A cache of bees

My son and I recently discovered the sport of Geocaching, after accidentally stumbling on a container full of cryptic notes and tiny objects in a local park. So, while staying with relatives in Brisbane over Christmas we decided to try to find a couple of caches in nearby parks. After finding one we got completely bush-whacked looking for a second in rocky scrub along the edge of Kedron Brook in Kalinga Park.

While scrabbling about, Harry’s keen eyes detected an interesting sight — a swirling cluster of native bees gathering on a twig.

Native Nomia (Lipotriches sp.) bees gather for the night. Photo R. Ashdown.

Hobbo again came to our aid, tentatively identifying the insects as Nomia Bees (Lipotriches sp.). From the Australian Museum:

Nomia bees live in urban areas, forests and woodlands, and heath. Most species nest in the ground and a number of females use the entrance and main shaft but dig their own tunnel off to the side. During the day male Nomia bees forage for nectar but at night hundreds of them gather together, clinging onto grass stems. Nobody really knows why they do this but it is a behaviour that some other bees, including blue-banded bees, also show. The behaviour of the females is slightly better understood. Up to three share a nest burrowed into the soil. They take turns guarding the entrance, blocking it with their face during the day and their abdomen at night. Inside the nest the Nomia bees make urn-shaped cells containing a disc of nectar and pollen and a single egg. Each nest may be reused by several generations.

Issue 16 of Aussie Bee magazine, from March 2001, reports the discovery of clusters of Green and Gold Nomia Bees (Lipotriches australica) in a park in Sydney. The article mentions Tarlton Rayment, an Australian naturalist with a particular interest in native bees. In 1935 Rayment wrote A Cluster of Bees, a study of the ecology of Australian bees. He described Nomia bees gathering in clusters, which in some cases comprised up to several thousand individuals.

Only male Nomia bees gather in one place like this.

In a detailed scientific study on Green and Gold Nomia Bees (Lipotriches australica), published in 1956, Rayment described how these bees nest in burrows in the ground. Excavating the burrows, he found complex underground chambers and shafts, with brood cells and females guarding the tunnels. A further study in 1994, by Megan Vogel and Dr Penelope Kukuk, looked at well over 1,000 nests of this species in a bare, sandy road-cut in Victoria. The researchers individually marked 66 bees from 50 nests and investigated their foraging and nesting behaviour over a three month period. They found up to three female bees in each nest, and every female collected food supplies and laid eggs. It took the females an average of 1 and 1/4 hours to complete each pollen-collecting trip.

Colourful little beasts. Photo R. Ashdown.

There are over 1,500 species of native bees in Australia! Here a few I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over the years.

Carbonaria (or Sugar Bag) Stingless Bee (Trigona carbonaria). A social bee, the nest is made of resin and wax and constructed in hollow tree trunks, branches, fallen logs and rock crevices. These bees do not sting but defend their nest by swarming. Photographed at Barakula State Forest, R. Ashdown.

Same type of bee, photographed in a tree at the local school. Photo R. Ashdown.

Blue-banded Bee (Amegilla sp.). Like Nomia bees, the male of this species (photographed here in Jacqui’s great garden) gather together to spend the night attached to a grass stem or twig. Photo Rowan Noyes.

Blue-banded bee

Blue-banded Bee (Amegilla sp.) These native bees are found throughout Australia on rainforest edges, open forest, woodland, desert and gardens. Photo R. Ashdown.

Blue-banded Bee

Blue-banded Bee up close. I staked out a burrow in soil under our house for days before I managed to photograph one. Photo R. Ashdown.

MASON-BEE

A Leafcutter Bee (Megachile sp.). The female Leafcutter Bee cuts circles out of leaves to line her nest. She provides each egg she lays with a pollen and nectar mixture, and leaves the eggs to hatch into grubs, which will eat the provisions before pupating. The Australian Museum reports that during courtship the male leafcutter bee passes his feet over the female’s eyes in a rubbing motion. She uses the patterns to identify the male as the correct species and potential mate. Photo R. Ashdown.

Teddy-bear Bee

A close relative of the Blue-banded Bee, Teddy-bear Bees (Amegilla bombiformis) are also solitary bees. They dart about and hover near flowers. Nesting individuals of this species of native bee are stalked by the Domino Cuckoo Bee (Thyreus lugubris), which hovers silently and observes before entering unattended burrows and laying its own egg, the grub of which consumes the supplies meant for the teddy bear bee larvae. Also known as Golden-haired Mortar Bees. Photo R. Ashdown.

Thanks again to Rod Hobson for the ID and other information. Here’s a link to Aussie Bee Bulletin. More on Nomia bees here.

Update: 13/1/2013
From Justin Shiels (see also comment by Rod Hobson)

I was out in the yard this afternoon looking to see if my calabash vines were pollinating with any success when I noticed these bees all congregating on 3 old hession threads that were left in tatters after holding up last years tomatoes. Eager to know who these strange bees are I searched some images and found this blog.

It never ceases to amaze me what one can find in the wilds of backyard suburbia and now I can add nomia bees to my list. Their behaviour was just as you described where they all seem to mill about with the odd short trip next door and paying little attention to the calabash flowers that I was aware of. Thanks for helping out with the identification of these new bees.

Nomia Bees

Nomia Bees, photo Justin Shiels.

Nomia Bees

Nomia Bees, photo Justin Shiels.

For some wonderful macro images of insects, including Nomia Bees, see here.

3 thoughts on “A cache of bees

  1. Rod Hobson

    Rob,

    Yesterday I was walking the mutt in Balin Park in Toowoomba. Along East Creeek, which transects this park, I found a large number of male nomia bees congregated on the culms of the grass Paspalidium distans. A rough estimate of the numbers involved would be about 250 individuals. There were about ten separate aggregations ranging from a couple of approximately 50 bees each to small clusters of about an half dozen to 10 or so insects. All were milling about within these clusters in an haphazard manner with the odd individual making short sorties between the different mobs.

    These were certainly one of the nomia bees (Lipotriches sp.) but I am not positive of the actual species. They did look very like the Green and Gold Nomia Bee, Lipotriches australica, however. Interesting animals, for sure.

    The overnight rain had also heightened the activity of the local dragonflies and damselflies along this section of East Creek especially that of the Common Flatwing, Austroargiolestes icteromelas and the Fiery Skimmer, Orthetrum villosovittatum. Although both these Odonata are locally common yesterday both were abundant in Balin Park.

    Regards,

    Rod Hobson

    Reply
  2. Justin Shiels

    Hi Rod

    I was out in the yard this afternoon looking to see if my calabash vines were pollinating with any success when I noticed these bees all congregating on 3 old hession threads that were left in tatters after holding up last years tomatoes. Eager to know who these strange bees are I searched some images and found this blog. It never ceases to amaze me what one can find in the wilds of backyard suburbia and now I can add nomia bees to my list. Their behavior was just as you described where they all seem to mill about with the odd short trip next door and paying little attention to the calabash flowers that I was aware of. Thanks for helping out with the identification of these new bees.

    Regards

    Justin

    Reply

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