We all see black-and-yellow European honey bees buzzing around from time to time.

But would you recognise a native Australian bee, if you saw one? 

To date, 1,700 Australian bee species have been identified and named, with estimates that the true figure is closer to 2,000.

Rather than living in hives, most native bees are ground dwelling.

Some, such as blue-banded bees and teddy bear bees, dig shallow burrows in clay soil, while others dig burrows over a metre deep.

Bee expert Dr Ken Walker says protecting native bees is about continuing an essential “love story” necessary to help native flora thrive.

“If you were to lose a significant part of that native fauna such as bees, then suddenly there would be the knock-on effect of the number of plants that would reduce enormously,” he says.

Some of the major factors threatening native bees are habitat loss from agriculture and urban environments, bushfires, pesticide use and climate change.

Dr Walker says bees mostly lose food sources and places to nest because gardeners usually plant “exotic” plant species in their backyards.

a blue and black stripped cuckoo bee on a yellow flower

Bee-lovers want gardeners to grow more native plants to support Australian species, such as the cuckoo bee.(Supplied: Simon Mulvany)

All the buzz around non-native bees

With the bee focus on European bees and their contribution to the honey industry and their role in pollinating economically important crops, advocates are worried native species are being left behind.

The federal government currently has three bee species listed as critically endangered; all native.

The recent Global Change Biodiversity report also found at least 11 species of bees met the criteria to be listed as threatened following the Black Summer bushfires.

man sitting in an office with a microscope

Dr Ken Walker says measuring the impact of threats to native bees can be difficult without enough research.(Supplied: Ken Walker)

Dr Walker says the extent to which native bees are declining is unknown in Australia due to limited historical research.

“One of the ways that you can estimate the current condition of any native fauna is to know how it was in the past and what it’s like now,” he says.

“But there has never been a complete survey done of native Australian bees from the past.”

Impact of native bees not as tangible

Simon Mulvany, bee activist and founder of Save The Bees, says advocating to protect native bees can be difficult because a lot of people do not understand the important role they play.

“We get a lot back from honey bees that’s sort of tangible. We get the honey and we can measure how many hives we have to pollinate,” Mr Mulvany says.

Man holding a bee on his finger

Simon Mulvany wants people to grow their awareness around native bees to save species from extinction.(Supplied: Simon Mulvany)

Mr Mulvany started his organisation in 2014 to raise awareness of native bee conservation in Australia. 

Since then he has seen the conversation around native bees grow with most beekeepers taking action.

“But there is still lots we can do,” he says.

Backyard gardeners called to arms

Solutions to saving bees have been growing rapidly in recent years.

Urban bee farming has been a growing trend, while organisations across the country have turned to educating farmers on better practices to support bees.

yellow Flowers in a garden planter box

By growing more native plants in their backyard, people can attract more native and honey bees.(Supplied: Amanda Collins)

But advocacy charity, The Wheen Bee Foundation says making a difference could be as simple as planting the right garden flowers.

small black bees flying on a pink flower

Some Australian native bees are so small, bee-lovers say people might not even realise they’re bees.(Supplied: Simon Mulvany)

The charity launched its “Bee Friendly Gardening” program off the back of its Bee Friendly Farming.

The program has a particular focus on encouraging people to plant native species and plants that flower annually rather than seasonally.

“Just having a little bit of planning around what to plant around the garden can really make a huge difference to supporting an increased number and diversity of native pollinators,” Ms Chambers says.

Bee in it

Ballarat local and Wheen Bee Foundation ambassador Amanda Collins says she can not wait to see native Australian bees in her home garden.

Like many people she sees a regular influx of honey bees, especially with her own backyard beehives and “exotic” plants and flowers.

woman standing in a garden holding up a sign

Ms Collins with a Bee Friendly Garden sign from The Wheen Bee Foundation.(Supplied: The Wheen Bee Foundation)

But she says native bees are the ones needing more support.

“Being passionate about bees and beekeeping, you kind of become attuned to what the latest information and evidence is around being bee-friendly,” Ms Collins says.

“For us, it’s been about extending some of the gardens we have to include native flora.”

Ms Collins holds the title of a Bee Friendly Gardener at Ballarat in Victoria’s south-west.

She says the right plants in her region could attract blue-banded bees, cuckoo bees or leafcutter bees.

“If you don’t want to be a beekeeper that’s totally fine, you can be a bee friend.”

‘Plant for pollinators’: Gardeners urged to help battling native Australian bees
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