Throughout the world there are many different types of bees comprising the tribe Meliponini. Many of them perform the same jobs such as making honey and pollinating flowers. However, when most people think of bees, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that they can sting you. You may be surprised to learn that not all bees have stingers. There is a large family of bees that are called stingless bees or stingless honey bees.
This family of bees is related to orchid bees, honey bees, bumblebees and carpenter bees. They are most commonly found in regions of the world with tropical and subtropical climates such as Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia and even in parts of Brazil and Mexico.
Stingless Bee Behavior
While stingless bees remain active year round, they become less active when the weather gets cooler. Even though they don’t sting, they will bite to defend their nest if it is disturbed. Stingless bees often have very large colonies, just like the common honey bees you know so well. The difference is with regular honey bees, the female bees can either be workers or queens depending on the type of food they receive. Female worker bees are fed pollen, while the queens are fed royal jelly. However, with stingless honey bees, all the bees are fed pollen, but what determines the workers from the higher ups is the amount of pollen consumed. Some stingless bee hives may have multiple queens ready to replace the dominant queen in case of a sudden death.
As stingless bees are harmless to humans, they are an ideal addition to many people’s yards. Beekeepers keep stingless bees mostly not for the honey, but more as a way of keeping the stingless bees safe because their natural habitats are deteriorating due to human development. In return, the stingless bees pollinate garden flowers and crops while they collect nectar and pollen.
Stingless Bee Hives
Stingless bees usually create their hives in hollow trunks, water meters, tree branches and rock crevices. However, they have also been found in strange places like inside walls or in old garbage bins. To easily control the hive, beekeepers usually transfer the bees into wooden boxes.
The stingless bees store pollen and honey in large pots that are shaped like eggs. These pots are made of beeswax and usually contain some type of plant resin. The pots are located around horizontal brood combs and this is where the larval bees are kept. The adolescent worker bees generally remain inside the hive where they perform a variety of jobs. As the bees age, they move up in rank and become foragers or guards.
Another difference between regular honey bees and stingless honey bees is that the larvae are fed differently. With regular honey bees, the larvae are fed directly. However with stingless bees, the pollen and nectar are put into a cell where an egg is laid. The cell is then sealed shut until the adult bee emerges. At any one time, there can be between 300-80,000 bees in a hive, depending on species.
Stingless bees don’t produce near the amount of honey that regular honeybees do. While a hive of honeybees can produce up to 75 kilograms of honey annually, stingless bees produce only about one kilogram in a year. In some of the warmer areas of Australia, stingless bees are being used for minor to moderate honey production. There are methods being developed that will allow moderate amounts of honey to be harvested from stingless bees without harming them.
The nectar that stingless bees collect is kept in an extension of their gut called a crop. When the bees arrive back at their hive, they spin the nectar droplets inside their mouths to dehydrate or ripen the nectar and create honey. The process of ripening the nectar concentrates it and raises the sugar content. However, the honey made by stingless bees is nowhere near as concentrated as the honey produced by honey bees. Honey from stingless bees is much thinner and spoils much quicker than honey bees honey.
The honey that stingless bees produce also has a different taste than that of regular honey bees. While the honey from honey bees is sweet, the honey from stingless bees is a combination of sweet and sour and often has a bit of lemon flavor as well. The taste is associated with the plant resins that are used in the pots and hives.
Stingless Bee Pollination
Stingless bees are great for pollinating crops like mangoes and macadamias. They are also good for pollinating strawberries, blueberries, avocados, citrus fruits, watermelons, lychees and many more. For some crops, stingless bees are better pollinators than regular honey bees. Research into the use of stingless bees for crop pollination in the world wide farms is still in its very early stages, but these bees show great potential and will be of great use to farmers around the world.