Stingless bees as effective pollinators

Stingless bee (Tetragonula carbonaria) foraging on citrus flowers. Photo: Dr Megan Halcroft

Honeybees are excellent pollinators of many crops, but the burden placed on their health by pests and diseases is heavy. Added to that, the looming threat of a varroa mite incursion makes our reliance on honeybees for pollination decidedly risky.

In this context, the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western Sydney University is heading up the Hort Innovation project ‘Stingless bees as effective managed pollinators for Australian horticulture’.

The project’s overall objective is to investigate and develop potential alternative, native insect pollinators for use in horticultural crops. The leading candidates are stingless bees, because they can be managed in hives, just as honey bees are, and moved into crops as required.

Native stingless bees live in colonies and visit a variety of plants. They are currently used in macadamia crops, where their pollination services outperform honeybees.

The project has many parts, including the collection and review of data on the Australian stingless bee industry, with a particular focus on the current and potential use of stingless bees as managed pollinators.

The first stage of the project is to test whether the bees visit flowers and transport pollen within the crop. Studies will then be conducted to assess the bees’ impact on fruit and seed set, yield and quality. For the most promising crop and bee combinations, more detailed studies will be conducted to determine best ways to deploy managed hives within the target crop.

Lead researcher at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, James Cook, said the research had the potential to change the way we view pollination in Australia. “It is already clear that managed stingless bees may have wide but underdeveloped potential for crop pollination,” he said.

“Stingless bees are also used in crop pollination in several Asian countries- such as India and Thailand – and there is good scope to exchange knowledge and expertise on bee biology, husbandry and deployment in horticulture.”

When Hort Innovation and Western Sydney University launched the project last December, Hort Innovation chief executive John Lloyd said the horticultural industry was keenly aware of the need to safeguard Australia’s food crops.

“To help do this, we need to consider alternative pollinators, investigate their performance in different crops, and find better ways to propagate and deploy them,” he said.

The project is currently seeking the participation of horticultural groups in a survey, with the aim of better understanding the needs of growers in terms of their crop’s pollination service requirements and management practices, such as pesticide use, which affect insect pollinators. The survey can be found on the Bees Business website.

This project is part of the Hort Frontiers Pollination Fund‘s ‘Supporting a healthy pollination future’ and aims to enhance and support existing pollinators, as well as identify the most effective pollination methods for various horticultural crop types.

Acknowledgement: Reproduced with permission from Dr Megan Halcroft.

Further reading: Maximise your macadamia crop with better pollination