Getting pollinators to work in SPAs

This guest blog on pollinators is contributed by Dr Kit Prendergast, The Bee Babette.

What’s the big deal about pollinators and seed? Diving straight into a ‘birds and the bees’ talk: for most flowering plants to produce seed, pollen from the male parts of one flower needs to be transferred to the female parts of another. This is known as pollination.

Plants can’t move around, so they rely on other agents to help with pollination – sometimes wind or water, but usually animals. Animal pollinators include mammals, birds, and (one of the largest groups involved) insects.

So to increase Australia’s national supply of high-quality native seed, to restore ecosystems and face challenges like climate change, we absolutely must consider getting pollinators to work in native seed production areas (SPAs).

A Banksia Bee, one of Australia’s native masked bee species. Photo: Kate Brown CC BY 2.0.

SPAs present a potential pollinator problem – and opportunity

SPAs have been identified as critical for increasing Australia’s native seed supply for ecosystem restoration.

Despite being fundamental to successfully producing seed from SPAs, how to consider pollinators in SPA establishment and management is a question that’s been largely neglected.

But we can’t just assume that the right pollinators for our plants will be present when we establish a SPA, or that they’ll be there in the numbers required to facilitate cross pollination and ensure plants set seed.

The variety of species and number of plants found in SPAs like this one in Western Sydney could help support native pollinator populations, while also producing native seed for restoration.

On the flip side, building SPAs with pollinators in mind is a real opportunity – both to increase the amount and quality of native seed a SPA produces, and to simultaneously support populations of native insects.

This is a win-win way to support the long-term health and function of Australian ecosystems, with ongoing biodiversity benefits.

So how do we create a SPA fit for pollinators?

Match pollinators with plants

First, we need to know which animals pollinate the plants that produce the seed we’re targeting in our SPA.

Incredibly, there have been very few studies looking at which pollinators visit which plant species in many parts of Australia. This is important because some plants have very specialised pollination systems.

The sunny yellow flowers of Hibbertia species, like this Hibbertia arcuata, need buzz pollination. Photo: Jean and Fred Hort CC BY 2.0.

For example, Senna and Hibbertia species only release their pollen when the visiting bee buzzes at the right frequency. Not all bees do! In particular, the introduced European honeybee Apis mellifera can’t buzz pollinate.

So just setting up honeybee hives in a SPA isn’t a solution – if we don’t have the right pollinators visiting the right flowers in our SPA, native seed production will be limited.

Give pollinators a reason to stay

Once we know which pollinators match the plants in our SPA, the second step is making the SPA so comfortable that they never want to leave! That means plenty of food and nesting habitat.

Looking at our buzz-pollinated plant example, we need to cover all the food needs of the bees. Buzz-pollinated plants offer pollen, but that on its own isn’t enough – bees need nectar in their diet too! And beyond the pollen from the buzz-pollinated flowers, generalist bee species often do better on a diverse pollen diet.

This Teddy Bear Bee (Amegilla (Asaropoda) scoparia) is about to have a picnic at this Eremophila laanii, with flowers adapted to both bird and insect pollinators. Photo: Kate Brown CC BY 2.0.

So we need to make sure there are enough plants around the SPA that offer nectar and other kinds of pollen.

That’s food sorted – but what about a place to rest? Native insects vary greatly in their nesting needs. For example, buzz-pollinating bees like Amegilla and Lipotriches nest in the ground, while other native bees nest above ground in pithy stems, or in trees.

Having suitable nesting places such as undisturbed ground and trees around our SPA is important to encourage these pollinators to come to the SPA and stay.

While female Blue-banded Bees (Amegilla cingulata) nest in burrows in the ground, the males sleep in the open air, latching onto a twig or leaf edge. Photo: James Niland CC BY 2.0.

Advocate for more research to plug knowledge gaps

If you start trying to find out which pollinators interact with which native plant, and what food and nesting resources different pollinators need, you’ll soon uncover fascinating details about the world around us – but you’ll also quickly see just how many gaps there are in our knowledge.

Further research into native plant and pollinator interactions in general, and in SPAs in particular, is sorely needed to both maximise native seed production and supply for ecosystem restoration, and to enable better protection and conservation of plants and pollinators in Australia.

Try this at home

This blog has been all about getting pollinators to work in SPAs. If you aren’t setting up a SPA, you can still use some of the ideas to support pollinators in your own patch.

Photo: Michael Coghlan CC BY-SA 2.0.

  • Choose native plants – Dr Kit has found that all pollinators, both native and non-native, prefer native flowers. Include those that are rich nectar sources, as well as those that provide pollen for specialist bees and those that are ‘buzz-pollinated’ to provide a resource free from honeybee competition.
  • Plant according to your local climate – In the tropics, choose plants that flower all year around, and in colder climates, focus on spring and summer when native insects will be active.
  • Help out specialist pollinators – Find out which ones are in your area, and if there’s any information on the flowering plants they need.
  • Create a bee hotel – Recreate preferred nesting habitats for insect pollinators in your own backyard. They are fun and easy to make, and if you buy a pre-made one, those from local markets are better. You can learn more in the book ‘Creating a Haven for Native Bees’ about what makes a good (verses bad) bee hotel.
  • Reduce use of pesticides – Used to control unwanted insects, pesticide residues may have unintended side effects on beneficial insects such as bees. Try alternative gardening practices that cause less harm; for example, encouraging natural predators of pests.
  • Learn more – explore more resources produced by research-based organisations online to increase your understanding, link in with related networks and communities, and consider supporting organisations that are seeking to protect these special pollinators.

Affiliated with Curtin University, Dr Kit Prendergast is one of several researchers from universities across Australia involved in a five-year collaborative research project led by Greening Australia and funded by The Ian Potter Foundation to plug key knowledge gaps about establishing and managing SPAs – including how to design for pollinators.

If you are interested in getting updates from our SPA research project straight to your inbox, complete this form to be added to the mailing list.

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