Book Review - The Australian Native Bee Book by Tim Heard

It is a little unfortunate that the Foreword (by Tim Low) for this book contains the following in its last paragraph – ‘Many Australians entertain romantic notions about European honey bees …. This romance hinders awareness of the environmental harms they cause.’ – as this immediately colours one’s approach to the book. The ‘environmentalist’ approach to European honey bees as being harmful to the Australian environment has never been unequivocally established, despite many attempts to do so. In truth, the opposite has been the case – honey bees have been shown to benefit seed set in many natives, especially eucalypts, are essential for pollination of many of our horticultural and agricultural crops, and have been shown to not compete with our native insects and flora for pollen and nectar (most notably in the studies done by David Paton in Ngarkat Conservation Park in South Australia.)

That said, the author’s approach to the question of Australian Native bees versus European honey bees is much more realistic and less confrontational; in his Preface, Tim Heard states ‘European honey bees are now well entrenched in most Australian natural ecosystems, are extremely economically significant,…and provide a great basis to compare and contrast with our native stingless bees.’

Tim then goes on to give a brilliant exposition of the general biology of the native bees and the practical details of keeping those bees, and in Part 3 gives a well-balanced discussion on the relative merits of Managed bees (generally European honey bees) and Wild bees (and other insects)  for pollination of different crops. The book is divided into 3 main Parts:

  1. Understanding native bees (7 Chapters)
  2. Keeping Hives of stingless bees (7 Chapters)
  3. Bees for pollination (2 Chapters)

In Chapter 1, the author looks at the needs of bees and how they have evolved to satisfy those needs. With a great variety of full-colour photos, he compares the ways in which native bees have evolved different ways to collect pollen. They are not only in some species similar to honey bees in their use of corbicula (pollen ‘baskets’ on the hind legs), but have in different species evolved totally different anatomical features.

Given that 90% of native bees are solitary, Tim then compares differences in the life cycles, nest structure and nest behaviours of these solitary bees to the 10% of native social bees.

Chapter 2 Looks at the different species of native bees, again supported by stunning photographs, and also looks at the different bee species that have ‘invaded’ Australia.

Chapter 3 specifically studies the social native bees, looking to increase our understanding of these social bees. In many ways their biology is similar to that of honey bees; they have the same three castes (queen, female workers and male drones) but in the natives the development time for males and females is the same, and there are difference in the ways in which the queens are fed, the development time is much longer than in honey bees, and the life span is also much greater. The ways in which the stingless bee colony replaces its queens are also different, and all of these differences are explained in detail, also supported by a variety of excellent, well-labelled photos. This Chapter concludes with a pictorial essay on the queen bee.

Each Chapter in the book starts with a ‘Fast Facts’ page, a useful feature which highlights aspects of that Chapter.

Each Chapter in the book starts with a ‘Fast Facts’ page, a useful feature which highlights aspects of that Chapter.

The depth of detail provided by the author is quite astounding – colour photos, colourful schematics and graphics abound throughout all Chapters of the book. Chapters 4 (nesting behaviour of stingless bees) and 5 (Foraging behaviour of stingless bees) both illustrate this feature of the book to a high degree. Chapter 6 looks at the Global diversity and distribution of social bees (both Honey bees and stingless bees, and includes an explanation of where the two groups split in evolutionary terms – with the Honey bees having only 1 Genus (10 species) and the stingless bees having a much greater diversity, 50 genera and some 600 species. Chapter 7 takes a thorough look at the Australian social stingless bees, which are of two genera with 11 species. The Chapter concludes with a feature article on Indigenous peoples and stingless bees.

The next 7 Chapters of the book, Part 2, are dedicated to the science and art of keeping hives of the social stingless bees. The topics covered include getting started, constructing hive boxes (which are totally different to those used for honey bees), establishing colonies, splitting colonies, harvesting honey, managing and protecting the colonies, and dealing with the natural enemies of the stingless bees (and there are more than a few!). There is in this Part a Pictorial Feature on Colony Transfer and features on Recipes with sugarbag honey and Propolis from stingless bee hives.


Again, the graphics in this book are excellent in quality

Again, the graphics in this book are excellent in quality

By the time I got to this point I was starting to wish I lived further north and at a lower altitude than some 50km south of, and 220m higher than, Canberra. The stingless bee species have trouble surviving the winters in Canberra, but I was convinced by now that keeping some colonies of stingless bees would be both fascinating and rewarding!

The third Part of Tim’s book has, first, a Chapter on the importance of and need for bees to pollinate our crops, and compares the merits of honey bees and stingless bees. Chapter 16 looks specifically at the role that could be played by stingless bees in pollination, and considers their unique advantages for some situations, but also their relative weakness in other scenarios. These last two Chapters are focussed on Australia but include discussion on the problems facing bee species worldwide and on the use of stingless bees to effect pollination in overseas situations.

All in all, this is one of the most comprehensive books I have had the opportunity to explore, and is one I can heartily recommend to all beekeepers. Why restrain yourself to just honey bees? Expand your horizons and consider keeping some native stingless bees as well. And this book is an ideal starting point in that journey.

Published by Sugarbag Bees 2016

473 Montague Rd, West End, Queensland 4101 Australia

Orders: Contact or order online at

ISBN 978-0-646-93997-1 (paperback)

RRP $35.00 AUD

(246pps, over 500 photos and illustrations)

Author: Des Cannon