Air Bee n Bee: Creating Hotels for Native Pollinators

Spring is here and gardens are a buzz! Insects play an important role in the environment as pollinators and nutrient recyclers. While it is easy to get carried away with the huge role that introduced European Honeybees (Apis mellifera) play in pollinating crops, there are many more species of native solitary bees (harmless and non-aggressive) that play a very active role in pollinating flowers. Not to mention the ants, butterflies, beetles and other invertebrates that are responsible for pollination. Attracting these critters not only increases biodiversity in your yard, but they will help to keep unwanted insects away.

When the rain comes and you feel the need for a vacation, you might book a hotel to stay in or organise accommodation on Airbnb. But what about the insects? Where do they go when it gets cold and wet? Many insects hunker down when it’s raining and lay eggs in safe, dry places. But many town yards are kept tidy and the lack of debris can mean that there are fewer places for insects to take refuge and lay eggs. An insect hotel can be the key to giving the native insects a helping hand. What about an Air Bee n Bee?!

While spring is here and you’re seeing insects active in your yard, use the warm weather to build an insect hotel ready for the next rains. Insects will use the hollows created to lay eggs, which will hatch in the next round of warm weather. It’s best to place the insect hotel in a dry place with protection from cold winds (a sheltered spot under the house, in front of a window). Ideally, the insect hotel opening of the hotel should be facing north or north-east with exposure to the sun, as it’s unlikely to be successful if placed in the shade. Finally, it should be firmly fixed so that it doesn’t sway in the wind.

You can use smooth (splinter-free), cylindrical spaces from a variety of materials, ranging in size from 3mm holes to 13mm holes (most commonly used around 5-6.5mm) and depths of 70mm to 150mm (according to Tim Heard, author of The Australian Native Bee Book, available at Red Kangaroo Books). A variety of sizes and shapes will cater to different insects and scattering a couple of small insect hotels around the property will increase your chances of providing for competing insects.

Materials used can include bamboo segments, holes drilled into solid untreated wood cubes, hose, paper straws, seed pods or rolls of cardboard. A length of polypipe filled with clay can attract insects that would normally burrow in the ground, which includes over half of Australia’s bee species. The items can be stacked in an empty wooden box or tied together with a sloping roof to keep the hotel dry. Ensure that it has a backing so that it doesn’t turn into an open-ended wind tunnel. You can place a strip of chicken mesh over the front of the insect hotel if you wish to protect the larvae from birds without deterring the hotel guests. The insect hotel can be decorated with old metal for a rustic style or shiny items for that bit of extra ‘bling’. Use anything that you find (recycled items are free or very cheap!), there is no standard design and you are only limited by your imagination!

This time next year when the hotel apartments are emptying out, you can report sightings of your insect guests on Bowerbird and have them identified. Once the insect hotel is vacant again, maintain it by cleaning out any used cells and replace parts if fungus moulds develop. Check out the Valley Bees factsheet for more information on creating an insect hotel.

If you don’t have the capacity to make in insect hotel for your town block, you can provide natural homes for insects by retaining some leaf litter, planting local native trees that produce peeling bark and leave dead branches in situ.

Insect hotels provide sheltered nooks for insects to lay their eggs (Image Wikipedia commons).

Insect hotels provide sheltered nooks for insects to lay their eggs (Image Wikipedia commons).

Rainbow Lorikeet Population Survey Volunteers Needed

By John Tyne, Wildlife Ranger, Parks and Wildlife Commission of the NT

Over the last six months I’ve been monitoring the feral Rainbow Lorikeet population around Alice Springs. Most of these Lorikeets are likely to have escaped or been released from aviaries over the years, but recently they have been spotted nesting in hollows around town. I’ve got a decent handle on where they are now, but it’s been difficult to determine how many there are.  I’m putting together a group of volunteers to help conduct a census to get an estimate on how many of the birds are out there.  If any Land for Wildlife or Garden for Wildlife members are interested, please get in touch via email (John.Tyne@nt.gov.au) by Sunday the 25th of September to express interest. The time and date for the survey will be from 6:30-8am Wednesday the 28th of September.

Once I have participant numbers, I will print up a map with locations for the individuals to take observation from. I’m planning on meeting at 6:15 am, at the Town Council carpark to distribute the maps, pencils, etc. From the observation locations, I’ll ask that people listen and look for the lorikeets. If they are seen, the observer will need to record the time and a count of individual birds. If they are heard, they can try to move to where they can be seen, then take the time, a count, and record the new location. If the birds are moving, they can draw a line on the map indicating the direction of travel. When an observation is made, or you don’t hear or see anything after 10 minutes, participants can move on to the next location.  At 8 am we can all meet back at the Town Council carpark, and I can collect the maps and observations.

There is no control work planned for the birds at the moment.  This survey is really just a baseline so I can gather some data on how many birds are out there.  If no control work is undertaken, it will be useful to see if there is any change in the population. If there is control work undertaken, it will help to determine if or how successful the work is.

Get in touch if you are willing to assist with the survey!

~ John Tyne

Rainbow Lorikeets taking shade in a tree, Katherine NT (Image C, Heenan)

Rainbow Lorikeets taking shade in a tree, Katherine NT (Image C, Heenan)

A Month for Considering the World Around Us

September has seen a host of days dedicated to recognising the world around us – National Wattle Day, National Threatened Species Day, National Bilby Day and National Landcare Week. September is also Biodiversity month!

Residents of Alice Springs are fortunate to live in such a unique region with undeveloped landscapes on our doorstep, threatened species such as the black-footed rock wallaby in our backyard, and a host of rare plants that set down their roots in central Australia. Alice Springs gardens support a huge variety of insects, which have a hugely important role in pollinating flowers, breaking down nutrients in the soil and providing a food source for other animals in the food web. The range of native birds in central Australian gardens is also high, with residents commonly observing Australian Ringnecks (Barnardius zonarius), White-Plumed Honeyeaters (Lichenostomus penicillatus) and Western Bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus guttatus). Pet-free yards tend to possess a huge range of reptiles, such as geckos, skinks, dragons and snakes. While, very few of the small mammals persist around human habitation, the Sandy Inland Mouse (Pseudomys hermannsburgensis) is occasionally seen visiting some of the blocks that contain diverse habitats. Macropods often frequent properties with a decent amount of green pickings, especially those that back onto the ranges. Check out the list of the native fauna of Alice Springs to see what could be calling your property home. Alice Springs also has a diverse plant-life, consisting of 27 recognised vegetation types (thanks to some diligent mapping by Albrecht and Pitts, 2004) and 680 distinct plant species.

Despite the extensive list of amazing wildlife in the region, there is a seemingly never-ending list of factors putting pressure on the environment and threatening biodiversity. Introduced weeds such as Buffel Grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) can impact biodiversity by favouring more frequent and hotter fires and outcompeting native grasses or forbs for space, sunlight and nutrients. High on the threat list are feral cats (Felis catus), which can impact biodiversity by increasing the predation pressure on small to medium-sized native mammals. Even the seemingly harmless Spotted Turtle-dove (Spilopelia chinensis) can out-compete native birds for food and nesting resources. Humans too, have their place in the system of change. A horde of animals have joined the threatened species list in the last few decades.

Many areas such as Ilparpa Valley retain high biodiversity values, and even the smallest of blocks can be species-rich – and it’s worth preserving! There are a number of positive actions that landholders across Alice Springs can take to preserve biodiversity:

  • Planting local native plants will provide food and shelter for native birds, mammals and reptiles, while sustaining natural interactions with other plants.
  • Creating multiple layers of habitat will attract a diversity of wildlife – from the top of tall trees, to shrubs, herbs and ground cover.
  • Controlling weeds or other invasive plants will allow natives to naturally re-seed and establish.
  • Allowing native mistletoe to establish in low numbers will provide nectar and berries for a range of birds and insects.
  • Avoid using chemicals for weed control, or choose a bio-friendly alternative.
  • Retaining dead trees, fallen logs, rocks and leaf litter will provide habitat for a range of fauna.
  • Providing a water source in a predator-free safe place will attract wildlife such as frogs and birds.
  • Consider responsible pet ownership to minimise their impact on wildlife.
  • Minimise water use and consider installing a rainwater tank.
  • Take up a feral animal trapping program to reduce the impact that ferals have on the system.
  • Maintain fire-breaks to manage the frequency that wildfire burns the habitat on your block.

What actions are you taking to preserve Biodiversity?

Wildflowers at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary

Wildflowers at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary

Bee-Eaters are Back in the Burbs

Garden for Wildlife signs around Alice Springs stand out for their colour – containing a representation of the Rainbow bee-eater (Merops ornatus). This week marked the first sighting of the Rainbow bee-eater for this spring! Winter has been quiet without their scissor-grinder trill, but it seems a few individuals have returned. The seasonal movement patterns of Rainbow Bee-eaters are complex and understanding their movements is a work in progress.

While northern Australian populations are resident throughout the year, there may be some movement from riparian breeding areas to more open areas for the non-breeding season. Southern populations, on the other hand, are migratory and travel north to Australia’s top end, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia for the Australian winter. Movement begins in February following the breeding season and they remain in warmer climates until the southern-Australia weather begins to warm in October. Central Australian populations also seem to head north from mid-April to early September, though Alice Springs residents may see individuals passing through from southern regions until June.

Southward movements begin in late August, passing over the Timor Sea, Arafura Sea or Torres Straight in their passage home. Migrating flocks travel high above the ground while on passage, with populations assembling before migration and travelling in groups of hundreds or more. Read more on the seasonal movements and habitat of Rainbow Bee-eaters at the Australian Government website.

Rainbow Bee-eater (Merops ornatus) has bright colouration and a characteristic scissor-grinder trill.

Rainbow Bee-eater (Merops ornatus) has bright colouration and a characteristic scissor-grinder trill.

Video: Red-capped Robin

The Red-capped Robin (Petroica goodenovii) is a gorgeous little bird that can be found through much of semi-arid and temperate Australia within woodland habitats. A juvenile and two adults was snapped by the Land for Wildlife coordinator at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, while on a trip with the Alice Springs Field Naturalists Club last month.

The Red-capped Robin breeding season extends from June to January each year, with females producing two to three small eggs, which are incubated over a 14-day period. Breeding territories are established and defenced by the male, who also feeds the female during the nest construction and incubation process. While the female takes the sole responsibility of incubating, the male assists with feeding the young.

The juvenile in the video sat quietly for some time calling for food and ate enthusiastically when fed by two very busy parents. Do you love birds? Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary has a huge diversity of habitats and is a renowned arid zone bird watching destination, supporting over 170 species – head up there for a visit, it’s well worth it!

 

Red-capped Robin juvenile

Red-capped Robin juvenile

 

Red-capped Robin female with food for her young

Red-capped Robin female with food for her young

 

Red-capped Robin male defending his territory

Red-capped Robin male defending his territory

Up Close and Personal with Insect Mouthparts

Have you ever looked at an insect mouth up close? There’s a huge amount of variation in morphology that is related to the type of food an insect consumes. Mouth-parts of insects are composed of external appendages that project outwards, known as ectognathous mouth-parts (Greek: ecktos for outside, gnathos for jaw).

Many insects have chewing or mandibulate mouthparts, composed of mandibles (for grinding solid food), maxillae (for collecting food and assisting mandibles with mastication) and a labium (assists with manipulation of food). The three mouthparts work in conjunction to bring food to the mouth and grind it before ingestion. For example, ants have a highly serrated pair of mandibles for chewing a range of foods, from seeds to other invertebrates.

What about insects that prefer a liquid lunch? For butterflies and moths, the maxillae are modified into a siphoning proboscis to suck nectar or other fluids. Mosquitos have piercing-sucking mouth-parts are elongated such that the blood from an animal can be siphoned through the stylet (a fusion of maxillae and mandibles). There are several bloodsucking or predator flies that also adhere to this morphology, such as horseflies. The sponging mouthparts of regular house flies are adapted for liquid diets such that the mandibles and maxillae are reduced in size, and instead the labium is elongated with a sponge-like labellem at its tip. The labellum is used to secrete saliva over the food item to dissolve it and this liquid is then drawn up into the mouth.

This image of an ant and a fly fighting over a piece of food is a good example of the variation in mouth parts within the insect class.

An ant and a fly fight for the same food, but attack it with different tools.

An ant and a fly fight for the same food, but attack it with different tools (Image C Heenan).

 

A butterfly licking up waterfall spray from a hand in Brazil (Image C Heenan).

A butterfly licking up waterfall spray from my hand while in Brazil (Image C Heenan).