‘Teddy bear’ bees emerge from burrows in their thousands

By Australian Geographic 24 August 2021
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The breeding season for the Dawson’s burrowing bee is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Some bees enjoy the protection of a hive, others, such as the Dawson’s burrowing bee, dig deep – 15–30cm deep – into the sunburnt clay flats of Western Australia creating a mosaic of dirt heaps and tiny holes across the landscape.

These carefully crafted burrows have walls secured with wax and are filled with nectar where the female can safely lay her eggs. 

On Bush Heritage’s Hamelin Station Reserve, located on Malgana country near Shark Bay, 5000 burrows have been recorded for 2021, a bumper year according to reserve manager Michelle Judd. “We see them every year, but usually there’s only around 300–400. This year we’ve seen thousands of the holes.

“The bees are so big, about 30mm long, so they make a lot of noise. People can be reluctant to approach, but they are just flying teddy bears… very furry and calm. If you’re among them they bump into you and you can feel it through your hat and clothes.”

A Dawson’s burrowing bee emerging from the earth
Image credit: Michelle Judd/Bush Heritage

That the bees are so preoccupied with mating means there’s countless opportunities to watch their antics up close. “Two bees actually landed on one of the Malgana Aboriginal ranger’s hands and began literally mating on their thumb. We also had a group of kids from Shark Bay School here to check them out and the kids were able to walk among the thousands of burrows.”

Indeed, the mating process is serious business. When the males get a waft of the female’s pheromones as she starts to emerge from her burrow things heat up quickly. “The males fight over the top of the hole then when she finally comes out its stacks on and there’s a ball of 20 chunky bees rolling around one female.” 

Once the female has been fertilised, she’s no longer of interest to the male bees, and they allow her some peace. She uses this time to create the perfect burrow for her eggs. First she wets the clay with nectar and digs a hole with her jaw. Once it’s sufficiently deep, she fills the hole with nectar for the young to feed on once they’ve hatched. After this, she seals off the hole with a mud plug for safe keeping. And would you believe, after all this effort, she dies. 

A group of Dawson’s burrowing bees emerging from the earth
Image credit: Nathan Beerkens/Bush Heritage

Michelle says the high number of burrows is a reflection of the conservation work being done on the property, including ‘destocking’, which involves the removal of hard-hoofed animals that impact the bees’ nesting zone.

“We’ve also experienced really good rain between January and June. The wildflowers have been in abundance and that certainly affects the bees.”

Think burrowing bees are a bit weird? That’s probably because we’re most familiar with European honey bees and their brilliant hives. Australian bees, however, overwhelmingly nest in burrows.