Birds, Bees, Butterflies and Bats: Supporting Pollinators for Planetary Health

Sherlie McMillan, Rotary Club of Blackheath president (Hamish Dunlop)

Story by Hamish Dunlop

The Rotary Club of Blackheath has launched a Birds, Bees, Butterflies and Bats Pollinator Project. With 65% of the world’s flowering plants, including crops and trees, requiring some form of animal pollination, helping pollinators is critical to planetary health. Club President Sherlie McMillan explains how we can support pollinators in Blackheath, the Blue Mountains and beyond.

The Pollinator Project


Key Points:

  • Supporting the Environment has become Rotary’s newest area of focus.
  • There are many ways we can support pollinators ahead of the coming El Nino summer
  • The Pollinator Project was launched with a Pollinator Forum in partnership with the Blue Mountains Planetary Health Initiative (videos below)

Rotary’s project is helping build and distribute nest boxes and providing seeds and seedlings to the community. With fewer tree hollows for breeding after the fires and land clearing, the boxes will provide supplementary habitat for birdlife, while seeds and seedlings will provide both habitat and food for pollinators. “We’re hoping to create a B&B Highway through the Mountains,” said Sherlie. “Bees are the most well-known pollinators, but bats, birds and butterflies play a fundamental role too.”

The Rotary Club of Blackheath is working together with PlantingSeeds. It delivers programs with a focus on environmental protection and sustainable education. The organisation donated wood to the Pollinator Project. “The Men’s Shed in Lithgow and Central Mountains Men’s Shed in Lawson are building boxes,” Sherlie says. “I’m also assembling them at home. Anyone who wants to help with this can get in touch!”

Protecting hollows is critical to supporting Australian wildlife (PlantingSeeds)

Sherlie tells me bird boxes can be bought through the project for a very reasonable price. The money goes straight back into the project. They also donate bird boxes to PlantingSeeds. “We got a 50-50 grant as part of the project,” Sherlie says. Rotary matches the grant and the Club is funding PlantingSeeds to visit local schools. This will start next year. “They bring dirt and plants, birdboxes, bat boxes and sometimes bees. They teach the students about how to look after the plants and animals and educate them about pollinators.”

Why is pollination important?

Sherlie tells me the project came out of a desire to engage the community around environmental issues. Supporting the Environment has become Rotary’s newest area of focus. “Pollination is such a vital process in earth’s ecological web. Pollinators support 65% of all flowering plants. This percentage is even greater for crops that support human life including fruits, vegetables, textile-related fibres and medical products.”

Lasioglossum native bee

Lasioglossum (Parasphecodes) (Megan Halcroft)

While drinking nectar, pollen attaches to bees, bats, birds and insects. Pollinators move from flower to flower, sometimes over many kilometres. The transfer of pollen results in fertilization and the production of seeds. This supports continued plant reproduction and the maintenance of animal and pollinator food sources. Seeds can be dispersed by bats and birds that eat fruit too.

Getting involved with supporting pollinators

Sherlie says there are a range of ways that people can support pollinators:

  • Propagating seeds, seedlings and cuttings for yourself or the community (https://anpsa.org.au/plant-propagation/)
  • Ensuring you have something flowering in your garden all year round.
  • Building and Installing bird boxes. Contact Sherlie if you’d like to help Rotary. (https://nestboxtales.com/)
  • Preserving existing habitat (https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/get-involved/sydney-nature/gardens/backyards)
  • Donating money to the Pollinator Project with a 96% community return (Contact Sherlie)
  • Building bee hotels (https://rotariansforbees.org/)  
  • Joining the Bee Aware of Your Native Bees (Australia) Facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/beeawareofyournativebees)
  • Eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides.
  • Providing water for pollinators and keeping habitat well-watered.
  • Mowing less in Spring and allowing plants to go to seed to feed pollinators coming out of winter hibernation.
  • Leaving some areas of your garden wilder and messier to create pollinator habitat, including areas of bare earth for burrowing bees.
  • Keeping cats indoors
  • Avoiding the use fruit tree nets that you can poke a finger through (use nets with finer mesh instead)

To get involved read on and text Sherlie on 0403 452 516 when you know how you’d like to help!

What can we do to support our pollinators?

To launch the project, the Rotary Club of Blackheath partnered with Blue Mountains City Council’s Planetary Health Initiative to organise a Pollinator Forum in Blackheath.

The Initiative’s Disaster Risk Reduction program is upskilling the community to support wildlife as we head into an El Nino summer. Extreme heat is likely to threaten the survival of many species and the Forum addressed the needs of pollinators in extreme weather events and what the community could do to help.

At the Forum Dr Megan Halcroft, Marg Turton and Carole Probets shared their expertise on bees, bats and birds.

Supporting Bees

Dr Megan Halcroft’s presentation on native bees at the Pollinator Forum:

Dr Megan Halcroft is a native bee researcher, educator and passionate native bee advocate who lives in Hampton. She co-moderates the public Facebook group Bee Aware of Your Native Bees (Australia) and founded Australian Pollinator Week.  The Planetary Health Initiative recently shared a story about Megan and Australian Pollinator Week in Lithgow Area Local News.

 Megan explains that bees are special in the realm of pollinators. They don’t just feed on nectar, but actively collect pollen. “Every third mouthful we eat we owe to bees, whether it’s fruit, oils, nuts, spices or vegetables. Bees are also critical to pollinate fodder crops like pasture legumes, which feed the animals that provide us with food.”

Bee hotels for native bees

Bee Hotel examples in ‘Native Bees of the ACT and NSW South Coast. (Hamish Dunlop)

Around 70% of native bees burrow into the soil. Megan recommends people provide a relatively clear 1m2 patch of bare earth for these bees. The other 30% of bees nest in preexisting cavities such as grass tree stalks, old borer holes, hollow stems and under bark.  Megan says this means we can make bee hotels quite easily. Tubes at least 10cm deep that are sealed at the back end can be bundled together. “Bamboo or drilled logs or timber, or other naturally hollowed out tubes such as Xanthorrhoea stalks are good options. You can’t use treated timber though.”

 To further look after bees, she says keeping plants well-watered can make a difference. “We’re already in a drought period. I’m collecting greywater and tank water is good too.” Being well-watered means that plants blossom more readily. This provides nectar and pollen for bees, which feeds them and keeps them hydrated. Honeybees can benefit from water provided in bird baths too, as long as they can land at the water’s edge.

Supporting Bats

Marg Turton’s presentation on bats as pollinators at the Pollinator Forum:

If you asked participants at the Forum about the most surprising fact they learnt it would probably be that bats make up one quarter of the world’s mammals!

 Bat ecologist Marg Turton says bats are the pollinating nightshift. There are megabats such as flying foxes that are generally larger: up to 1600g. Megabats predominantly use sight and smell to locate food, feeding on blossoms, nectar and fruit. Just like bees, they transfer pollen between flowers.

Flying Foxes can travel tens of kilometres per night and in some cases pollinate flowers that are only open at night, including the flowers of many eucalypts that provide food and habitat for koalas. In addition, they disperse seeds from native fruits such as figs across a wide area. Microbats are generally smaller, weighing as little as 3.9g. These bats are primarily insectivores and use echolocation to navigate and hunt. Because they eat insects, microbats are important for insect control, which ultimately protects flora species.

Bentwing bat

Bentwing bat (Marg Turton)

Margaret says bats get a hard rap. “We tend to associate them with darkness and malevolence: witches, vampire bats and as disease carriers for example. In reality, bats play a critical role in the ecosystems they occupy. Rather than focusing on features such as smell and the noisiness, we should celebrate their uniqueness and the positive role they play in planetary heath.”

Bats are increasingly coming under pressure from climate change and related events such as bushfires. In a 2018 heat event in Queensland, 23,000 Spectacled Flying Foxes died. Barbed wire and powerlines also take their toll, as does fruit tree netting. Marg says using netting with small mesh can help: you should not be able to put a finger through the mesh. Keeping cats inside at night is also important. Marg says if you find a sick or injured bat, don’t attempt to pick it up. Contact WIRES (1300 094 737).

Supporting Birds

Carol Probets’ presentation on birds as pollinators and how to support them ahead of an El Nino summer:

Bird expert Carol Probets says that like bats, birds get pollen on their bodies when they consume nectar. “There are lots of local bird pollinators. Honeyeaters, lorikeets, red wattlebirds, silvereyes, woodswallows and thornbills. Carol says we often focus on the larger more visible birds, the cockatoos and rosellas for example. But many smaller birds help with pollination and eat insects that damage flora. “Growing native shrubs and lower canopy species provides habitat for smaller birds. Planting grevilleas, not the big showy cultivars, banksias and other local species, provides good sources of nectar.”

flame robin in the Blue Mountains

Male Flame Robin (Carol Probets)

Carol explains that water, especially in drought, can make all the difference to birds. “When you make bird baths, it’s good to provide a variety of depths including very shallow. For deeper water make sure there’s a way for birds to easily climb in and out, using carefully placed branches or rocks. Place the birdbath near dense cover for protection from predators.”

 The art of sharing in Blackheath

Sherlie has benefited enormously being part of the Blackheath community. “Many of the things you see here were donated,” she says, gesturing to the furniture and chattels in her home. “I’m grateful I’m now in a position to give back.” She contributes in multiple ways including as the President of Blackheath Rotary.

“We’ve helped finance the ABCD Community Shed for the fire-affected community in Clarence. We provide money to the Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre (BANC) too. This supports people being able to get around.” Sherlie says that while Rotary in NSW was started by businessmen in the early 1900s, women now play an essential role. “We have a female President and a female District Governor. It’s a vibrant organisation. We’re always looking for people who want to do something, whether it’s sharing skills, using their talents, or being generous with their time. A little or a lot: everything is valuable.”

Sherlie thinks that when it comes to care, we can’t separate out people and community from the wider world. “The way the world is changing is asking us to take an ecological approach. By looking after nature which we are part of, we’re looking after ourselves. Understanding what pollinators do and the huge contribution they make is a great start. I’m excited that we can all participate.”


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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

About Hamish Dunlop

Hamish Dunlop is a writer, visual artist and environmentalist. During his career he has worked in communications, as an academic at UNSW and ACU and more recently in the conservation space. He is currently completing a Diploma in Conservation and Ecosystems Management. He lives on the bush in Medlow Bath and is a passionate bush walker, gardener and cold-water enthusiast.

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