A blurry photo of a jazzy-looking bee in a Mudgee backyard has the potential to rewrite the books on native bees in the NSW Central West.
Four months ago Mudgee's Jackie Trott started the Mudgee Bee Project, aiming to educate residents about the critical role that native bees play in the region and our lives around Australia.
This week, the group received a significant bump in followers after a Mudgee resident's chance encounter with what is possibly an extremely rare bee in her backyard.
Jackie put the call out for photos of backyard bees, and Heidi Duncan sent through a photo of a small blue-green bee in her backyard (which you can see a little further down), thinking nothing of it, but this bee is believed to be a Metallic Green Carpenter Bee, a rare find and almost unheard of in the region.
The species is thought to be extinct in some parts of Australia like South Australia and Victoria but still exists on Kangaroo Island, around Sydney, the coast and the Great Dividing Range. They rely on soft wood to make nests. However in some areas, bushfires have destroyed the materials they need that take decades to grow back which severely threatens the bees' existence.
Heidi said she has always been interested in native animals and thought the bee project was a great idea and is thrilled to hear that her find could be significant.
"I saw one of the Mudgee Bee Project posts on their native bee hotels and thought it was such a nice way for people to get involved and encourage native bees into their gardens. I have always been interested in native animals and plants and love getting outside taking photos of any I see and I realised I didn't know anything about our native bees which is why I love reading all the information from the project," Heidi said.
"The find was really exciting. It's a really beautiful looking bee and when Jackie said most of their habitat had been destroyed by the fires and they were now extinct in some areas it made the find even more exciting."
Bee expert weighs in
Dr Cooper Schouten, bee expert at the School of Environment, Science and Engineering at Southern Cross Universitysaid native bees play an especially important role in local agriculture.
"Native bees play an imperative role as pollinators of Australia's wildflowers. They also make important contributions to Australian agriculture, through crop pollination," Dr Cooper said.
"They are the reason we have so many beautiful wildflowers in this country and they are a significant species economically as they are important pollinators of many tropical crops, such as macadamias, mango and watermelons."
Dr Cooper said the bee photographed by Heidi was a harmless female Green Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa aeratus), a rare bee to find in the Mudgee area. Jackie said she has confirmed this with a native bee scientist in Western Australia.
"This is likely a female Metallic Green Carpenter Bee. Males are easily distinguished by the yellow hairs on the legs, thorax and head, and the yellow facial markings. The Green Carpenter Bee is a large iconic native bee species which is metallic green in colour, and is friendly and harmless," Dr Cooper said.
"The atlas of living Australia lists a total of 514 records of the species, so just finding this individual is quite special. There are also no historical records of the species being found in Mudgee.
"The closest record of the species is around 70km away in Kandos, but these records date back to 1978. It's a great find and equally a great opportunity for locals in the region to keep an eye out for these bees and learn more about them so they can help to protect what species may be left."
How the group began
Jackie said the idea for the group came about when she was talking with local permaculturists in town.
"Probably about a year ago, I was just chatting to a few people who work in permaculture in town, and [I was] asking them about native pollinators and saw maybe there's a bit of a gap in knowledge amongst the general population, about the role at native bees play," Jackie said.
"Not many people knew about the roles that native native bees play and how important they are. You know, even in agricultural, industrial-scale pollination as well as native pollination. And they form a bit of a cornerstone in all pollinators of our existence really, pollinating the food that we eat, but also additionally, other wildlife feed off them."
Keep on the lookout because there's actually not a huge amount of documentation of which specific native bees that we do have here in the Mudgee region.Jackie Trott
Jackie wanted to start with a small base of followers and help them understand what kind of roles they can play in our gardens, agriculture and in the wildlife chain, and what you can do in our garden to give bees the best chance.
Australia has more than 1700 varieties of native bees. Many people will be familiar with European honey bees, black and yellow, round and with a stinger that on occasion is used to protect itself.
However, when it comes to native bees, many don't fit the stereotype. The Australian Sugarbag Bee for example, is stingless and almost exclusively black in colour. They are also occasionally referred to as bush bees.
"Everyone's really familiar with European honeybees because it's very hipster to keep honey bees in hives in retro suburbia," Jackie said.
Jackie said she wanted to ask herself and others what can be done to give native bees the best chance in the region.
"What can we do just as backyard gardeners and people who have businesses and farms? What can they do to make sure that we have minimal impact on their habitat, and on their food, as well?" she said.
"The project is about bringing people into maybe a bit of a circle of participation in getting people to be willing to plant bee food seedlings put up accommodation like bee hotels, which is a kind of cute schmaltzy thing in a way but it's really cool as the same time and also share seeds and just keep on the lookout because there's actually not a huge amount of documentation of which specific native bees that we do have here in the Mudgee region."
How can you help?
Jackie offers bee-friendly seedlings as well as bee hotels you can place around the garden for bees to live in safely.
Dr Cooper also outlined a number of ways people can help native bees flourish in their garden.
"Planting a bee-friendly garden with local natives; Bees like 'A home among the gumtree, Family Myrtaceae (eucalypts, bottlebrushes, mallees, and Melaleucas). Seek to plant a high diversity of plants with different shapes and colours and plant these in clumps," Dr Cooper said.
"Support local native beekeepers and buy raw honey from a small, ethical producer. Set up a [very shallow] water fountain so the bees have somewhere to drink when they are thirsty. Throw out pesticides, fungicides and herbicides where you can.
"Set up a bee hotel in your garden and explain to kids that bees are the ones out there pollinating the crops that fill their plates and tummies at night."