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One of the fascinating things about native bees is how our understanding of these remarkably diverse creatures has grown over the past 150 years. No scientifically-minded person today would agree that
"all that could be said of them was that they are curious little insects".

Rather we are just beginning to appreciate how remarkable it is that native bees have managed to hang around in the face of overwhelming natural habitat loss.

We also realise how much they need our help if we are to continue the share their company. Looking back on the way our understanding of native bees unfolded in the early part of the 20th century helps us appreciate the task ahead of us today.


Sugarbag Honey

Some of the first recorded accounts we have of native bees date back to the 1860s.

These come from the warmer tropical areas of NSW and Queensland where stingless bees from the Tetragonula genus are found. These bees build resinous nests in hollow trees.

As this newspaper story from 1868 describes it, Aboriginal people were skilled at locating and then extracting this precious honey resource.

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The bee is easily approached and the bright clear atmosphere of the climate is particularly favourable to the pursuit.

A party of two or three natives armed with a tomahawk sally forth into the bush having previously armed themselves with the soft white down from the breast of some bird, which is very light in texture and at the same time very fluffy.

With that wonderful quickness of sight which practice has rendered perfect, they descry the little brownish, leaden-coloured insect on the bark and rolling up an end of the down feather to the finest possible point between their fingers, they dip it into a gummy substance which a particular sort of herb exudes when the stem is broken.

They then cautiously approach the bee and with great delicacy of touch place the gummed point under the hind legs of the bee. It at once adheres. The comes the result for which all this preparation has been made. The bee, feeling the additional weight fancies he has done his task and is laden with honey and flies off to the tree on his homeward journey and not a great distance from the ground.

The small white feather is now all that can be discerned and the hunt at once commences. Running on foot amid broken ground and stony branches requires one would think the aid of one’s eyesight; but with the native Australians it is not so. Without for a moment taking their eyes off the object they follow it, sometimes to the distance of half a mile and rarely if ever fail in marking the very branch where they saw the little bit of white down disappear at the entrance of the hive.

Here there is a halt, the prize is found and they sit down to regain their breath. Then with one arm around the tree and the tomahawk in the other the black man cuts notches in the bark and placing the big toe in the notches, ascends this hastily constructed stair till he comes to where the branches commence; then putting the handle of the tomahawk between his teeth, he climbs till he reaches the branch where he last saw the white down disappear.

He then carefully sounds the branches with the back of his tomahawk , till the dull as distinct from the hollow sound tells him where the hive is.

A hole is then cut and he puts his hand in and takes the honey out. If alone he east when up the tree till he can eat no more and leaves the rest, but if with others, he cuts a square piece of bark and after having had part of the hive as a reward for his exertions, brings down a mass of honey and comb mixed up together, which though not inviting is greedily devoured by those below.

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Different native bees

The first records we have of the different types of native bees focus on the honey producing varieties.

With both honey and honeycomb being vital resources for Aboriginal people, it was this traditional knowledge that provided European settlers with their first insights into the diversity of native bee species.

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The Honey Bee - Native Bees

Here in the Kennedy District there are three distinct kinds of native bees–viz., the coucha, caaba and quarra.

The coucha are the most numerous, and they attack (sting or bite) anyone attempting to rob them of their honey, of which they produce a good deal. The caaba are very small, jet black and oily looking.

Their honey is very fine; but there is little of it. The quarra is about the size of a coucha (smaller than the common fly), black on the front part, the hind part being almost of a transparent yellow.

Their honey is esteemed the most, especially by the nobility and gentry of this district of Aboriginal descent. The wax of all three kinds is used by the Aborigines as we use glue, only the wax is weatherproof.


New types of bee discovered

By the 1890s, general public interest in the natural world was such that The Queenslander newspaper even had a special graphic designed for its "Entomological" notes

Thus it was that readers of the Saturday edition of the paper in March 1890 learnt of the discovery of an entirely new type of native bee. Not only were these twice the size of the native honey bees, but they also made their nests in the ground rather than in the hollow branches of trees.

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A correspondent, who signs his letter “E.A.,” sends us the following dated from Maryborough:

In September, 1886, I found on the bank of Mistake Creek, four miles from Elgin Downs station (Peak Downs) two swarms or colonies of bees of a kind new to me.

A loud humming drew my attention to a spot on an old disused road; the ground was bare and hard, and a patch about 70ft. long, averaging about 12ft. wide, was perforated over the entire surface with holes about large enough to admit the finger, and about 4in. apart.

Round each hole, was seen the soil excavated in making it, the small quantity indicating that the holes could not be very deep, a few inches at most. The work looked as if quite recently done, but no farther exception appeared to be then going on.

Hovering over the whole patch was, a vast swarm of bees, each, insect being about 7/8in. in length, stout and bulky in proportion. I judged them to be fully twice as large as the ordinary honey bee; the colour a uniform dull light gray, and the body covered with fine spines, like short hairs.

Their movements on the wing were very rapid, darting about so swiftly that they could only be observed in detail when alighting, or on entering or leaving the holes.

These entrances seemed to be common property; numbers of the bees could be seen using the same one. Those entering—or most of them—had lumps of wax or what looked like it, gathered on their legs, while those coming out were unencumbered. Being curious to know what the nests or- storehouses under ground were like I tied up my horse at a safe distance and cautiously approached the edge of the settlement, but having no spade—nothing in fact but a small penknife and a pointed stick—I could make nothing of it.

the holes becoming choked tap before- the end could be reached.

Besides the respect I felt for these giant bees (or for the stings they no doubt possessed I, the prospect of being at any moment attacked by a million or so of them was not attractive enough to induce me to persist long; so far, however, none of them had seemed to take any notice of my presence.

A second colony—much smaller,’ covering a space of about 30ft. by 8ft.—was separated from the larger one by a distance of about twenty yards. About three months later I was again in the same place, but could find no trace of the interesting strangers; there had been heavy rain in the interval, and the creek had probably overflowed there.

But what surprised me most was that the old residents of the district—many of whom I inquired of—seemed to know nothing of any such bees. Mr. Muirhead, of Elgin Downs, told me he had seen them, but knew nothing of their habits.

The others had not even seen them, and during a residence of nearly two years in that district I did not again meet with any. Nor have I during twenty five years in Southern Queensland ever seen or heard of them. I conclude they are only in the North, and are vary rare there.

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Sharing new native bee knowledge

By the 1930s over 900 kinds of native bee had been described.

On New Years Eve in 1932, a feature writer in The Telegraph newspaper set out to explain the different types of native bee discovered up to that time.

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Our Native Bees

The bush swarms with native bees, there being considerably more than 900 kinds described by entomologists so far, though many of these are quite small and nothing like our common conception of bees.

Many of the true Australian bees are usually called wasps. Of course there are now plenty of introduced bees in the bush, both English and Italian, gone wild from hives, but they are not as interesting as many of the native kinds.

Our own bees are by no means all social communities or hive bees, but we have nine or ten kinds of true honey bee which fill many wax cells with honey in convenient hollow trees.

The smallest Australian bee is a little black insect not as large as a mosquito.


Some of our native bees are parasites, often called cuckoo-bees on account of their habits of using the nests of other species.

They lay their eggs in the cells of other bees, and the bee grubs hatch out more quickly than do those of the rightful owners of the nest. The interlopers then eat up all the “bee-bread,” which is a mixture of pollen and honey.

Some of our bees are burrowers in the ground, usually in spots where the soil is very hard. These are usually hairy bees. They visit flowers, brush the pollen into a big ball and then carry it to the burrow by gripping it in their legs.

We have also native leaf-cutter bees, a clan which, cut circular bits out of leaves with their mouth parts, using this material to build their nests. These nests are to be looked for tucked away under stones, or in little cracks and crevices in trunks of trees, old stumps, and so on.

Some of these bees scrape the hard gum from tree trunks instead, and carry it away in their mouths to build nests. Another group is that of the carpenter bees. These are big and beautiful insects of various bright body colours.

They bore into the stems of trees and bushes, into old posts, &c., and hollow out galleries inside.

Among the native honey bees the little stingless species is the best known; and its rather arid honey is often stolen by humans, as it used to be by the blacks. It is the only native bee; whose honey is worth anything.

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Saving our native bees ...

Today we know enough about the more than 1700 species of Australian native bee to realise how much they need out help if they are to survive.

The Aussie Bee website is a wonderful place to learn more about our bees and how to help conserve them.

The Aussie Bee website recommends five key things you can do to help protect our native bees ...

1. Spread the word about Australian native bees.

2. Plant a bee friendly garden.

3. Keep insecticide use in your garden to an absolute minimum.

4. Provide nest habitat.

Leave some areas of bare earth in your yard to encourage ground nesting bees and don't clear away old mature timber that is used by bees that nest in tiny crevices.You can also create additional nest sites for native bees by setting up Bee Hotels.

5. Contribute to native bee surveys.

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