The wonderful world of bees

The wonderful world of bees

There is a growing appreciation that these cute, stripy honey-makers are actually crucial to food security, biodiversity and a healthy environment.

Katherine Berthon has spent so much time observing bees for her PhD research that she can describe their personalities, preferences and favourite foods like those of old friends. 

But her reason for joining RMIT’s ICON Science research group – to inform design guidelines for greater biodiversity in urban spaces – is a serious one and it’s taken her from Melbourne to Munich in search of the tiniest clues. 

So far, Berthon’s research has included a year-long observation of bees in garden beds around central Melbourne, a stint monitoring plants across Munich to measure variability in ecological restoration and even barcoding pollen DNA so that, as she describes it, “we can see what insects prefer by looking at their plates after being to the buffet”. 

Here, she talks to RMIT News about her research and how it was a different yellow-and-black-striped animal that first drew her into conservation.

Why bees? What drew you to this area of research?

I come from a long line of amazing gardeners and have always loved the environment. I was privileged to grow up in the country, mostly playing outside and learning from nature.

As I matured, compassion for nature led to my wanting to conserve the natural world and its amazing animals, particularly tigers, so I started a degree in conservation biology. 

As I learned more about the pressures on biodiversity, I realised that protecting habitat was crucial to promoting species survival, and no process is more threatening than city expansion. 

My relationship to bees began as a practicality – bees represent a win–win for increasing nature in cities and providing pleasant amenity to people through more flowers.

As I spent time observing bees to seek out their preferences I became enamoured with their personalities and habits: the honeybee that flies like a drunkard landing clumsily on flowers; small zippy solitary bees that are easily spooked but will peer at you from behind flowers with white faces, and crawl determinedly down tubular flowers that they weren’t supposed to be able to reach with their short tongues; and bumblebees that fly like blimps in high wind; or sleepy male bees covered in pollen blankets in flowers, that flick their leg lazily at your when you prod them like it’s too difficult to wake up yet.

How do you explain the importance of biodiversity and conserving insects and animals as part of climate action more broadly? 

Preserving natural habitat has the double benefit of preserving biodiversity and abating climate change. We know that nature-based solutions can help mitigate the impacts of climate change but there are also mechanisms for carbon storage that are disrupted when we remove nature, exacerbating the climate crisis. 

As the American biologist Edward O. Wilson said, insects are “the little things that make the world go round”.

They are the little invisible doers that regulate our ecosystems, turn over soil, disperse seeds, pollinate crops and many, many other services that enable resilient and functioning ecosystems that we rely on, but which are often unappreciated.

Many species of birds, lizards and mammals rely on insects as food and these animals wouldn’t be there without insects, either.

An Australian native Blue Banded Bee An Australian native Blue Banded Bee

Do you have a favourite bee or pollinating insect? 

I prefer to stay species-ambivalent and find it hard to pick favourites. But if I had to choose, my favourite bee is probably the one that determinedly tried to place a nest in my empty planter box as I was filling it with soil.

Most solitary bees nest in the ground and it felt like a huge success that I have created a haven in my yard that she would want to use – despite it being the most inconvenient location I can think of.

Do native bees and honeybees compete?

There is a large overlap in the diet of native bees and honeybees, but the latter often have the competitive advantage because they work together in hives and can quickly deplete local resources, leaving nothing for our local bees.

There is some great work looking directly at this question from my colleague Kit Prendergast in Western Australia, showing that where there are more honeybees, there are fewer native bees. 

My research focuses on how we can choose plants that allow for our native bees to have a competitive upper hand.

We can do this by choosing flowers that native bees prefer and forage on more than honeybees, and there are some plants, like native bluebells (Wahlenbergia), that honeybees don’t use at all, but native bees will.

We need to provide lots more resources because an overabundance of flowers helps everyone, and make sure appropriate nesting sites are available because that will give native bees ready access to the resources we provide.

What do you wish people knew about bees?

That there are so many different types! Many more than just honeybees, which aren’t native to Australia and can be antagonistic to both native bees and possums and birds by stealing hollows.

Most bees don’t live in hives, they nest in holes in loose soil, clay riverbanks or in wood; most of them are tiny, are often mistaken for zippy flies; they can be blue, they can be vibrant red, or dusty brown, or sleek black with yellow highlights; and some of them (mostly males) will sleep in flowers overnight. 

We do have some native bees that make honey, but only a teaspoon per year. They are called sugarbag bees, are stingless and only live in New South Wales and above on the east coast. It’s too cold for them in Victoria.

A bee sleeping inside a flower A bee sleeping inside a flower

How can we support bees in our home gardens or balconies?

We can plant flowers, particularly native ones. Their favourites are native rock daisies (Brachyscome), native bluebells (Wahlenbergia), native geraniums (Pelargonium sp.) and Yellow Buttons (Chrysocephalum). 

If you have a garden, leave some loose and low nutrient soil in a shady spot, plant low native shrubs and you will be surprised how quickly native bees may want to nest in your garden – I certainly was!

You can also put out a bee hotel for solitary bees to nest in. Make it, don’t buy it: commercial varieties don’t suit our smaller bees. 

What do you hope to do once your PhD is completed?

I want to use my career to be an active participant in making cities greener for not just people but also the small critters and beautiful plants that call our cities home.

I will continue to research how animals respond to our green interventions and how effective green space can be for promoting biodiversity, because – as my supervisor would say – it’s completely possible to plant a city full of useless trees, unless we care about the kind of green we are using and who we are planting it for.

Katherine Berthon is part of RMIT University’s Interdisciplinary Conservation Science Research Group (ICON Science), which works to better understand and manage the interactions between society and our natural environment. 


Story: Jenny Lucy


  • Research
  • Sustainability
  • Urban Design

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RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.