New Zealand’s native bees: Understanding the importance of our private pollinators

When most people think of bees, images of furry black and yellow striped bodies, hexagonal honey combs and boxy wooden hives immediately spring to mind.

However, in this country, a far wider variety of our buzzy little friends exists, many of which display entirely different characteristics to those usually associated with the garden-variety bee, and all of which play a valuable role in maintaining our iconic native flora.

This week we talked with Sarah Smuts-Kennedy, creator of ‘For the Love of Bees’ and all-round bee enthusiast, to shed some light on the fragile state of New Zealand’s native bee population and find out what can be done to keep them buzzing.

If you’ve ever come across very small, mostly black, winged insects flying or crawling around tiny holes in the sand or the side of a bank, you’ve probably encountered one of our 28 species of native bees.

It may come as a surprise to some, but the bees supplying honey for our morning toast actually originate from other parts of the world, mostly Europe.

Our native varieties, on the other hand, produce no honey at all, and as Sarah Smuts-Kennedy explains, exhibit a number of other rather unique characteristics:

“New Zealand’s native bees don’t live in colonies, they cluster in very small numbers. They’re also only visible and present for a couple of months a year and are quite fragile in that they nest primarily in the ground. They look quite a bit different than your average honey bee or bumble bee - some of them have furry heads, most of them are very small, and their movements are very swift. If you were to go out looking for them, it is quite possible you would mistake them for a fly.”

This is one of the many issues facing our native bee population; most people simply aren’t aware of their presence. This can be particularly damaging in the home garden, where Smuts-Kennedy says activities like spraying and digging can wipe out entire colonies in a few seconds:

“If you are spraying your lawn or garden in areas that you think need it, during the roughly 3-month period in which native bees are active, you could wipe out an entire native population in one hit. They function by creating a nest. The female comes up first and starts preparing the nest and then mates with the male. Then the male dies and the female continues to complete the nest and lay the eggs and leave everything in good condition, then she dies. So, all that’s left in the nest is the new generation. If you wipe out that generation by accident, by spraying or digging or tilling the soil, you can actually kill an entire population in that area forever.”

This could have serious environmental consequences in that area, as although they don’t produce honey, our native bees are pollinators for many of New Zealand’s most treasured plants, including Manuka, Kanuka and Pohutukawa.  

Relatively little has been written about this, and in fact, before a breakthrough study in the mid-nineties, it was an un-discovered truth.

In her 2007 thesis, “Industrious Native Bees: A Case Study in Whangarei”, Ngaire Hart explored the subject in depth, producing a comprehensive report on the importance of native bees to our natural environment.

She found that “native bees play an especially important role in many natural ecosystems because they are among the most critical and effective pollinators of native plants”, a fact emphasised by her observations on Mt. Parihaka, where native bees were found to far outnumber non-native varieties and engage in the pollination of a number of native plant species.

The advantage native bees carry in this area is their size, and as Smuts-Kennedy explains, allowing honey bees to flourish in areas of heavy native vegetation while native populations continue to dwindle could have significant consequences:

“A lot of our native bees are a perfect size for our native species of flowers, and you’ll notice that a lot of our flowers come on at a certain time of year - the same time of year that those native bee species are out pollenating.

“Conversely, a honey bee is often too big for a lot of our native flowers. Take, for example, the flax flower. Honey bees are far oversized to pollinate the flax flower, but they like it’s nectar. So, they burrow a hole through the bottom of it and extract the nectar, without providing pollination services. So, over time, in areas where you are getting more honey bees to those native flowers, there is a risk that the seed of those native flower species will become infertile because they haven’t had the pollination services while the nectar’s been taken.”

She says that while people may think they’re having a purely positive ecological effect by promoting the introduction of more honey bees to an area, they may actually be causing more harm than good:

“The thing that’s really important in the bee or pollinator conversation is that there are many varieties of pollinators in the same ecosystem as a honey bee, and when you introduce a single colony of a honey bee, you’re actually putting pressure on that ecosystem to feed that honey bee colony, which we guess requires around one billion flowers a year to survive.

“So when people think they’re helping a city become a safe place for bees, the first thing they think of is ‘oh we’ll get some bees’, but actually what they’re doing more often than not is putting pressure on an ecosystem.”

Much of the talk in relation to bees for the past 3-4 years has centered around the so-called decline of the honeybee population. In reality, as Smuts-Kennedy affirms, the current hive count is in excess of one million, double the number we had six or seven years ago.

However, that isn’t really the point.

What’s important is ensuring people understand that an ecosystem thrives when it’s treated in a holistic sense. If a certain number of bees is introduced into an area, it needs to have the appropriate number of flowers to support them, and if that area contains native flowers pollinated by native bees, then it’s important those bees are kept at healthy population levels and aren’t swamped by honey-producing varieties that might compete for their nectar and do so without properly pollinating the flower.

It’s all about balance, and as Nikki Macdonald says in her February Stuff article, “Native bees – small, solitary and under threat”,  that balance can’t be restored simply by introducing more honeybees:

“One may think that having more honey bees around can make up for fewer natives, however, it is not so straightforward. Honeybees often prefer introduced plants, so can spread weeds, and can take nectar from plants such as kakabeak, without pollinating them."

“That’s what we (For the Love of Bees) are all about”, says Smuts-Kennedy, trying to get people to realise that it’s an integrated holistic system which requires balance to be healthy, that all pollinators are required (we can’t just rely on one species) and that the flowers are there so there’s enough for all of them at all times of the year.”

For the Love of Bees was set up in early 2017, evolving out of a bee-focussed social sculpture called The Park (2014-2015), which was initiated by Sarah Smuts-Kennedy and Taarati Taiaroa.

The organisation’s big focus is education, which it provides through Centres of Regenerative Learning stationed around Auckland, and a variety of teaching tools made readily available on its website - Here, the public is encouraged to contribute tools of their own making.

Utilising these tools, for which the site provides step by step instructions, individuals and communities can develop their own ecologically balanced pollinator sanctuaries, which Smuts Kennedy says is the entire point of the movement:

“It’s as big as people want to make it at the end of the day. We’re only the initiators, but it’s up to other people to say, “hey I want to become part of that”. The more people buy in, the more we can raise awareness, and in the case of our native bees, that’s of paramount importance.”

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