The Bees of Kangaroo Island

Approximately 14 kilometres off the coast of South Australia lies an island about the same size as Puerto Rico. For thousands of years Ramindjeri people have known it as Karta, the island of the dead, sacred home of departed ancestral souls. But nineteenth century colonisation gave it its dominant European name when British explorer Matthew Flinders called it Kangaroo Island.

Known to the locals today as KI, the island thrives on a successful agricultural industry and burgeoning tourism. Early immigrants to KI were mostly British, German, and Italian farmers, stockmen, and beekeepers. In 1884 Ligurian bees were introduced to KI from their native Italy (by way of England, and then Queensland) to not only ensure economic survival, but also because of KI’s abundant bee-friendly flora and its geographical isolation that guaranteed genetic purity.

In 1885 an Act of Parliament was passed in Adelaide to proclaim Kangaroo Island as a sanctuary for the imported Ligurian bees. Following the passing of the 1931 Apiaries Act, which allowed for the inspection and confiscation of vessels or apparatus headed to KI, quarantine on the island has always been strictly enforced.

Photos by Amber Share, Native Food & Wine

Thanks to this legal protection and the inter-generational attention of the island’s beekeepers, KI’s Ligurian bees have remained free of disease since their introduction. To this date they are the only known colony of pure Ligurian bees left in the world, and Kangaroo Island is the only known honeybee sanctuary of its kind.

The significance of this pristine and healthy colony is proven by how Kangaroo Island’s bees are now helping scientists understand the current bee crisis and work to protect the rest of the world’s bee populous, and also, astonishingly, contribute to cancer research. Early studies at the University of Sydney indicate that propolis taken from KI’s bees (an antibacterial substance that all hives make) is high in Reversatrol, which amongst other things has been effective in treating tumors.

Kangaroo Island’s hard-working and reputably gentle-natured Ligurian bees are one of many examples helping us to understand: without the work of honeybees, many food crops will fail. Unless bees are protected, unless the same kind of foresight of legislation passed in 1885 is enacted now, global food shortage is a very real threat, as is the demise of our natural world.

Photos by Amber Share, Native Food and Wine
Photos by Amber Share, Native Food and Wine

All this and I’ve not mentioned the award-winning organic sugar gum honey, or the famous Kangaroo Island honey ice cream.

In essence this blog post is a small contribution to a much larger discussion. What can we each do about the bee crisis? Whether pure-strain Ligurian, or not, a single honeybee does its humble job and in doing so makes an essential contribution to the survival of our planet.

Writers, this is our waggle dance. Winged is our nectar. We must pick up our pens. We must conjure the alchemy of our imagination to awaken, agitate, pollinate, and transform our bee-themed thoughts into the powerful elixir that is story.

We must. This is our humble job.

About the author

HRinglandHolly Ringland grew up on the southeast Queensland coast in Australia. When she was nine her family lived on the road for two years in North America, travelling between national parks, inspiring in Holly what would become a lifelong fascination with different cultures, landscapes, and stories. In her early twenties she moved inland to Australia’s Central Desert where she spent four years working for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and living in the Aboriginal community of Mutitjulu. In 2009 Holly moved to the UK and gained her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester. She is now working on her Creative Writing PhD with Griffith University and King’s College London. Holly’s research territory is the symbiosis between the creative writing process, ghosts, place, and memory, amongst other ideas that get left at the door of the garden shed in which she is writing her prose fiction submission for Winged.

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Grateful appreciation to photographer Amber Share of Native Food and Wine, for her photos of Ligurian honey bees, reposted from original story here.


Every hour, we lose three species

Winged celebrates the honeybee in an effort to protect this creature from disappearing. We also want to honor native bees by sharing the top three needs of native pollinators, according to Xerces:

1) A variety of plant life with overlapping bloom times. Find out which plants your local native bees enjoy, and plant them.

2) Places to nest. Unlike the social, hive-dwelling honeybee, most native bees are solitary and nest in the ground. Learn how to provide a nest.

3) Protection from pesticides. Please. Check your garage shelf. Do you use any of these? Stop. Then check out Melissa Bees’ post on how to talk to your neighbor about pesticides.

Apis mellifera. Photo by Sam Droege.
Apis mellifera. Photo by Sam Droege.

We’ve chosen to focus on honeybees in this anthology for a number of reasons. Because the honeybee has so captivated the human imagination. Because the honeybee is unique among pollinators in its relationship with humans, developed over thousands of years of honey harvesting and beekeeping. Because we rely so heavily on the hard work of apis mellifera, the European honeybee, an important insect pollinator of the crops making up the majority of our diet. Because the honeybee is in trouble.

Anthophora tricolor. Sam Droege.
Anthophora tricolor. Sam Droege.

But the fact is, native bees are equally fascinating, equally important to our food system, equally threatened. Xerces estimates that over 100 crop species in North America require pollination by an insect pollinator. And research shows that native bees are as effective as honeybees in agricultural pollination if provided with habitat. Xerces points out that given the fragility of the honeybee, it’s important to strengthen the populations of a diverse range of native bees– many of which can pollinate plants in a number of different ways.

Mellisodes dentiventris. Photo Sam Droege.

These photographs, taken by Sam Droeges, appear in the photostream for the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. They were featured on NPR this week, and I’m in awe of the variety of colors, shapes, and features among the many species pictured.

Xylocopa mordax. Photo Sam Droege.
Xylocopa mordax. Photo Sam Droege.

Some bees specialize in different plants. Mellisodes dentiventris, for example, pollinate composites like goldenaster. Others are generalists, like the carpenter bee (above) . The carpenter bee gets its name from its habit of tunneling into wood to build its nest. Here is another “anti-specialist,” the sweat bee, a member of the largest genera of bees in the world.

Lasioglossum quebecense. Photo Sam Droege.

These photographs are so beautiful, they make me cry. How incredibly complex our world is. How shameful to turn our backs as thousands of species disappear every day. In 2007, the U.N. reported that we lose three species every hour.  That number may well be higher today, in 2013. How many species of bee must we lose before we change our ways?