Read about Tora, a little boy with a big love for insects. Tora is determined to learn everything about his beloved bugs and also to help them. One group of his favourite insects are bees, not the ones that produce native honey, but native bees that are crucial for New Zealand’s ecosystem. Bee inspired, Curator Invertebrates Julia Kasper shows us nature’s six-legged wonders through a child’s eye.
A bugging entomologist
I met Tora when he was five years old at the City Nature challenge 2020. That was the also time when Countdown had those amazing insect cards.
Tora knew every insect that was part of the Countdown card collection, including the colour of their category and the actual card number…and of course many facts about that insect’s life. Tora had just started at Crofton Downs Primary School and his parents asked me how they can support Tora’s passion for insects.
I was so impressed that I wanted to support him too, and offered Tora a special tour behind the scenes of Te Papa into the insect research collection, where he was incredibly insatiable to see every single specimen and picked my brain about insects’ life histories.
Preparations for Tora’s native bee project
Tora, a true entomologist, started his own insect reference collection but that was not enough. He wanted to do a proper science project and help threatened insects.
So, we came up with the idea of how to help New Zealand’s native bees. Tora, with a bit of help, applied for the Conservation fund at the Wellington Zoo Trust and was indeed rewarded with a grant.
For his project to support native bees, Tora planned
- to monitor the populations in the Wellington region via iNaturalist,
- to design an information panel that can be erected in public places, where the bees breed, to raise awareness,
- and to find a way how to encourage native bees to breed in your garden.
The Pepeke group (the Wellington branch of the Entomological Society of New Zealand) posted a call-out on Facebook for sightings of native bee populations, and many people replied. In fact, there were more than we expected and although people loved their native bees, they found the places they were breeding slightly bothersome, when it was in the middle of the backyard, digging up the lawn.
A story about a Leioproctus bee by Tora
Digger the bee wakes up around lunch time when the sun
warms her up. But she is not lazy.
She has a big job. Digging holes and plastering the walls.
She is building homes for her kids.
Then she goes off to do shopping for pollen.
Next is preparing food for her kids, who she will never
know. Because she will die before they hatch.
Digger’s life is full of trouble. Predators and people can
destroy her work. Other bees make getting enough pollen
and nectar hard.
The native bee project on iNaturalist
In addition to the social media call-out, Tora followed records of native bees on iNaturalist, a website where everyone can post interesting sightings of flora and fauna. He learned where good breeding habitats are, and is especially interested in public places such as parks and along tramping tracks.
In New Zealand, there are three groups (genera) The digger (Leiproctus), the sweat bees (Lasioglossum), and the masked bees (Hyaleus). You read more about the three groups of native bees in the post, New Zealand’s native bees – quiet lives of desperation.
Although posts on iNaturalist of native bees in the Wellington region have increased lately, the identification status beyond genus level is low. So, we know where bees occur, but not exactly which species, making it hard to understand their distribution and biology.
The diggers are tricky to identify from a picture uploaded on iNaturalist. To monitor the population with more detail, we need to make sure we can correctly identify the species. This could be achieved by encouraging specialists to identify them on iNaturalist, or to send specimens from known localities to specialists for identification under the microscope.
Letting the public know
Part of Tora’s conservation plan for the native bee was to educate the public and let people know when they unknowingly pass a breeding site of digger bees.
Therefore, he and a designer developed a sign with all the key facts and his beautiful story, and it got printed. The plan is to erect the sign along public tracks beside a bee breeding site or a favourite forage place, where in summer many native bees can be observed.
The first sign was placed at Otari-Wilton’s Bush at a highly frequented path down to the Troup Picnic Area. The bees that are busily flying in and out of their borrows, mainly in December, are of the genus Lasioglossum.
Designing a prototype house for digger bees
The genus Hylaleus breed in hollow plant material and there are bee hotels commercially available. But this design doesn’t work for all New Zealand native bees.
Since Tora is a big fan of the digger, he is designing a very special house for them. The best method to test if the bees would accept his house was, to extract an existing unwanted breeding area of Leioproctus ponga and transfer the extraction including burrows and larvae to another suitable place.
Tora designed an extraction kit that could be used as a portable home.
He screwed four wooden walls together, lined with a plastic sheet. Bee tunnels can be about 30cm deep, so Tora used walls about 50cm tall. The bottom wasn’t attached to the walls because it was the crucial piece for Tora’s extraction plan.
He dug a hole next to the target extraction area that went 50cm down and was roughly the same size as the extraction block.
He then dug a trench around the breeding area, which was also the same size of his wooden box. Tora and his dad gently inserted the walls into the trenches, covering the soil block from all four sides. Using the hole beside it, they placed the lid at the bottom edge of the soil block and carefully cut and slid the floor in under the soil.
They carefully moved the block, so it became free and accessible to secure the floor to the walls with screws.
Now the bees were ready to be transported to a better place and the happy gardener could backfill the holes in his lawn.
Tora wanted to bring the bees to his school, where the larvae could overwinter and withstand all the heavy rain. However, just before it was time for the young bees to emerge from their pupal cases, some vandals tipped the box over and destroyed the brood.
This is really sad, but Tora is convinced his method will work, so he hasn’t given up and will do it again. But this time he will choose a place that is not accessible to ignorant people.
If you would like to assist Tora, please post sightings of native bees on iNaturalist, so we can monitor the breeding habitats and try to get an identification for the species. Get into contact with Tora via Julia.firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to transfer a breeding site, or try it for yourself and share your experience.
Did you know, New Zealand has a bug of the year?
And guess what, it IS the native bee Leioproctus fulvescens, which occurs in the South Island. The pretty yellow fluffy bee is not only the winner for 2023, it is the very first Bug of the Year in New Zealand. People like Tora have voted over 2200 times to crown this charismatic insect that needs our support. You can easily contribute by encouraging bees to breed in your garden by creating sunny soil ground and planting flowering foliage, preferably natives, and by buying more organic products grown without the use of pesticides.