Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

FNZ 57 - Apoidea (Insecta: Hymenoptera) - Popular summary

Donovan, BJ 2007. Apoidea (Insecta: Hymenoptera). Fauna of New Zealand 57, 295 pages.
( ISSN 0111-5383 (print), ; no. 57. ISBN 978-0-478-09389-6 (print) ). Published 07 Sep 2007

Popular summary


The bees present in New Zealand are not as colourful nor as conspicuous compared to the range of species of bees that occurs in many other countries of comparable size. Exceptions are the big, burly buzzing queen bumble bees which are recognised immediately by most people, but native species are superficially rather fly-like when on the wing, and even honey bees might sometimes be confused with vespid wasps. The only occasions under which some native bees have been noticed by the public are when nest tumuli have appeared in nearly-bare soil of lawns and unsealed driveways, and gardens, and foredune areas of beaches where people might be sunbathing. However, in New Zealand a characteristic that distinguishes female bees (except queen honey bees) and the worker caste of bumble and honey bees is that they collect nectar and pollen with which to feed themselves and their young. When collecting pollen and nectar, pollen grains are often moved from the anthers or the male parts of flowers, to the stigmas or female parts, a process which is called pollination. The pollen grains on stigmas then germinate, and eventually seeds and/or fruits are formed. Seed production is of course essential for the maintenance of both our native and introduced flora, and for many commercially valuable crops bees are by far the number one pollinators. Because bees are tied to flowers for their food, and more so than any other group of insects, as a group they are probably the most important pollinators, and therefore are often considered to be ‘keystone’ species in the whole chain of events that results in seeds and fruits. But not all characteristics of bees are beneficial. Almost everyone has been stung by a honey or bumble bee, annually hundreds have to seek medical treatment, and once in a while someone dies. Also, seed production of some species of weeds might be increased. On the other hand most people know that honey bees produce honey and beeswax, and even royal jelly, and increasingly both introduced and native bees are being recognised as essential pollinators of some very valuable crops, for example kiwifruit, and onion seed crops, without which yields would be uneconomic.

The general resemblance of many of our native bees to some flies has not only limited their recognition as bees by the public, but within the group of large hairy species the close similarity among a number of species has made identification difficult even by entomologists.

Now, a total of 41 species of bees are known from the greater New Zealand biogeographical area, of which 27 are endemic, that is they are found only in New Zealand, and of these, 14 are new to science. Another five species are also present in Australia and clearly have originated from there, one other species is European in origin, and eight species have been purposely imported from the Northern Hemisphere. Of the endemic species, 18 are considered to be as primitive as any anywhere. Also, with five species which reached New Zealand assisted inadvertently by humans, and eight species which have been purposely imported, New Zealand has more species of introduced bees than most countries, and what is more, some of these species and especially the honey bee are very advanced. While the native bees have thus been confronted with new and often numerous competitors for pollen and nectar, with which they appear to have competed very successfully, hey have also been exposed to several new enemies, which were imported with or now affect the honey bee or bumble bees, but which seem not to affect them.

In addition to identifying all the species of bees in New Zealand, this revision presents a key, drawings and photographs that will allow specimens to be identified, delineates the areas over which each species has been found and at what time of year they occur, lists all the flowers with which the species have been associated, records the enemies of each species of bee, and presents all known biological information, including conservation status.

Because all bees construct and provision nests, they need to follow a specific chain of activities in order to reproduce. For the species with some form of social organisation where adults live together in nests, this includes care of the young, and for honey bees even communication about suitable nesting locations and the distance and direction of flowers producing abundant pollen and nectar. These kinds of activities are closer than those of any other insects and indeed most animals to similar activities exhibited by humans. It is hoped that the presentation of this information in one publication will stimulate even more interest and research into this fascinating and valuable group of insects.