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Written By

Tianna Killoran


College of Science and Engineering

Publish Date

19 May 2021

More than just the humble honey bee

While the European honeybee is most widely recognised in the global movement to save the bees, Australia has a number of native pollinators also in need of our help.

Australian native stingless bees play a critical role in pollinating some of Australia’s most unique native plants, but many of these bees may be under stress from insecticides and warming temperatures. A team of three JCU Science students — Holly Farnan, Indigo Spence, and Lisl Mohr — are tackling some of these key threats to our precious pollinators.

With the increasing levels of change in our environments, it's time to learn about and increase awareness of the important work carried out by bees and their critical role in our ecosystems. Australia’s native bees are particularly important in maintaining other native species, but insecticides are one of the greatest threats to their health. Insecticides and chemicals used on our farms and in our gardens are often putting the health of these native bees at risk.

Holly Farnan, an Honours student in Zoology and Ecology, explains that Australia’s native bees are often misunderstood, with many people surprised to find out that some of the most common species of native bees are stingless. “There’s about 2000 species of native bees around Australia and 11 of them are actually stingless,” Holly says. “Some are social bees that live in hives, but there are also many solitary bees that live by themselves, which most people don’t know about.”

Many of these native stingless bee species are important pollinators found in both subtropical and tropical ecosystems, particularly along the eastern and northern coasts of Australia. Around Cairns, Holly visits a number of different native bee hives to conduct her research.

“Many of these bees are specialist pollinators, so they play a critical role in pollinating particular endemic species of flora,” she says. “While honey bees and bumblebees are main pollinators of big mono-crops and are economically important, our native bees are also very important pollinators with cultural significance.”

Holly Farnan holding small plastic container up to native bee hive to collect native bees.
Close up of native bee hive with bees throughout the structure.
Left: Holly Farnan collecting native stingless bees. Right: The nest structure of native bee species Tetragonula clypearis. Supplied by Holly Farnan.

Native bees under stress

While Holly is researching the native bees for her Honours thesis, undergraduate students Lisl and Indigo have been participating in the research project as part of their Work Integrated Learning. Indigo is a Zoology and Ecology student, while Lisl majors in Earth and Data Science. Together they’ve been tackling the issue of understanding the harmful effects of insecticides and climate change on native bees.

Holly is investigating whether certain chemical structures in the insecticides can attract the bees to plants that have been sprayed. This would mean the bees take that nectar back to their hives where insecticides can have harmful sublethal effects even in very low concentrations.

The research has already seen some positive changes in the community so far. Lisl works at a farm on the Tablelands that uses pesticides on the different fruits they grow, and she has taken what she’s learned into her workplace.

“I wanted to see what effect the pesticides have on the bees, hoping to be able to speak to the manager and think about changing the types of pesticides that he’s using,” she says.

“We’ve already made plans to start a bee garden on the farm where we will plant certain native trees of different heights and install a water fountain. Hopefully it will bring more bees to the area.”

Holly is also hoping to build on the research of previous JCU students from past years. “I’m hoping to bring in a temperature element where I test to see whether there’s an effect of the different insecticides on the bees’ tolerance of different temperatures,” Holly says. “This is super important, especially facing climate change. Bees are so sensitive to even little changes in their climate and going into the future we really need to know how to better mitigate temperature fluctuations and help protect our bees.” A better understanding of these thermal stressors will provide answers to some of our most vital questions about native bees and add to the body of evidence to inform insecticide applications.

The research to understand the native bees requires patience and attention to detail. Lisl and Indigo have been working together to prepare containers for capturing the bees. “We’ve done a lot of pilots on container design trying to find the best one,” Holly says. “We tried placing the vials horizontally, facing out, or facing downwards, as well as trialling different types of sugar-soaked cotton wool for the bees to feed on. We think we’ve found what will be the most efficient design.” In the end, a container design that allows the team to plug in the test vials was the best option to minimise any extra stress caused by handling of the bees.

The process has been as beneficial for the bees as it has been for the research team.

“It’s been good to see how much you need to be able to adapt your experiment with the challenges. We’re able to work around problems and bounce back and just work really hard to make up that time. So it’s just been good to see that things can go wrong in the real world, but you just work through it.”

Indigo Spence, JCU Student

Thankfully the native bees that the team are working with are friendly and don’t sting! Holly recalls, “We started collecting the bees into separate containers and then transferring them into the experimental containers. We had a few escapees while I was transporting them in my car.”

Close up of native stingless bee under a microscope
Two people wearing bee suits collecting bees from large white hive boxes.
Left: Native stingless bee under the microscope. Right: Lisl Mohr and Indigo Spence collecting European honey bees. Supplied by Holly Farnan.

Bee friendly to our pollinators

For avid gardeners and farmers, there are a few key things we can do to help our friendly neighbourhood pollinators.

For Holly, Indigo, and Lisl, getting the message into the community about the importance of native bees is crucial. With so many different species of native bees, it is important the community understands how to support them in their gardens. Holly suggests that it’s important to understand that there’s more than just European honey bees, but also native bee species that need our attention and research.

“There are lots of native stingless bee groups around that you can join,” Holly says. “There are community events with educational talks and workshops. It’s really good to get people involved.”

Indigo suggests that if people are passionate about gardening, try discovering the types of pollinators you have in your own backyard. “Try choosing different plant species that can facilitate the bees in your garden,” she says. “It is great when schools have hive boxes and teach students more about the different species of native stingless bees.”

From farms to backyards, there are efforts that everyone can make to protect Australia’s native bees. You can find useful planting guides online to plan out how to best support natives bees in your garden. JCU Cairns Community Garden ‘Mayi Tjulbin Ma Bugarra’ hosts workshops and events to teach members of the public about native bees and get more people involved in gardening. If any current or future students are interested in researching Australia’s native pollinators, you can also get in touch with Associate Professor Lori Lach.

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Holly Farnan

Honours Student

Holly Farnan is a young Far North Queensland local who grew up travelling around the remote areas of Australia. After completing school in Cooktown, she was awarded a Rural Regional Enterprise Scholarship for young women pursuing a career in STEM. After completing her Bachelor of Science degree majoring in Zoology, Ecology, and Earth Science last year, Holly was inspired to pursue a career in entomology. She is currently working towards an Honours in Zoology & Ecology supervised by Dr Lori Lach and Dr Peter Yeeles.

Holly’s research interests include investigating the effects of different stressors such as climate change and insecticide use on pollinators. Holly hopes that her research can add to the body of knowledge about Australia's insects to help inform better ecological management strategies and mitigate the effects of stressors on pollinators.