To bee or not to bee

The Birdwing Butterfly Walk is a pleasant stroll in suburban Lismore, part of the Tucki Tucki Creek walk. It’s only taken me 25 years to get there, and I was impressed with the patches of subtropical rainforest along the small creek. A group of volunteers looks after it and keeps it mostly weed-free. You can hear the sounds of cars, but other than that you could be in the bush.

It’s apparently popular with recreational walkers and dog walkers. We managed to miss them as we didn’t go before or after the usual working hours.

There were lots of birds, but we didn’t see the famous platypus nor the protected southern purplespotted gudgeon – instead there were plenty of catfish. But you can’t expect to see everything, or indeed anything, on a flying first visit. Patient stalking usually yields results.

There were plenty of brush turkeys (Alectura lathami), or bush chooks as I call them. One was resting on a branch – was he tuckered out from building the very large mound of leaves that is incubating his chicks?

And miscellaneous birds – we couldn’t get a shot of the white-browed scrub wrens as they were too fast for us, but this spangled drongo (Dicrurus bracteatus) was keeping an eye on us.

Spangled drongo, Dicrurus bracteatus, at the Butterfly Walk – the defining ‘fish tail’ is behind the plant

We also didn’t see the vulnerable-to-extinction Richmond birdwing butterfly, although there are plenty of vines for the caterpillars and they were starting to flower.

Pararistolochia praevenosa, vine and flowers

The butterfly is vulnerable because of two factors; according to Gardening Australia:

The first one is habitat loss due to development. A lot of the food plants for its caterpillars have disappeared. To complicate the situation, the caterpillars have to depend on one species of native vine – the Birdwing Butterfly Vine, Pararistolochia praevenosa. As the caterpillars lost their food plant, the populations have diminished – but home gardeners, in conjunction with conservation groups, are planting more of this native vine. In tandem with a captive breeding program, this has seen the population of Richmond Birdwings increase. However, there’s one other thing that gardeners need to note.

The exotic vine Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia littoralis syn. A. elegans) is related to the native vine, but creates a further danger for the Richmond Birdwing. The exotic vine smells exactly the same as its native food plant, so they lay their eggs on it and when the caterpillars hatch and eat its leaf, they die.

Some friends went camping at Sheep Station Creek in the Border Ranges and saw a thrilling mass flight of these butterflies – right place, right time. I’ve seen one Richmond birdwing at my place so I guess the vines are around home somewhere, possibly in the adjacent Mackellar Range.

Apparently there are eastern ringtail possums (Pseudocheirus peregrinus), too. This photo of one with its nest (drey) was on the noticeboard.

Eastern ring-tail possum and drey

Pretty patterns were forming in the stream – there was no rain, so I’m not clear how they were produced. There weren’t any overhanging trees – the elusive platypus maybe?

Native hibiscus were busy being pollinated by, probably, native flies or native bees.

Now comes the best bit (for me at least). Andrew had gone to look at something and managed to just miss poking his eye out on a stick. Although he was in pain, I’m afraid I was less than attentive because this little beauty had landed on my finger and was calmly cleaning itself – sorry, Andrew! (He should be used to me by now. Him: “For heaven’s sake, that looks like a funnel web spider.” Me: “Yes, the northern funnel web – I just want to get real close for a photo”.)

It stayed for a few minutes and would have stayed for longer, but I deposited it on a leaf. Looking at the photos later, I wondered – fly or wasp? It certainly had the ‘wasp-waist’ and I knew flies can camouflage themselves to look like wasps.

So it was off to the Queensland Museum website to ask the question – wasp or fly? South-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales share climate and much biogeography, and the museum’s experts have generously answered my questions over the years when I’m stumped for ID.

The answer came back – neither!

Your wee friend is a bee. Terry Houston in “A Guide to Native Bees of Australia” pictures a close match and has labelled the photo as Leioproctus irroratus. The Australian bee fauna is diverse (1500+ species) and yours is one of the more spectacular species. I’ve never seen one.

It’s kind of ironic that I copy-edited that book for CSIRO Publishing (I’m a freelance scientific editor in my professional life) and didn’t even think of bees as a possibility. Thank you to Kieran Aland at the museum for the ID.

The caption on Dr Houston’s photo (on page 42) says: “Female of Leioproctus irroratus.  The yellow patches on the thorax are produced by … very sort, dense hair.” On p. 32, he mentions that several species of Leioproctus have long, sickle-shaped mandibles – certainly visible in one of the photos above. The mandibles are used by the males to “occupy and defend nest burrows in which females are working to build brood cells. Each male defends his burrow against intrusions by rival males”. This behaviour hasn’t been reported for “my” bee, but it’s possible. So many bees (and everything else), so little time for research!

I was tickled pink – yellow? – to discover this little bee even though I didn’t recognise it as one.

This entry was posted in Birds, Insects, Plants, Travels and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to To bee or not to bee

  1. Roselene Cusack says:

    What a wonderful walk, and an even more wonderful find.

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