Building a native bee hotel | Discovery Circle

Bees Hotel Australian

Hotels / July 29, 2023

Blue-banded bees (Amegilla murrayensis)A guest blog by Remko Leijs, an Honorary Research Associate at the South Australian Museum

Did you know that there are thousands native bee species? And many are yet to be discovered… some might visit your garden!

If you imagine what a bee looks like, you’re probably thinking about a European honey bee. As the “European” reference in the common name suggests, these bees did not occur in Australia until they were introduced for honey production almost 200 years ago. Having established themselves away from the beekeepers’ hives, European honey bees are now feral in Australia, often building hives in tree hollows. These feral bees are important crop pollinators. But, on the down-side, they out-compete native animals such as birds and mammals for nesting hollows, and occasionally also for pollen and nectar.

There are many other bee species in Australia, that are native to this continent, and many of them could visit your garden. In fact, there are about 1, 650 species of native bees known for Australia and 20, 000 bee species known worldwide. But we haven’t stopped counting yet, and scientists are regularly discovering new species of bees. Among native bee species there is large variation in shape, size, coloration, nesting habits, behaviour and flower preferences. For example, the largest species (a carpenter bee) is just less than 25 mm long, while the smallest species are more than ten times smaller, at about 2 mm long.

Native bees are quite different to honey bees. The European honey bee is highly social, with hives having a queen and several thousand workers. In contrast, most native bees are solitary and nest alone. A single female bee builds a small nest and then does all of the tasks that are necessary to support new offspring.
Native bees use a variety of nesting places. About half of the Australian bee species dig their nests in the ground. Sometimes hundreds of solitary females may communally share a single nest entrance (just like people do in a large apartment building), but build their own nesting tunnels inside. The other half of the species use natural hollows, such as rock crevices, old borer’s holes in wood, or even keyholes. They can also excavate their own tunnels in soft timber or pithy stems of plants.

Within a nesting tunnel, a female native bee will construct a “brood cell”. She then collects enough pollen to knead it into a pollen ball, deposits an egg on it, and closes the brood cell. She can make several brood cells sequentially in one nesting tunnel. After a few days a bee larva emerges from the egg in the brood cell and starts eating the pollen ball. When all the pollen is eaten the mature larva turns into a pupa. By that time the mother bee has usually died. The bee then hibernates in the brood cell until it is time to emerge in the warmer months. After emerging males and females mate and the whole cycle starts over again.

There is often a shortage of suitable nesting places and building materials, so native bees will readily take up “artificial” housing if you provide it. Such housing is commonly called a bee hotel. It is easy to make a bee hotel, by drilling holes in a piece of timber or by providing suitable tubes for native bees to nest in. For example, bamboo sticks can be used. Bamboo should be cut into short lengths, just behind the nodes, so that there is only a hole at one end. Or a bundle of paper straws in a tube can be used. The straws can be bundled in a piece of drainpipe or in an empty drinking bottle.

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