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I was visiting my parents a few weeks ago when I made an exciting entomological ‘discovery’ in the garden. Whilst looking at the plants, I saw a different and unfamiliar bee-like creature hovering near some flowers. It turned out to be a ‘blue-banded bee’ – I’d never seen one before!
This blue-banded bee (Amegilla cingulata) is taking an interest in Verbena flowers.
The blue-banded bees caught my eye because of their iridescent colour and because they hovered. This is something English bees (Apis mellifera) cannot do. The blue-banded bees also moved between flowers much faster than English bees which made photographing and observing them very difficult!
Blue-banded bees (Amegilla cingulata) are native to Australia, but also occur naturally in Papua New Guinea, East Timor, Indonesia and Malaysia. Unlike other bee species, blue-banded bees are solitary insects. They typically build nests in sandstone, mud or the mortar-gaps in the brickwork of houses.
Detail of a blue-banded bee.
Blue-banded bees specialise in an unusual sort of flower pollination called ‘buzz pollination’. Normally flowers release pollen passively, but some species are specially designed to be pollinated by ‘buzz pollinators’ that grab onto the flowers and vibrate them quickly to release the pollen.
The tomato is a common example of a species that relies on ‘buzz pollination’. Without appropriate pollinators, commercial tomato yields are significantly reduced. In Australian glasshouse-based tomato farms, there is no common buzz pollinator available, so tomato growers are forced to use an “electric bee” vibrator to pollinate flowers. This is very labour intensive and adds cost to the final product.
So as a labour- and cost-saving remedy, tomato growers want the Commonwealth Government to allow the introduction of the European bumble bee (Bombus terrestris) as a glasshouse pollinator for their crops, despite the negative environmental consequences that would result. However the University of Adelaide has recently demonstrated that native blue-banded bees were just as effective glasshouse pollinators as bumble bees. Research is now focussed on the commercialisation of blue-banded bees for the tomato industry.
So in the future, there may be a big role for the humble blue-banded bee in industry. But in the interim, I hope to see more of these interesting insects buzz-pollinating the plants in the garden.