WHEN it comes to orchard pollination, the orchardists agree: you can’t get enough.
The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, is the insect most growers turn to when their flowers are blooming, but other factors come into play at this time of year – like the 1500 different species of native bee.
“Most are solitary,” explains Steve Maginnity, a passionate native bee consultant on the Far North Coast who has been involved in the science of bees for the past decade.
In between times he teaches agricultural science at Alstonville High School and it was at school he became interested in native bees.
“Approximately 14 species are social and one of those, Tetragonula carbonaria, is endemic to this region.”
“They’re stingless, so I was able to teach my students about beekeeping without having troubles with anaphylactic shock,” he says. What he has discovered since is simply mind boggling.
For instance, native bees – being so small – do the best job of cross pollinating macadamia flowers to the point that University of Queensland studies have shown an increase in overall yield of 13 to 19 per cent. More remarkably, the bees’ ability to cross pollinate between different varieties has been shown to produce a 30pc increase in kernel size.
For those just coming into the business of growing macadamias an opportunity exists to reap the benefits of native bees in their orchards.
For these reasons Mr Maginnity says it makes sense to stock native bee hives in macadamia orchards at the rate of one hive for every 50 trees, or five hives per hectare.
In Mr Maginnity’s own private blueberry trial, in conjunction with a major North Coast grower, native bees have been found to increase yields by 10pc because the native bee is able to enter the blueberry’s bell-shaped flower, unlike the honey bee which has to lick the pollen from outside.
The bees also do a great job on tropical fruits like longan and lychees, though scientific trials have not yet been performed.
These little insects also have great resilience against foul brood, they will not contract varroa and they defend well against small hive beetle by burying the pests in a wall of wax and resin.
“It’s quite amazing to watch,” he says.
Just like European bees, Tetragonula is social, with a queen and workers, and guards. But there are differences.
When a hive becomes crowded the queen doesn’t swarm away with her brood. Instead a new site is chosen, sealed off from the elements, stocked with food and guarded before a selected virgin queen flies to her new home. For this special reason, native bee populations can be increased over time without losing numbers to neighbouring locations.
Mr Maginnity hires his hives, and he also manages hives owned by orchardists.
“Those who have used hives before have no hesitation in using them again,” says Mr Maginnity.
“For those just coming into the business of growing macadamias an opportunity exists to reap the benefits of native bees in their orchards.”