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Burrowing bees emerge in their thousands

Will Sacre
Published 02 Sep 2021 
about  Hamelin Station Reserve  

Dawson's Burrowing Bee on Hamelin Station, WA (Photo by Michelle Judd)<br/> Dawson's Burrowing Bee on Hamelin Station, WA (Photo by Michelle Judd)
A Colony of Dawson's Burrowing Bees (photo by Nathan Beerkens)<br/> A Colony of Dawson's Burrowing Bees (photo by Nathan Beerkens)

In past weeks, a 5000-strong population of Dawson’s Burrowing Bees (Amegilla dawsoni) have emerged from their burrows for breeding season at Hamelin Station Reserve, Malgana country in midwest Western Australia.

These large and furry native critters have not been seen in such numbers under our management of the reserve.

Located approximately 670km north of Perth, Hamelin sits in a pristine coastal landscape stretching 200km from Shark Bay World Heritage Area to Kalbarri National Park. It's a property of high conservation value and abuts the shores of Hamelin Pool and the Shark Bay World Heritage Area.

Hamelin Reserve Manager, Michelle Judd, discovered the colony when she went to investigate a network of raised mounds protruding from one of the coastal clay pans. The site was a hive of buzzing activity, males seeking out females and fertilised females constructing mud turrets around their holes and foraging for nectar to fill their egg chambers.

“When you locate a colony,” says Michelle, “you’ll see these tiny little mud towers scattering the landscape…the humming is very loud.”

Between July and September when flowers are blooming the bees emerge and commence their breeding cycle. Unlike European honeybees, and like most of Australia’s 2000 native bee species, Dawson’s burrowing bees are solitary by nature, and live out their short but busy lives independently from their neighbours. Their size and furry thorax gives them an almost teddy bear-like appearance, says Michelle, who manages the reserve with her husband, Ken.

“They’re one of Australia’s largest native bee species – about 20mm long - and certainly one of the more photogenic ones, too.”

Michelle believes the increase in bee numbers could reflect a recovering landscape, as the reserve has been destocked since Bush Heritage took over management six years ago, meaning hard-hoofed animals are no longer impacting the bee’s breeding sites.

“It’s great that they’re in a protected zone where they can continue to develop and not be impacted by disturbances.”

The Malgana Rangers, who often work alongside Michelle and Ken at Hamelin, offer generations of knowledge in caring for country. Michelle says they bring a philosophy of treading lightly and softly on the land, giving this biodiverse hotspot the time it needs to regenerate.

“We’re working together with the rangers to restore the landscape through erosion control, soil stabilisation, destocking, and removing feral goats, all of which will benefit the bees.”

Higher than average rainfall this season has encouraged new growth from the bee’s favourite flowers Poverty Bush (Eremophila spp.) and Rough Bluebell (Trichodesma zeylanicum). This is likely another factor contributing to larger-than-usual numbers, giving them the opportunity to collect more nectar and lay more eggs.

Surprisingly, the bees don’t seem phased by the presence of humans at all, going about business as usual while people observe the colony to take in the rare phenomenon.

After the females have found their mate, they dig complex, wax-lined tunnels and fill them with pollen for the larvae to eat before emerging the following spring. They rely on an undisturbed landscape, and Michelle believes that naturally occurring events like this demonstrate the need to step back and let nature thrive.

“The main story here I think is to appreciate that all animals and naturally occurring living things have a role to play in the environment. This is just one species within a whole ecosystem that needs to be looked after."
Dawson's Burrowing Bee on Hamelin Station, WA (Photo by Michelle Judd)<br/> Dawson's Burrowing Bee on Hamelin Station, WA (Photo by Michelle Judd)
A Colony of Dawson's Burrowing Bees (photo by Nathan Beerkens)<br/> A Colony of Dawson's Burrowing Bees (photo by Nathan Beerkens)