African Tulip Trees and native bees

Their big, bright orange-red flowers made them a popular ornamental tree in gardens and streets across northern NSW and Queensland, but their beauty conceals a lethal threat to some of our most useful pollinators.

In recent years, it's been discovered that the nectar and pollen of the African Tulip Tree (Spathodea campanulata) contain toxins that are harmful for insects, particularly native stingless bees.

Tibouchina Close resident Fenella Briscomb knows of two African Tulip Trees within flying distance of the native bee hives she keeps in her garden.

 Fenella Briscomb with one of her native bee hives

Fenella Briscomb with one of her native bee hives

There used to be three trees nearby, but her neighbour Phil Simon chopped his down when he learned about the danger it posed.

Native bees don't produce much honey, but they are excellent pollinators.

"All bees need as much help as they can get," Fenella said. "And they're fascinating little things. I really just keep them for that reason."

Australia has 11 species of stingless social native bees, which are known to be valuable pollinators of crops such as macadamias, mangos, watermelons and lychees.

They also pollinate vegetables.

"They're really good on anything that's got a narrow entrance," Fenella said. "Plants with small flowers like tomatoes, capsicum and eggplants."

African Tulip Tree near the roundabout on Crown St

African Tulip Tree near the roundabout on Crown St

She attended a workshop on native bees a couple of years ago and was told African Tulip Trees could kill them.

She's seen dead native bees inside the flowers of the specimen that stands beside the roundabout on Crown St, which is within 500m of her garden.

"That confirmed it to me," she said.

She noted that there's a similar-looking native tree with smaller flowers called a Tulipwood that is "absolutely fine" for bees.

"They're the trees I've got down my driveway - thank god I didn't plant the other ones," she said. "It was actually a bit of a toss-up, because I liked both of them. But the Tulipwood was a native, and I thought, well if I've got a choice I'll go with native. And I'm glad I did."

That was about a decade ago, and Fenella said at the time, the African Tulip Tree was being heavily promoted as a lovely street tree and garden tree.

They're beautiful, but they're deadly.

Fenella Briscomb

"Which they are," she said. "They're beautiful, but they're deadly."

Queensland has declared the African Tulip Tree as a restricted invasive plant, but the North Coast Regional Strategic Weed Management Plan 2017-2022 just has them on the watch list, awaiting a risk assessment.

Fenella is not sure how many are in Bellingen, but she does know there's one in the hospital grounds as she's a volunteer gardener there.

'We did mention it to them," she said. "But there were budgetary constraints at the time. We should probably bring it up again."

Native bees dead inside the tulip flower. Photo Liz Langdale

Native bees dead inside the tulip flower. Photo Liz Langdale