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16 Nov 2018

Bizarre BEE-haviour & snotty gobbles

Bees predate the dinosaurs and they do some crazy and complex things inside the hive. From using a 'waggle dance' to communicate where food is to making their own bread. Pretty cute, right? Wait until you hear what the Queen bee does...   

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Bizarre bee facts from the hive 

Bees only live about 50 days - so it's a short and (mostly) sweet life. Doug Perdie from the Urban Beehive has a number of hives with European honey bees at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney. He also features in the latest episode of our Branch Out podcast and shares some bizarre and beautiful facts about them. Well, mostly bizarre. Keep reading below. 

Doug Perdie from the Urban Beehive. Photo credit: Yie Sanderson. 
Dancing for directions 

Because bees can't talk, they've invented a special dance known as the 'figure 8 dance' or the 'waggle dance'. Karl von Frisch’s decoding of the dance language is considered one of the great discoveries in modern biology. Bascially, they dance to share information with other bees about (1) the direction and (2) the distance to flowers that contain nectar and pollen, to water sources, or new nest sites. 

Ok, let's break it down... 

(1) Direction: A bee walks (or dances) around in a figure 8 movement on an angle and the angle is the direction of the food source in relation to the sun. Because the hives' honeycombs are built vertically, straight up means towards the sun and down means away from the sun, and so on. 

(2) Distance: This is where the 'waggling' comes in. The further away the food or water source, the more the bee moves its abdomen. It's all in the hips baby! 

If you need to see it visually, watch this video. 

European honey bees. Photo credit: Doug Perdie. 
Baking bee bread

Everyone knows that European honey bees make honey, but did you know they also make a 'bee bread'? After a bee returns to the hive with pollen, they mix it with water and nectar from the bee's mouth and then the pollen granules start to grow. This bread-like substance is then stored inside the hives' honeycombs for later consumption and it even provides a certain amount of structural integrity to the hive. 

Bee dating and the gruesome ending... 

Boy bees are known as 'drones' and their sole purpose is to mate with the Queen. But there can only be one "winner".  Drones hang out at the bee hive version of a pub, waiting for the queen bee to fly past.

If he is successful and manages to copulate with the Queen bee... Wait for it.... The end of his penis rips off, his testicles explode and he falls to the ground dead with his abdomen severed from his body.

So what happens to the boy bees that don't "successfully" mate with the Queen?  Well, they're considered a drain on resources and they're kicked out of the hive to die. So what would you choose? 

The Queen bee will only mate with about 30 drones in her lifetime and she stores all of their semen in her body for several years! Sperm storage by females is actually widespread throughout the animal kingdom, but amazingly, little is known about how females are able to keep sperm cells viable over prolonged periods of time.

Doug Perdie from the Urban Beehive holding a Queen bee. Photo credit: Doug Perdie. 

Snotty gobbles need native buzzers 

'Snotty gobbles' is a colloquial west Australian term for a genus of plants known as Persoonias. It gets this name because of the snot-like appearance of the contents from the fruit it produces. They're an incredibly valuable food source for native animals and some people love the taste too (if you can get past the 'snot' factor). 

There are over 90 species of Persoonia found all over Australia and they are quite charactersitc in the landscape. Restoration Biology Officer based at the Australian Botanic Garden, Dr Nathan Emery, has been doing vital conservation work to protect some of the endangered species. 

"Persoonias are shrubs or small trees and while their tiny yellow flowers are small and not prominent, they are best known in the Australian bush for the striking bright green foliage of many species," Dr Emery said. 

"Persoonias are notoriously difficult to grow and many are rare or endangered. Our research is vital for the development and implementation of translocation programs for these species, ensuring their populations persist in the wild," Dr Emery said.  

Dr Nathan Emery hand pollinating Persoonia. 

Persoonias need pollinators

As part of his research, Dr Emery has also performed pollinator studies to protect the future of Persoonias. There are over 1500 native Australian bees and many of our plants such as Persoonias need them to survive.
"Essentially you have to work backwards. In order to protect endangered plants such as Persoonias, you need to understand what they need to survive in the wild," Dr Emery said. 

"A crucial element is ensuring plants have a viable seed production and for a lot of Persoonias, this means having pollinators present in their habitat," Dr Emery said.   

Nathan spent almost a week in the field counting bees and other floral visitors to help understand what pollinators Persoonias need to thrive. 

"Over 90 per cent of the pollinators we surveyed at this particular site for Persoonia was the Leioproctus bee," Dr Emery said.

And Leioproctus are built for pollinating Persoonias.

"Their flattened head allows them to really dig down into the base of the tiny Persoonia flower to get the nectar reward, which causes the dust-sized pollen grains to attach to their hairy bodies," Dr Emery said. 

"The females also have these spines on their legs, which allow them to very effectively rake up the pollen," Dr Emery said. 

  A native Leioproctus bee pollinating a Persoonia pauciflora flower.

No bees, no food...

Worldwide we are experiencing a decline in bee numbers. Over 70 per cent of our food crops rely on pollinators such as bees and their pollination services are worth several billion dollars a year in Australia alone. Not to mention it takes bees about one million flower visits to make just one jar of honey! You can buy honey made by Doug's bees at the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney's 'Garden Shop' or 'The Calyx. 

The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney has also recently worked with scientists from CSIRO and Hitachi to unlock the mysterious world of urban honeybees by collecting data through "backpacks" expertly placed on our bees. Read the story here. 

Pollinator protection tips for you garden

Supporting our pollinators is one the easiest ways to make an impact on our environment. 

1. Plant things that flower: A good example is basil - it's easy to grow, it flowers all year round and you can use it for your cooking. 

2. Avoid nasty chemicals: Bees populations are declining because of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides. Try to avoid using chemicals in your garden - the system usually sorts itself out on its own. 

3. Don't clean up: Nature isn't 'clean' so try and leave some dirt, old wood and leaf litter around in your garden for pollinators and other animals. Our native bees don't live in hives like European honey bees, so they need this natural material to build their homes. 

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