Searching for wild pollinators in winter

My partner and I do an Albury to south east Queensland road trip every year to visit my family. This year we holidayed during winter, which made the trip even more enjoyable. We left home just before a particularly cold Antarctic blast blew through town. But I wasn’t just looking forward to escaping the weather and catching up with friends. It had been a while since I’d seen any wild pollinators around Albury, so I was keen to spot some on our travels north.

Some insects are more cold tolerant than others. The European honey bee is commonly seen on flowers during winter – this species was introduced from the northern hemisphere, where they are used to dealing with average temperatures much colder than Australian averages. Flies are also generally more cold tolerant than bees, so it is common to see them flying around in winter.

Yet, regardless of an insect’s cold tolerance levels, daily weather has a lot to do with their activity over winter. Some insects die after laying eggs in autumn, while others spend the winter in nests or sheltered places, only venturing out on ‘good’ days to renew their energy levels.

As with any time of the year, you will need to wait for a warm sunny day (usually greater than 18°C) before you start looking for them. In fact, wait for a few of those days in a row – some insects, particularly native bees, need a chance to warm up so they are less likely to come out on the first warm day after a string of very cold and rainy ones.

Our road trip route took us from Albury on the border of North East Victoria, through the Central West and Northern Tablelands districts of New South Wales, into Queensland’s Darling Downs, and then on to Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. Everywhere we stopped, I looked for flowers and wild pollinators.

My first sighting was in Warwick in southern Queensland. I found three species of hoverfly loitering around the rosemary in Leslie Park. Hoverflies are easily recognised with their characteristic hovering flight, but are also notoriously hard to get photos of!

A couple of days later I spotted my first winter native bees. A large group of Homalictus urbanus were collecting pollen from geranium flowers in the car park at the Army Flying Museum at Oakey. This species of bee is one of Australia’s most common bees. They nest gregariously in the soil and are commonly found in disturbed habitats, like farmland and urban areas. It’s likely they are nesting around the Oakey museum, because small-bodied native bees rarely fly more than a few hundred metres from their nesting sites and the museum is surrounded by airfields and paved areas.

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We drove on to Acland, an eerie ghost town that was literally moved out by a mining company. Bare lawns and linear boundaries of exotic plants are the only indication that houses once lined the streets.

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On the road verge, I found a little metallic day-flying moth feeding on a purple-flowered herb. Moths can be distinguished from butterflies by a few features, including the way the wings rest (flat across body, not upright like butterflies) and the fine antennae without clubs at the end.

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And hidden in the branches of a bottlebrush, I found the characteristic nests of Ropalidia paper wasps almost disguised as bottlebrush seeds.

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Near Kulpi, we stopped to look at the stands of Queensland bottle trees studding the surrounding farmland. On cue, a wanderer butterfly (Danaus plexippus) flitted past and rested long enough for me to snap a photo. This is the same species as the famous North American monarchs (also called wanderers) – their range extends across much of the US, Canada, the Caribbean, Pacific Islands and Oceania. In warmer climates, they often don’t need to migrate to form the mass roosts we hear about in the media, so the lone adult I saw here was clearly enjoying the warmer climate of southern Queensland.

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Closer to the coast, I found plenty of stingless bees (Meliponini). There are around 10 species of these delightful little bees in Australia, the only native bees that live in colonies and produce honey. In my mother’s garden on the Sunshine Coast, I found groups of them stuffing themselves hungrily into camellia flowers, a common winter-flowering garden plant.

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In Brisbane, Toby showed me a stingless bee nest in a novel location – under a water hydrant cover in the pavement at the University of Queensland.

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I also found one of Australia’s largest native bees, a great carpenter bee (Xylocopa species), stumbling across a pavement behind the Toowong shopping centre. These easily-recognised bees are around 2.5 cm long. I picked it up to get a photo on my finger for scale, but it flew off into a neighbouring tree before I got a chance.

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A couple of days later, Toby had better luck in another part of Brisbane. Here’s a short video of the bee fuelling up on a drink of sugar water.

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As we headed south, I saw no more pollinators, although there were still plenty of plants in bloom.

But in early July, Karen spotted three native bee species on flowers in Albury! This is quite unusual for the region, especially after the cold snap that had just passed through.

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We know very little about where most wild pollinators go over winter. Observers in tropical and subtropical environments may take pollinator sightings for granted, as it is common to see them all year round. But in cooler temperate areas, a wild pollinator sighting on a winter’s day is worth taking notice of.

Wild Pollinator Count runs in autumn and spring (the second full week of April & November), to give regular observers the chance to notice patterns in their local flora and fauna. But you can keep looking all year round!

 

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