The flight of the Bumblebee

Tasmania is the only Australian state to have the bumblebee – for now. It came to us pretty much via

Tasmania is the only Australian state to have the bumblebee – for now. It came to us pretty much via the back door. Despite preventive work by AQIS, two queens apparently arrived on the Hobart docks in 1992.

This is a brief look at the invading Bombus terrestris, the fruit of their reproductive process, the interloper that now covers the whole state.

Flight Of The Bumblebee

I walked around my garden, establishing a schedule of what needed weeding, what pruning, what thinning, what replanting, what fertilising, with a constant companion following my every move. Large, as are all members of his family, a bumblebee buzzed happily along beside me, mainly at head height, bumbling frequently into me in his awkward flying style. As the name implies, bumblebees are more than a little clumsy in flight; they do, in fact, bumble. Sometimes the smell of nectar would draw my companion away but he always returned.

This encounter was different to an earlier one twenty years before. We were away for a few days, my wife and I and a couple of elderly women for whom we were providing an outing, on a drive to Hobart.

“Aaaarghhh…!” A bloodcurdling scream rent the air. I looked for a quick pull over, even as I asked what was the matter. “Get it out! Now…! It’s the world’s biggest, hairiest wasp, and it’s trying to sting me!” Once safely stopped, I checked the interloper and recognised it as nothing more than one of our most recent immigrants.

The species is seemingly friendly and non-aggressive towards humans, although that would certainly change if threatened. The fellow who followed me on garden inspection landed on me four or five times. At one stage, he even thought my ear a likely place to reconnoitre until I convinced him otherwise! At no time was I stung, despite handling him, and at no time did I feel threatened by the gentle, bumbling giant.

There are probably 100 or more different bumblebees in the world. Despite a number of unsuccessful attempts with other varieties, B. terrestris was accidentally introduced to New Zealand in 1885. It has since thrived. The two queens who came to us across the Tasman did so almost certainly by accident. There is nothing to suggest active human involvement.

Great fear was expressed at first about the impact bumblebees might have on the agricultural industry and the production of honey. Bumblebees are competitive with honeybees and, because they are both larger and hairier, pick up and carry a whole lot more pollen when seeking nectar. After 23 years in Tasmania, there are now fewer fears of this being the problem first thought. There is even a level of argument to import more for trial purposes. That one argument, naturally, led on to others.

Tasmania’s tomato growers were keen to import more, to use B. terrestris in controlled trials to establish whether they provided better pollination and, as a result, better yields. In the cold, hard light of day, reason said no. Tasmania has less than 0.5% of the nation’s tomato production. There remain fears about greater numbers impacting on Tasmania’s honeybees and the effect on our small but important world-class honey industry. Tasmanian beekeepers do not want a trial to happen.

Benefits flowing from such a relatively small scale trial were strongly countered by arguments of potential damage to crop production when the bumblebee gets to the mainland. That is only a matter of time. They will arrive either by island hopping or, as in our own case, by hitching a lift.

The astute among you will already see that something came of it all: We’ve been able to provide a definitive answer to Shakespeare’s question, “To bee or not to bee?” (For which statement I offer no apology!)