How Sydney’s busiest bees are keeping the Royal Botanic Gardens thriving

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Doug Purdie was so concerned about declining bee populations around the world that he quit a career in computing to help save the species.

He co-founded The Urban Beehive, which runs dozens of beehives across Sydney.

“Basically I knew bees were having problems all over the world and we didn’t really talk about it here in Australia at the time,” Mr Purdie said.

“I wanted to explain to people why [bees] are important.”

Fifteen years later, Mr Purdie can say he helps maintain the hives of Sydney’s most important garden: the Royal Botanic Gardens.

Sydney Botanic Gardens has its own hives, managed by Doug Purdie.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

Nestled behind bushes on the roof of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music is a row of eight towers where bees zoom in and out on daily missions.

At the height of the season, there can be up to 100,000 bees in each hive, Purdie says.

The gardens are serviced by native bees and European honey bees calling these hives home. Their job is to pollinate the hundreds of flowers in the gardens to help the countless plants survive and thrive.

A bee with a ball of pollen on its leg sits on the arm of a beekeeper
European bees are effective pollinators, says beekeeper Doug Purdie.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

“All bees are great pollinators. European honey bees in particular are very, very effective pollinators because of their numbers,” Purdie says.

City without refuge against varroa mites

Despite the location, there is no guarantee of safety against varroa mites, which were first detected in Newcastle a month ago.

“All European honey bees are endangered statewide,” Purdie says.

Mites on a bee
Varroa mites are a threat to bees throughout New South Wales.(Provided: NSW Department of Primary Industries)

He says that unfortunately there is no way for individual beekeepers to protect their hives against varroa mites. Although keepers can check their bees for mites using a technique involving alcohol.

“You can’t actually protect bees from varroa, all you can do is check and see if they’re there,” Purdie says.

Native bees are local specialists

Varroa mites have little impact on native bees, which also help pollinate gardens.

Mr Purdie says native bees are very important to local ecosystems but often overlooked because they don’t live in large hives or produce large amounts of honey.

A little black bee flying on a pink flower.
Native bees are specialized pollinators.(Provided: Simon Mulvany)

“Native bees are really important because often native bees are specialists. So a particular bee exists for a particular plant,” he says.

“If one or the other disappears, that plant or that bee will also disappear.”

Abbie Mitchell had a long career as a film and TV stylist when she decided she wanted to make a positive impact on the environment through work.

Ms Mitchell is now an environmental educator with Kids Connecting Nature and will run workshops at the Royal Botanic Gardens during National Science Week to educate school children about native bees and their ‘hotels’.

Two bees are flying near a flower
Most native bees live in the dirt, while others live in dead wood.(Provided: Australian Museum)

Of the 2,000 varieties of native bees, most are solitary creatures.

While some species live in colonies, many species prefer to live in houses built from nature. About 70% of native bee species live in the ground, while the rest prefer dead soft woods.

What can we do for bees?

Removing dead wood from gardens effectively removes potential homes for some native bee species.

Ms. Mitchell says the main thing native bees lack is a healthy, productive habitat.

An effective habitat includes both nesting ground, such as dirt or a beehive, and flowers for the bees to feed from a short distance away.

A bee on a pink flower
Bees need plants that flower all year round.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

“Some of our best pollinating species can only fly up to 60 meters from their nest site to feed,” Ms Mitchell says.

“What I see more and more often is that people have these fabulous gardens and then they say, ‘Well, why don’t I have bees?’

“It’s because their garden is an island in a sort of urban oasis.”

Mr Purdie also suggests that Sydneysiders should plan their gardens to provide food for bees all year round.

“What you want to try is three plants that bloom all year round, so even in winter have things that bloom,” he says.

He says another helpful habit is to stop spraying gardens with insecticides because not only do they kill bees, but they can also kill native bee larvae that nest in the ground.

A larger bee sits on a white flower next to a smaller stingless bee.
Native bees can only fly relatively short distances.(Provided: Tobias Smith)

Ms. Mitchell echoes this point.

“If there’s no food, you won’t have bees,” she says.

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