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Australian Native Bees | How to Build a Bee Hive

Looking to attract more Australian native bees in your garden? Bees are one of the most important creatures on this planet, actively pollinating more plants than any other group of insects.

Despite agriculture scaling back on the use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers over recent decades though, bees continue to decline, with many species facing extinction.

In this article, we’ll look at the beneficial role of bees, how to support them in our gardens with everything from bee hives to complete rewilding, and whether or not that really works.

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Australian Native Bees Guide

Most of Australian native bees have effective defences which protect them against predation

What are Bees, and How Do They Live?

Bees are flying insects found all over the globe, with Australia hosting one of the biggest ranges of bee species in any part of the world. There are thousands of different species of bees but they tend to fall into two distinct categories:

  • Colony bees
  • Solitary bees

Colony bees, like honeybees, stay in large families striving to protect their queen in ever-growing colonies. Honeybees are one of the bee species most under threat from pesticides and inorganic gardening practices, but one of the lesser-known problems is the lack of diversity and nectar in our gardens.

Solitary bees live alone, typically digging holes in open soil, creating nests in the undergrowth, or boring into soft walls, with many making use of hollow plant stems to lay eggs. 

While you can provide habitat for solitary bees like mason bees, mining bees and leafcutter bees in your garden, the best thing for honey bees is introducing a wider range of nectar-rich plants as honey bees require an experienced hand to introduce and manage colonies.

What is an Australian Native bee’s natural habitat?

With such a wide variety of Australian native bees, it’s impossible to describe a single habitat, but in general, providing shelter, food and hiding places is important. 

Loose and open soil in your garden beds and well-aerated lawns help a variety of mining bees, while leafcutters and mason bees require holes in timber, or hollow plant stems to lay eggs.

Over 70% of native Australian bees are ground-nesting, and choose protected earth to burrow. Leaving areas of uncut grass is the best way to encourage these determined little mining bees.

What do bees do for wildlife and our gardens?

Other than a few species of stingless bees, most of Australian native bees have effective defences which protect them against predation, and their uniform colouring is universally understood as a danger amongst birds. 

By pollinating trees, shrubs, and perennial and annual plants, bees help the production of seed, fruit and berries, which are not just good for us but feed other wildlife too.

Common Native Bees in Australia

There are over 1,700 species of Australian native bees, making it one of the most diverse populations of bees in the world. The largely uncultivated land across the country means they are able to continue thriving in their natural habitat here, but in towns and cities bees are becoming a thing of the past.

The most common bees in Australia, and the ones you can help to protect in your garden, include:

Burrowing Bees

Burrowing bees -Teddy bear bee
  • Amegilla asserta
  • Teddy bear bee (Amegilla bombiformis)
  • Blue banded bee (Amegilla cingulata)
  • Dawson’s burrowing bee (Amegilla dawsoni)

Native burrowing bees, including the teddy bear bee with its bright orange furry legs, make shallow nests in loose soil under greenery which provides some shelter from the rain.

Their burrows are generally short and unassuming, but some species like Dawson’s Burrowing bee make connected nests in groups of up to 10,000. Burrowing Bees have stings, but will only sting if you touch, or threaten a female bee or queen.

Leaf Cutter Bees (Megachile)

Leafcutter bees (Megachile) are a group of around 40 species of solitary bees that make nests in holes in timber or hollow plant stems

Leafcutter bees (Megachile) are a group of around 40 species of native solitary bees that make nests in holes in timber or hollow plant stems. They get their name from their unusual habit of cutting round discs from soft-leaved plants like roses.

They use the discs to insulate their nests, building chambers from individual larvae which they pack into cells using pollen to feed the emerging young.

Leaf cutter bees are stinging bees, and will sting if threatened. However, before they sting, they will usually bite as a warning, causing very little harm.

Resin Bees (Megachile, formerly Chalicodoma)

Resin bees are related to leafcutter bees but use resin and gum from damaged plants to build sturdy nests

Native Resin bees are related to leafcutter bees, also in the genus Megachile, but use resin and gum from damaged plants to build sturdy nests that also provide sugar for their offspring.

As well as harvesting resin from native trees they steal it from other colonies, including some species of stingless bee, which produce resin as a by-product of their own nest building. 

Resin bees have stings but very, very, rarely use them unless repeatedly agitated.

Homalictus Bees (Homalictus)

Homalictus are distinct from burrowing bees in their habits by creating intricate multi-tunnelled nests in the ground

Source: en.wikipedia.org

Native Homalictus are distinct from burrowing bees in their habits by creating intricate multi-tunnelled nests in the ground to lay their young as well as living in groups, usually of females.

They prefer nesting in clay soil thanks to its ability to be formed into chambers, unlike shallower burrowing bee nests using loose, sandy, or arid ground.

Homalictus bees can sting, and cause significant pain when they do. Like any bee, homalictus will only sting if it perceives you as a threat, but it’s worth steering clear of them while they feed.

Masked Bees

there are a wide range of bees that are generically grouped as ‘Masked Bees’
  • Amphylaeus
  • Hylaeus
  • Meroglossa

While most genus and species of bee are grouped into distinct categories, there are a wide range of bees that are generically grouped as ‘Masked Bees’. While they might not share the same genes, they all share similar habits and characteristics.

Native Masked bees are generally sleek, with thin, smooth thoraxes and abdomens, thriving in urban and forested parts of Australia wherever they find hollows to lay eggs.

Providing different nest sizes in reed bee nests also helps provide habitat for masked bees. Masked bees have been known to sting, but rarely do. Like most solitary bees they are not territorial but will protect burrows.

Carpenter Bees

Carpenter bees are almost completely limited to NSW and WA as they require warmer climates to thrive
  • Golden-green carpenter bee (Xylocopa aerata)
  • Green carpenter bees (Xylocopa Lestis)
  • Peacock carpenter bee (Xylocopa bombylans)
  • Yellow and Black Carpenter Bees (Xylocopa koptortosoma)

Native Carpenter bees are almost completely limited to NSW and WA as they require warmer climates to thrive. They instinctively pollinate passion flowers and nest in dry or dead timber.

Carpenter bees prefer to build their own nests, so for gardeners in the northeast, it’s worth leaving some dead timber around the garden for them to burrow into, rather than pre-drilling any bee hives.

Carpenter bees only sting if provoked, and are able to sting more than once unlike most bees, which die after stinging. 

Reed Bees

Reed Bees make their nests in the hollow tunnels of reeds as a safe hiding place from predators and scavengers

Source: pollinatorlink.org

  • Exoneura abstruse
  • Exoneura abstrusa
  • Exoneura albolineata
  • Exoneura albopilosa
  • Exoneura robusta

There are over 80 species of Native reed bee in Australia, all sharing one clever trait. They don’t need timber to nest, provided there are some dead grasses, bamboo or hollow perennial reeds left around the garden after winter.

They make their nests in the hollow tunnels of reeds as a safe hiding place from predators and scavengers that could disturb their young, or steal their pollen food source.

Reed bees will sting if provoked, but cause very little pain to humans. Their sting is a reaction to threat, and they will die after stinging you so try not to provoke or agitate reed bees, particularly near habitats as it impacts their struggling population.

Stingless Bees

Stingless bees make their own nests and do produce honey, but require their entire reserves for overwintering colonies

  • Austroplebeia australis
  • Austroplebeia cassiae
  • Austroplebeia cincta
  • Austroplebeia essingtoni
  • Austroplebeia magna
  • Tetragonula carbonaria (Sugarbag bee)
  • Tetragonula hockingsi
  • Tetragonula mellipes

Native Stingless bees are closely related to the common honeybee, and live in large colonies around the North Coast as a tropical species which prefers warmer weather, though there are some records of them living as south as Sydney.

Stingless bees make their own nests and do produce honey, but require their entire reserves for overwintering colonies. It is never advised to take honey from these colonies if found. 

While stingless bees cannot sting, they will bite to protect their nests. They are very much wild bees and live in honey-producing colonies. Their pack mentality will lead to several bites if you get too close to a nest.

Building a Native Bee Hive

Habitat for Mason, Leaf Cutter and Reed Bees

What do reed bees eat?

Reed bees feed pollen to their young, but it is the nectar of deciduous shrubs and trees that keeps them going. Most bees have similar eating habits, providing pollen and nectar-rich plants gives them everything they need to thrive.

How to build a reed bee hive

Building a bee hive couldn’t be easier for reed bees or lead cutter bees. These bees need hollow plant stems, or holes in timber to nest. Reed bees prefer reeds and bamboo, while leaf cutter bees love nesting in more insulated spaces like holes in timber, or gaps between cladding.

Solitary Bee Hive, Method 1:
Building a Bee Hotel

This bee hive is perfect for reed bees but works well for leaf cutters too. You can sometimes find mason bees taking shelter, and mason wasps making the most of the easy nest space.

Tools

Materials

  • Bamboo (or hollow stems)
  • Plant pot / Box

Method

  1. If you are building a bee hive from scratch, start by building a basic box. 
    • Cut four sides out of decking timber
    • Screw or nail them together into four box walls
    • Cut a back piece from the same decking timber, then attach it
    • Attach a hook to the back (optional)
  2. Cut bamboo or reeds so they are 2cm shorter than the inside of the container.
  3. Stuff the bamboo tightly into an empty pot, or your DIY bee box, with the hollow end pointing outwards.
  4. Done.
Solitary bee hive, Method 2:
How to build a reed bee hotel

Tools

  • Saw
  • Drill
  • 6mm, 8mm & 10mm drill bits

Materials

  • Logs, timber or branches
  • Hook

Method

To make a simple leaf cutter bee hive, all you need is timber and a drill. Buy a 10cm piece of timber and drill a mix of different sized holes. 6-10mm is ideal. Make the holes at least 80mm deep, and try not to drill right through the wood.

Logs, leftover timber from DIY projects, or even old decking boards, stacks so the slats create neat gaps all work for this. As long as the bee hive is sealed at the sides and the back, and placed in a warm sunny spot, bees will find it.

Where to place your reed bee hive?

Solitary bees prefer to nest above ground level, so ideally, mount your bee hive to the wall of your house, or prop it between branches of a tree where it will be safer from ants and pests.

Bees prefer to lay their young in warm chambers, so finding a warm sunny spot will give you the best chance of success.

Building a Habitat for Carpenter Bees

How to build a carpenter bee hotel

Source: fs.fed.us

Carpenter bees act just like they sound, they burrow into old timber, making intricate nests. This way, they can be sure there are no parasites or woodworms that might damage their eggs or larvae.

This means that carpenter bees are attracted to untreated timber with as little intervention from us as possible.

How to build a carpenter bee hive

To create the perfect carpenter bee hive, just screw hooks into sections of old dry, untreated timber. Use deciduous trees as the saps from pine or evergreens can be damaging. 

Hang the small logs or branches up in tees where carpenter bees can find them and dig their own nests.

Building a Habitat for Honey Bees

Honey bees and stingless bees can be encouraged to nest in your garden, but require a little bit more work, but remember, introducing honey bees into your garden doesn’t mean free honey.

Most species of honey bees in Australia create enough honey for themselves, and harvesting their honey can severely damage colonies.

What do honey bees eat?

Honey bees consume vast amounts of nectar, storing pollen and secreting honey to help feed their young as they develop. Pollen-rich annual plants, vegetables and native herbaceous perennials are the best food for honey bees and stingless bees.

Honey bee log hive

How to build a honey bee hive

Building a honey bee nest, or honey bee log hive is much trickier than other bee hives, as you’re relying on having local swarms in spring, and good biodiversity in your local area.

Wild honey bees need dead, hollow wood to create their nest though, so this can be provided if you suspect you have local honey bees who might find your nest site eventually but remember, this isn’t about harvesting honey, it’s about creating safe spaces for these native creatures to thrive.

To build a honey bee nest site, you will need a large dry log. Ideally, find a log which has naturally hollowed out (but this is unlikely as it will usually have rotted and had infestations of woodworm, which make it unsuitable). 

If you have a solid log, with bark attached, hollow out the middle, leaving a 2” wall all around the outside. Drill a few holes in the bottom of the log, and screw in two heavy-duty hooks to the top. Hang the log from a solid branch and wait.

In spring, brush the log with lemongrass, which is said to attract honey bees and comfort them, making them more likely to choose this nest site after a swarm.

Where to place your honey bee hive

Honey bee hives are best placed well out of reach up in the trees. Disturbed honeybees can swarm and will protect their comb with their lives. Hang your honey bee nest log high up, or rope it onto the branches of existing trees.

10 Best Hives for Native Bees

1. ABeeC Hives Bare Timber Solitary Native Bee Hotel

ABeeC Hives Bare Timber Solitary Native Bee Hotel

Source: catch.com.au

Bees prefer bare timber and raw materials to stained or painted hives. This simple bare timber hive from the brilliantly named ABeeC Hives can provide habitat and nesting space for reed bees, mason bees, and most solitary native bees to lay their young.

The deep bamboo tubes are ideal for leafcutter bees too, with plenty of space for multiple eggs in separate cavities.

2. Bee Hotel Solid Firwood

Bee Hotel Solid Firwood

Source: catch.com.au

While the slatted grooves of this simple firwood bee hotel are aimed at mason bees, they provide habitat for all types of bees, ladybugs, and wasps, and will massively increase biodiversity in your garden. We installed a similar bee hotel last year and within days we noticed mason bees leaving the nest tunnels.

The pitched roof helps to keep the rain off and overlaps the entrance, making it a much more appealing space for bees to nest without risking flooded egg tunnels.

3. Insect Hotel XXL 

Insect Hotel XXL

Source: catch.com.au

This huge insect hotel is almost a metre tall and would be a gorgeous statement piece in any garden, just make sure it’s got plenty of sun.

Most solitary bees prefer to nest in warm day spots, and will be actively encouraged by the alternative habitats for other wildlife, which will help to increase biodiversity, and heat during the development of eggs and larvae.

4. Conich Mason Bee House

Conich Mason Bee House

Source: amazon.com.au

One of the big advantages of the slatted bee hotels is that they can be cleaned every year when the young have left the nest. While mason bees will nest in old tunnels, they are much more likely to choose clean tunnels to lay their eggs as it decreases the chances of infection and disease from spreading.

The overlapping roof gives plenty of shade and shelter for bees as they enter and inspect their new nest. While the cavity at the top might seem like a waste of space, providing shelter during the day for leafcutter bees, and stingless bees is essential, so even if they don’t nest there, you will often find resting bees hiding from the rain in the large cavity under the pitched roof.

5. Mosegor Wooden Hanging Insect Hotel

Mosegor Wooden Hanging Insect Hotel

Source: amazon.com.au

We’ve included the mosegor hotel because it's useful for small spaces, but the depth isn’t adequate for most solitary bees. However, some leafcutter bees and reed bees may still be attracted to the shorter bamboo sections in urban spaces where choice is limited.

Just because you’ve got a small urban garden doesn’t mean you should ignore your bees!

6. Gardena ClickUp! Insect Hotel

Gardena ClickUp! Insect Hotel

Source: amazon.com.au

I love the sculptural appeal of the free-standing bee hotel from Gardena. It’s got a sturdy plastic case, which protects its inner elements from rot in the long term, and will help to warm up the tunnels in spring and summer where bees are searching for warm reeds and holes left over from last year.

It’s a multi-bug habitat, so you will also find wasps and ladybugs nesting here, but don’t worry, this rarely deters native bees.

7. Biome Bee House

Biome Bee House

Source: biome.com.au

Biome is a wonderful website for environmentally minded buyers, with handmade and eco-friendly products aimed at building a more conscious home.

Their mini bee house is designed for reed bees and would also be suitable for burrowing bees, masked bees, mason bees, and leaf cutters too.

8. Native Solitary Bees Bee Hotel - Large

Native Solitary Bees Bee Hotel - Large

Source: biome.com.au

Bee hotels don’t need to be boring, they can be artworks in their own right, and add a sense of wonder to any garden. This bee hotel is designed specifically with native bees in mind.

So, it keeps things a little rough around the edges and uses stains on the outer case to protect it from the elements while keeping the habitat tubes untreated for a healthier place for bees to rest and lay.

9. Native Solitary Bees Bee Hotel - Small

Native Solitary Bees Bee Hotel - Small

Source: biome.com.au

If you haven’t got enough space for something tall, or self-standing, check out this gorgeous little plywood bee hotel from biome. It’s easy to hang, and will quickly attract a wealth of native bees.

Plus, it comes with a lovely pamphlet about helping native bees in the rest of your garden too, so you get all the tools you need to learn about caring for native pollinators.

10. Mr Z Bee Hotel

Mr Z Bee Hotel

Source: etsy.com

When it comes to attracting nature, going natural is nearly always the best choice. The small bee hotels from MrZBeeHotels on Etsy are ideal for a more natural garden and entirely built from natural materials, with an easy hanging hook for quick installation.

There are plenty of native bees that nest in cavities in trees, so hanging a prepared log in the branches of a garden tree is the perfect way to give them something that feels more natural to them.

What Other Insects Use Bee Hives?

There is a wide range of insects that like to use bee hives, either as resting spots, or to lay their eggs. While most are harmless, some steal food supplies and even eat bee eggs and larvae if they can find them. 

  • Mason wasps
  • Potter wasps
  • Spiders
  • Cockroaches
  • Cuckoo Bees
  • Ants
Cuckoo bees aren’t a species in their own right, but cover a range of species from other genera

Cuckoo bees are some of the most frustrating bees to find in the garden as they are incredible creatures in their own right, but they lay their eggs in the nests of other bee species, which then parasite the nest by eating the food intended for other bees.

This does no harm to the mature bees but limits the success rate of growing larvae. Cuckoo bees aren’t a species in their own right, but cover a range of species from other genera. 

One sure way to spot a cuckoo bee is if you spot a mature bee with no pollen on its legs flying into a hive in spring.

How to Avoid Predators and Pests in Bee Hives

There is no way to avoid other insects making their homes in your bee hive. Instead, embrace the broad ecosystem of insects in your garden, as mason wasps will help to manage ants or beetles using your bee hive, and move on the following year, meaning more space for bees next time round.

Definitely never use insecticides to manage insects around bee hives as you will inevitably kill bees in the process.

Plants that Support Bees

Native bees like native plants, but the vast majority of bees will happily feed on non-native species with fruit trees being a particularly useful source of pollen early in the year.

Below, we’ll look at some of the best plants to encourage bees that you can grow in your garden.

Australian Native plants

Peas, daisies and banksia are amongst the most pollen and nectar-rich native plants you grow in your garden, but anything in those families is useful for bees.

Plants that Support Bees

Lupins are a member of the pea family too, so are full of pollen, and flower for longer into the year. By deadheading lupin spikes in early summer, you can encourage a second flush later in the season too.

Salvia and lavender, or other heavily scented flowers are great too, as they don’t just provide food, but can attract bees from over a mile away with their distinctive scent.

Plants with open flowers are perfect for bees, making it easier to access the nectar at the base of each flower.

Nectar Rich Plants

Poppies and daisies of all varieties are perfect for bees, as are Echinacea, as they have specific profiles in infrared light (the spectrum which bees see best) that attract best using specific heat signals from great distances.

Native bees like nectar rich plants

The most important tip for attracting bees to the garden though is to not overthink it. The neater and better planned your garden, the less likely you are to have bees.

Bees prefer spaces with a wide variety of plants, and seasonal interests, so making sure you have open flowers all year round is essential. For more info, also see our article on the best flowers for bees in Australia.

Garden Tips to Support Bees

As well as some obvious tips, like planting nectar-rich plants, and using open flowers rather than closed cup flowers or double-headed flowers, there are some key ingredients you can add to your garden to help encourage bees and other wildlife in:

Avoid Using Chemicals in Your Garden

Garden Tips to Support Bees

Never use pesticides, even organic pesticides harm bees and can remain harmful for hours after spraying. Check the labels on fertilisers too, as some contain chemical constituents that can harm insects if they are directly sprayed.

Better alternative: Best Natural and Organic Pest Control for Your Garden

Adding a Garden Ponds

Garden ponds or wet areas are important for bees. Even just a raised bird bath in the garden gives bees somewhere to drink from. Think about planting water lilies or lotus flowers in your pond, as the flat leaves are perfect for bees to land and have a drink without the risk of falling in the water.

Providing Shelter

As well as providing habitats and bee hives, bees love shelter. Bees rarely fly in the rain, or in very windy conditions, and are more likely to stay in a garden long term if they have shelter, either from large-leaved plants, or hidden areas underneath the decking.

Shrubs and trees are perfect to help bees hide from the rain, but large leaves perennials like foxgloves are great too, as bees can hang upside-down for hours for their hairy leaves.

Leaving Some Messy Areas

Like all wildlife, bees don’t like pristine lawns and perfectly mulched borders, so leave some areas of the garden slightly wilder, leaving leaf litter on the ground through winter to warm the soil and loosen its structure, and allowing dry reeds to stay in place even into spring and summer.

Native Bees Frequently Asked Questions

Does Australia have native bumblebees?

There are no native species of bumblebee in Australia, although European bumble bees (Bombus terrestris) have naturalised over the last century.

While bumblebees can outcompete some native species for food they are not suited to warmer climates so tend not to dominate over native species.

Common Bees in Australia

Do stingless bees make honey?

Stingless bees make a particular form of honey known as ‘sugarbag’ and produce it in lesser quantities than the common honeybee. Stingless bees typically only produce around 1kg of honey per hive so are not used for commercial farming as they cannot sustain hives without their entire reserve.

Are common honey bees native to Australia? 

Common honey bees used for commercial honey production were introduced into Australia in 1822 and are not native. Native honey bees are as productive but less domesticated. They can be encouraged into your garden by using large hollow logs.

Are Australian native bees at risk?

Australian native bees are better adapted to our climate than imported honey bees and Bombus terrestris (the bumble bee) so are not declining in their numbers as quickly, but they are still very much at risk from mass crop production and over-farming landscapes.

Allowing nature to take control of some parts of your garden, or cultivating native flowers is a great way to support all bee species.

The More We Help Australian Native Bees, The More We Help Our Wildlife

Bees are fascinating creatures that need our help, so following our guide above, even if you just do one thing, will help significantly towards supporting our native bees.

Even a small window box planted with native wildflowers can support a colony of bees nearby, and a single bee hive can house up to 1000 larvae with up to eight eggs laid in each cell.

So helping bees isn’t one of those passive things you can do to help nature, it is an active part of conservation, and it doesn’t have to cost a thing. We hope this guide has provided you with all the information you need to support Australian native bees in your garden. 

Australian Native Bees How to Build a Bee Hotel

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