Native bees and food security in Korora

A native bee hive in every garden…

Nick Rose

This article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 6.8.11

There is in many people’s minds a link between, on the one hand, food security, and, on the other, sustainable, resilient and fair food systems: building greater levels of self-sufficiency amongst growing numbers of people. In other words, raising our individual and collective capacities to meet at least some of our own food needs, and so reducing our levels of dependence on external market actors and systems.

A few weeks ago I profiled Steve McGrane, newly appointed coordinator of the 5000m2 Coffs Harbour Community Garden in Combine Street. His vision is of a growing network of thriving, diverse and self-sustaining food gardens across Coffs Harbour’s suburbs, and he’s putting this vision into practice with his own garden in Korora.

Steve doesn’t do it all alone. He’s working closely with his neighbours, and a small army of tiny helpers, in the form of a hive of native bees.

The bees’ main job is not to produce honey. It’s to pollinate the many species in Steve’s expanding fruit and nut orchard. As Steve explains, the bees only have a range of about 500 metres, and ‘the further they have to fly, the greater the amount of energy they use, so the more food you can provide locally [for them], the better.’

Because of their small size, relative to the European honey bee, native bees have a high commercial value in pollinating fruit and vegetable species with small flowers, such as tomatoes and blueberries. And they’re actually much more efficient and productive workers than the European bee, which, says Steve, ‘pollinate only about 30% of plants’, compared to a pollination rate of around 70-80% for the native bee.

Native bee hives, Steve McGrane's garden, Korora, mid-north coast NSW
Native bee hives, Steve McGrane’s garden, Korora, mid-north coast NSW

While the native bee has not, so far as Steve is aware, suffered the colony collapse disorder that is decimating many populations of European bees, it is under threat from its larger cousin. Steve explains why:

“European bees are very messy in the way they obtain the pollen – they buzz and they just destroy the flower. Whereas when the native bee comes along, it’s very delicate, and there’s no pollen left for it, so they’re actually killing the food sources of the native bees.”

European bees can also out-compete native bees for food because they can tolerate much lower temperatures. In our region, they remain active for most of the year, whereas native bees go dormant during the colder months.

But with European bee populations in decline, native bees may well have an increasingly vital role to play in ensuring our future food security. All the more reason for backyard gardeners to take the plunge and get a hive, in Steve’s view.

And while their main job may be pollination, they do, as Aboriginal people have long known, provide small amounts of delicious ‘sugar bag’ honey. This honey, because of its comparative scarcity, can retail for as much as $100 a kilo. Steve and his neighbour Peter are prototyping a way of extracting the honey in small plastic containers. This avoids the need to split open the whole hive, which can be a very messy process.

Native Bee Hive Honey Container
Native Bee Hive Honey Container

If keeping native bees takes your fancy, the cost is a reasonable $450-$500 for a hive, and ‘it takes zilch knowledge’, says Steve. The most important thing is to have a diversity of flowering plants in close proximity, so your bees have a reliable food supply.