driver, President of the Australian Native Bees Association, says the success of macadamia farmers using native stingless bee pollination shows the potential of the industry.

“Because of their size, feeding requirements, nesting preferences and the fact they only live above the NSW-Victoria border, stingless native bees are best suited to small, niche farms where there is remnant bushland nearby,” he says.

“We’re also looking into whether solitary native bees (that occur Australia-wide) may be useful for pollinating crops grown in glasshouses.”

The role of bees has been put under the spotlight recently, with the NSW Varroa mite incursion and subsequent movement restrictions highlighting the importance of bees – particularly their pollination services – to Australian agriculture. While native bees are unlikely to ever match honeybees in the scale of pollination services they can provide, there are opportunities to use alternative species of bees for pollination to reduce the risks of relying on a single pollinator which may be susceptible to predator, parasite and pathogen development (including Varroa mite).

Scaling native honey production

Native bee honey production is also an opportunity for the industry, as honey produced by native bees has a unique flavour, is low GI and does not cause tooth decay. Currently, Australian native bee honey production is estimated to have an industry value of less than $1 million but by 2030, this value is expected to increase to $3-5 million, with native bee honey retailing for $200-450 per kilogram.

“Stingless bees produce small amounts of native bee honey, of around 1 kg per hive per year whereas the imported honeybee A. mellifera produces about 60 kg per hive per year,” Dr Reynolds explains. “While stingless bee honey attracts a premium price, demand often outstrips supply, therefore increasing yields will be required to ensure an economic return.”

She says that while scalability is a challenge, the industry is committed to its ambitious targets. The plan outlines that reducing costs and increasing automation will be critical to scaling up hive production. In addition, the Australian Native Bee Association is in the process of applying to Food Standards Australia New Zealand for the approval of honey from native stingless bees as a standardised food. The proposed labelling requirement and definition are designed to distinguish native bee honey from the honey of Apis honeybees, which will assist in branding it as a premium-value product.

Exploring propolis production potential

Another by-product of native bees is propolis – the nest-building material bees produce that has a range of uses. Mr Driver says research is already underway to better understand this product and its potential uses and markets.

“We know propolis has a range of antimicrobial and medicinal properties, and we want to understand how to better commercialise this product,” he says. “There are already a small number of businesses producing propolis products for local and export markets, and the potential for growth is significant.”

Enriching our ecosystem

Last but not least, the plan highlights the ecological value of native bees and the important role they play in ecosystem services and Indigenous Australian culture. Some researchers argue that native bee pollination of natural vegetation is probably the most important activity they perform of benefit to humans.

As Dr Reynolds explains, “These bee species are likely to have co-evolved with our native plants, and we haven’t even scratched the surface in understanding all the benefits they are likely to provide for our environment and beyond. Building up the profile of native bees is important to securing interest and investment in this beneficial native resource.”

For more information on the Australian Native Bee Strategic RD&E Plan

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