Stingless Bees

Written On: by Theo The Beekeeper

When one thinks about bees, the first things that come to mind are beekeeping, honey, and stings. Many people are afraid of bees because their stings can be fatal if they’re allergic to the poison. But some bees cannot defend themselves by stinging. These are commonly known as stingless bees.

There are in excess of 500 species of stingless bees. These stingless insects are native to subtropical and tropical regions of the world and play a significant part in these areas’ economy, culture, and ecology. They live in colonies with a queen and a vast crew of worker bees.

For millennia indigenous people living in the tropics of the New World have been harvesting honey from multiple species of stingless bees. Their honey is not only valued for food but also for its healing properties. Because they have no sting and are less dangerous, it is easier to farm with these marvelous creatures than with the typical honey bees.

Classification And Description Of Stingless Bees

Stingless bees belong to the Apidae family of bees and can be divided into two genera: Melipona and Trigona. The Melipona family is by far the larger of the two genera. They are close relatives of the more well-known honey bees, orchid bees, carpenter bees, and bumblebees.

Stingless bees come in a multitude of colors, ranging from solid onyx to gold to striped dandelion and cinnamon. Even the colors of their eyes can vary. Some have beady black eyes, others are slate gray, while a different type’s eyes can be a blue-green color. Even their bodies differ in size. Some are as tiny as a lentil, while others can be as large as wine grapes.

We call these bees “stingless bees,” but they still have a tiny stinger. Although they can’t defend themselves with it, they have other defense mechanisms and behaviors. Some stingless bees can give very painful bites.

A study done in Brazil in 2012  by Dr. Christoph Grüter and some other university researchers revealed that the Jatai bee, one of the local species, has a soldier caste. These fighters are slightly bigger than the worker bees and stay near the entrance to protect the nest against robbers. They can still defend their hives against attacks despite not having a sting.

The robber bees also belong to the class of stingless bees, but they no longer forage for pollen or nectar. Instead, they attack neighboring nests and steal their pollen, honey, brood food, and wax. The larger soldier bees crunch the robbers in between their strong mandibles in the event of an attack.

Later in the study, they discovered that other species also had fighters guarding their nests.

This insightful research also revealed that division of labor is not simply determined by the age of the bees. Young bees are responsible for keeping the nest clean and feeding the larvae, but they move nearer to the nest exit as they get older. From there, they go off to forage for food. Soldier bees are larger than their buddies from their hatching day, so guarding the nest is their destiny.

Geographical Distribution And Habitat Of Stingless Bees

Most subtropical and tropical regions of the world are home to stingless bees, including Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and tropical America. The majority of bee species in Central and South America are stingless, but only a few produce a large enough quantity of honey that they are farmed by people.

Numerous different stingless bees are also found in Africa and Madagascar, and many people farm with them. Meliponine honey is a much sought-after product in many African and South American areas because of its medicinal properties.

Hives Of Stingless Bees

stingless bees on a hive
eunapolis, bahia / brazil – may 8, 2009: bees are seen in an apiary hive in the city of Eunapolis, in southern Bahia.

Stingless bees often nest in holes in the ground, tree branches, hollowed-out tree trunks, rock crevices, or termite nests. But they are clearly not too fussy about their nesting places because they have also been found in holes in walls, unused trash cans, storage drums, and water meters.

Many beekeepers will leave the stingless bees in their log homes or move them over to a wooden box to make managing the hive easier.

The bees make large egg-shaped pots from beeswax and different types of plant resins. They arrange these pots around the brood combs, the cell where the queen lays her eggs. This is where they store the honey and pollen.

Meliponine larvae are fed by progressive provisioning, not directly by adult bees. The bees put nectar and pollen into the cell where the egg is laid and then seal it until the adult bee comes out. Hives can house 300 to 80 000 bees, depending on which species they belong to.

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The bees line the rest of the hive cavity with a mixture of plant resins (propolis), secreted wax, and other material like animal feces.

General Behavior Of Stingless Bees

Due to the tropical climates, these bees are active throughout the year. Their activity will subside a little during cooler weather, with some types presenting diapause. Diapause is the delay in growth and development due to undesirable environmental conditions.

Stingless bees collect nectar in their crops (extensions of the gut). When they get back to the nest, they ripen the droplets by swirling them in their mouths until it turns to honey. Stingless bees’ honey is thinner than the honey from regular honey bees.

Factors Threatening Stingless Bees’ Survival

stingless be on flower
a stingless bee slurping nectar

Bees play an essential role in the survival of our ecosystems by pollinating plants both in their natural environments and agricultural crops. Like many insect populations around the world, Stingless bees are threatened by habitat destruction, global climate change, and resource competition from other bees.

Pesticides pose a serious threat to stingless bees. Research has shown that they are more sensitive to poisons than other bee species. Crops, including orange, lemon, apple, and papaya, often use toxic bait formulations to manage the fly pest species. Still, this poison is fatal to the workers of the stingless bee family.

Although many pesticides, natural or otherwise, declare themselves safe for other species besides the target insect, research has often proved otherwise. Even “natural” biopesticides can kill stingless bees. Citronella oil is highly toxic for stingless bees, while neem oil and Eucalyptus oil present medium toxicity.

The rapidly expanding world population has increased the demand for food. We also need more efficient crop production and enhanced quality attributes like disease resistance, longer shelf life, and drought resilience. This has led to the development of genetically modified plants, a technique that claims to help alleviate this rising problem.

These genetically modified plants require the application of herbicides which can adversely affect the stingless bees.

Deforestation is a severe problem for stingless bees. Research shows that bee communities are much larger in even tiny forest patches compared to deforested areas a few hundred yards away. The more humans encroach on the bees’ territory, the more the stingless bees will decline, leading to the complete absence of the species in those areas.

Pests and diseases also threaten the existence of stingless bees. Depending on where the nests are, some of their natural enemies are phorid flies, hive beetles, some arachnids including mites, wax moths, ants, different types of flies, some species of wasps, resin-collecting bees, geckos, and toads.

Stingless Bees Can Mummify Their Enemies.

The small hive beetle is one of a bee’s nastiest enemies. They feed on the larva and turn everything inside the hive into a messy larva-like substance. The Australian native bee, one of the stingless species, mummifies these intruders!

The bees surround the beetle, forcing it to pull up its legs to protect itself with its hard shell. Although it protects it from being attacked, it also immobilizes it. The worker bees use the resin that has been collected from plants to glue them to the walls of the hive. Finally, they use a mix of mud, wax, and resin to mummify their victims. Clever, ruthless bees! The beetles then starve to death.

Mass Suicide By Stingless Bees To Protect The Colony

dead bee on the ground
“vanishing bees / dead bee / ccd, colony colapse disorder”

Unlike honey bees, stingless bees lack a viable stinger. They are frequently deemed non-threatening and unable to protect themselves against predators or nest robbers. Studies by researchers from the University of Sussex have revealed that stingless bees do have a range of defense strategies, even though they can’t sting their enemies.

Some stingless bees defend themselves and their colonies by biting. This is how they protect their colonies containing the offspring (brood), their food ( pollen and honey), and building materials like resin. They frequently die because they stay attached to the enemy for such a long time.

The researchers studied the defense mechanisms of twelve species of stingless bees via three experiments. The first experiment involved waving a black flag near the entrances to the nest. Three of the Trigona species attacked the flags fiercely for almost an hour. Many of these died, with the head and body separating, leaving the mandibles still stuck in the flags.

The second experiment was to measure the pain levels of the different species when they attack. The researchers were the “guinea pigs” and allowed the bees to bite them. Those with the most painful bites were of the same Trigona species that attacked so fiercely in the previous experiment. These insects have serrated mandibles with five very sharp teeth.

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The third experiment tested the willingness of the stingless bees to die while biting intruders or predators. The first step was to show the black flag to the bees. Researchers used a small paintbrush to softly touch the bees that had clamped themselves to the flags.

Next, they tugged the wings of the attached stingless bees with forceps. They could either let go and fly away or allow their wings to be damaged. Six of the Trigona species showed a willingness to die to protect the colonies. Those that were most aggressive and willing to sacrifice themselves were those with the highest populations in the colonies.

The older bees are used in the suicide attacks so that the colony with its young bees doesn’t die out. A small group of worker bees will begin the attack. They will then release pheromones that call extra workers to help them attack the enemies. The entire battle will be won by the mass suicide of the bees defending their homes.

Different Roles Of Stingless Bees

In the Melipona family, female stingless bees become queens if they consume more pollen than other females. This means that 5-14% of the female brood might be queens. When the new queens reach adulthood, they leave the nest to mate, but most die.

A crew of worker bees will gradually build a new nest in a different location. A freshly mated queen will then join the nest, and many workers will go to live in that nest and help the queen raise the new batch of worker bees. And, of course, depending on the species, they may have the bigger, stronger soldiers to guard the nest.

Australian Stingless Bees

Australia has approximately 14 species of stingless bees. These include native honey bees, sugar-bag bees, native bees, and sweat bees (so named because they sometimes sit on a sweaty person to drink in dry areas). The Australian bees are black and small, with hairy back legs to transport nectar and pollen.

Because the stingless bees pose no threat to people, they have a popular addition to suburban gardens. Most of these beekeepers don’t keep the insects for honey. Instead, they take pleasure in conserving an indigenous species whose natural habitat is being destroyed by land developments.

The stingless bees then pollinate bushland, flowers, and crops while searching for their pollen and nectar. There is a small outlet for bush honey. Still, the native meliponine bees don’t usually produce more honey than they need for themselves. In addition, the type of hive makes it challenging to retrieve the honey. In cool weather, taking honey from a nest can damage or kill the nest.

It has become apparent that Australian stingless bees are excellent pollinators for crops like macadamias and mangos. They are also beneficial to avocados, watermelons, citrus fruits, lychees, strawberries, etc.

In some warmer areas of Australia, a minor amount of honey is collected from the stingless bees. Australians are developing new methods of harvesting modest amounts of stingless bees’ honey without causing any damage.

Brazilian Stingless Bees

Brazil is home to many species of stingless bees, and at least 20 to 30 are potentially good honey producers. Some bees native to Brazil are excellent pollinators of tropical plants and are seen as a similar ecological equivalent to the honey bee.

Brazilian law prohibits the removal or destruction of existing colonies found in the wild. Only new colonies built by the bees in artificial bee boxes can be collected from the wild.

Most of the stingless bees’ hives are much smaller than those of their cousins, the European honey bees. Still, with colonies of under a thousand bees, they can produce up to 1 gallon of honey in a year.

Some Brazilian beekeepers farm with the tamer, but very productive bees like the urucu, the tiuba, and the jandaira, keeping over 3000 hives. These can produce about 3000 lbs of honey per annum. The honey from these stingless bees is highly sought after because it is supposed to taste better and have more medicinal properties. This makes it far more profitable than regular honey.

Some passive species of Brazilian stingless bees can be kept in the suburbs as long as there are enough flowers in the area. Some beekeepers have been known to collect honey from 12th-floor apartments. Stingless bees are generally sensitive to low temperatures, but some can cope with temperatures below 32°F.

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Mayan Stingless Bees

The Mayan people have kept native Meliponines for millennia. The Mayans cultivated the stingless bees for honey, and they were also considered sacred. The people still cultivate them, but they have become endangered because of deforestation and changed agricultural and beekeeping practices.

The Mayan people also made an alcoholic beverage similar to mead, from the fermented honey of the stingless bees. The drink was called Balché because some of the bark from the balché tree was added to it. It was used for rituals or medicinal purposes but was well-known for causing “mystical experiences.” It has psychotropic effects when taken.

The Mayans also used the metalworking method of lost-wax casting to create small artworks and jewelry.

Honey From Stingless Bees

Honey has featured strongly over the centuries for medicinal purposes, particularly in ancient eras. Records indicate that people have utilized honey as an inebriant, a balm, a psychoactive drug, and even as a poison. Research also suggests that honey has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and wound-healing qualities. Many call this honey a “miracle liquid.”

Wound Healing Properties Of Stingless Bees’ Honey

Ancient Egyptian surgeons believed in the wound-healing properties of honey. Although they may not have understood the microbiological theory, they knew that honey had natural characteristics for healing wounds. It was well-known that honey could prevent infection and speed up the healing rate.

The primary ways honey helps heal wounds are its anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antioxidant qualities.

The honey from stingless bees contains higher levels of antioxidants than from other bee species. These antioxidants can prevent infections caused by oxidative stress.

Microorganisms within the wound can delay the healing process, and it can become infected. Research has found that stingless bee honey can inhibit the growth of certain bacteria. Acids making up 0.57% of the honey will suppress most microorganisms that flourish in a pH between 7.2 and 7.4.

The anti-inflammatory properties of honey lessen the scarring caused by burn wounds. Phenolic compounds also contribute to the anti-inflammatory properties of honey because they operate as free radical scavengers. This speeds up the healing process.

Honey also minimizes edema, which lowers the microvascular hydrostatic pressure on the injured tissue. Edema restricts the wound’s access to oxygen and nutrients necessary for tissue growth.

Stingless bee honey has an even higher moister content than ordinary honey. Honey consists of lactic acid, proteins, and sugars. These components can operate as moisturizers for wounds. The high moisture content prevents the wound from dehydrating because it slowly delivers the necessary fluid to the tissue.

Studies have shown that most types of honey contain healthy ingredients such as Vitamins B, K, and E, potassium, calcium, and phosphorus. These nutrients add to the hydrating properties.

Stingless Bee Honey Remedies From Ancient Civilizations

Since ancient times, numerous native Mexican peoples have used NSB (Native Stingless Bee) honey for medicinal benefits, including the Zapotecos, Mixes, and Zoques of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. NSB honey has been used to treat respiratory tract infections, pharyngitis, and even eye infections.

Propolis From The Stingless Bee

Propolis is a resin made by bees. It’s made up of bee saliva, beeswax, and plant and tree ingredients. Although propolis may provide some health benefits for people, additional large-scale research is needed.

Bees use the propolis to seal the entrances to the nests, thereby protecting them from intruders. The antimicrobial properties of propolis may protect bees from infections.

Propolis appears to have antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. It may also have anti-inflammatory properties and aid in the healing of the skin. Propolis in its purest form is hard to come by. Beehives are the most common source.

People use propolis to treat diabetes, cold sores, and ulcers inside the mouth. It’s also used to treat burns, canker sores, genital herpes, and other ailments. But there is no scientific evidence to back these claims up yet.

Conclusion

One cannot overestimate the value of stingless bees. They play an essential part in pollinating our food plants, and their honey, propolis, and wax have excellent healing properties. Although these bees have no viable stingers, nature has endowed them with other ingenious ways of defending their colonies.

Human beings also need to become more aware of their value and protect the environments where they nest, or we will lose some of the most valuable insect species that directly affect our food supplies.

Author

Theo The Beekeeper

When I was a kid, my dad used to keep bees around the small farm we had, and I absolutely loved helping him. In the past few years, we’ve picked up the hobby again, and I’ve been doing a lot more research. This website is the accumulation of things I’ve learned along the way! You can learn more about my journey and the resources I’ve developed on my about page.

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