Did you know that there are 27 species of native bees in New Zealand that are found nowhere else in the world? If your answer to this question was ‘no’, don’t worry – you are not alone! While most people are familiar with the ‘honey bee’ and ‘bumblebees’ (species that have been purposefully introduced to New Zealand to improve the pollination of crops), native bees often go unnoticed.
Most native bees in New Zealand are solitary and nest in the ground. All native bees consume pollen and nectar, and have similar life cycles. Female bees construct the nests in which their young are raised by digging blind-tunnels in the soil or using pre-existing tunnels in plant material. Each nest contains a cell in which the female bees place all the food that their larvae will need. They then deposit an egg and seal the cell to avoid contact with that part of the nest until the new bee has developed. Male bees on the other hand spend most their time feeding, mating and resting.
During the active flight season (mid-spring to early autumn), thousands of individuals nest alongside each other, forming large communities. By the end of autumn, adult bees die but the larvae overwinter until they emerge in mid-spring and the cycle repeats!
Studying native bees can be difficult as there are few ways to easily monitor them. As a result, there is much to learn about their populations, diversity and distribution throughout New Zealand. The aim of my master’s project is to investigate how soil characteristics influence the distribution of solitary-ground nesting bees in the Waikato and Northland region. In order to do this, I am analysing soil samples collected from sites with native bees and sites without native bees and comparing this to the abundance and diversity of native bees. Already, my summer sampling has revealed that the most common species of native bee within those regions are Leioproctus paahaumaa and L. imitatus.
The two most frequently asked questions I’ve encountered whilst collecting data were: “do they make honey?” and “do they sting?” No, native bees do not produce honey and will very rarely sting humans. So, why should we care about them? Native bees are key pollinators of New Zealand’s native flora. They are known to pollinate a wide range of plants including mānuka, kānuka and pohutukawa.
Also, surprisingly Leioproctus bees can open a mistletoe flower (Peraxilla tetrapetala) by biting the tip of the bud. The main pollinators of mistletoe are bellbirds and tūī, but since introduced pests have significantly reduced bird numbers, native bees have partially replaced them as pollinators (Robertson et al., 2005).
To find out more about native bees join this Facebook group. This page is dedicated to NZ native bees – what they look like, where they live, what they do and how we can support them.
Anna Kokeny is a MSc student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is interested in the distribution of native solitary ground nesting bees in the Waikato and Northland regions. She is supervised by Jacqueline Beggs, Jamie Stavert, Anne Gaskett and David Pattermore (Plant and Food Research).