When you hear the word “bee” what is the first thought that comes to your mind? Is it maybe the delicious honey? The buzzing sound of bees? Or is it maybe the thought that bees can sting you? If you associate bees with stinging and that makes you a bit scared of them, then we have a piece of good news for you. Did you know that there are stingless bees? Not all bees are the same! There are around 20 000 known species of bees, each with its characteristics. One of which is the ability to sting. Even though they have the word ‘stingless’ in their name, they are not actually stingless. Meliponines have a stinger, but it’s reduced and cannot be used for defense. Stingless bees, also known as stingless honey bees or meliponines, are a large group of bees that includes about 500 bee species. They are closely related to common honeybees since they belong to the same family - Apidae. In this article, we will learn more about stingless bees by comparing them to the most well-known stinging bee - honeybee.
Scientists believe that the original habitats of the honeybee are forested areas and tropical climates. They probably originated in Africa and from there spread to China, the Americas, India, and Europe. However, since honeybees have been domesticated to produce honey for human consumption, they can be found all over the world. Honeybees prefer to live in orchards, meadows, gardens, and other areas with flowering plants.
Stingless bees can be found in most tropical and subtropical regions. Native eusocial bees of South and Central America are mostly stingless bees, though only some of them produce enough honey to be used for human consumption.
As with other types of eusocial bees, a honeybee colony contains one queen bee, a few thousand male drone bees, and tens of thousands of female worker bees.
A queen bee lays eggs in cells made of beeswax, which are made by worker bees. While laying eggs, the queen uses her spermatheca to fertilize some eggs. Which eggs will get fertilized usually depends on which cell she is putting it into. Female honeybees (queen bees and worker bees) develop from fertilized eggs while male honeybees develop from unfertilized eggs. After a few days, the egg hatches into a worm-like form called a larva. In the beginning, each larva is fed royal jelly produced by worker bees. Later worker bee larvae switch to honey and pollen, while queen bees continue to be fed with royal jelly.
Worker bees who take care of the larvae and clean the hive are also known as nurse bees. This duty continues until their glands, which produce royal jelly, begin to atrophy. Their next task is building comb cells, which are mainly used for eggs, but also to store water and honey. As worker honeybees become older, their duties change. Younger bees take care of the young and build comb cells while older bees forage for pollen and water or guard the hive.
in order to find food and water sources more efficiently, honeybees use a specialized tactic known as “dancing”. Bees use dancing as a way to communicate information about the location of resources.
Queen bees who have not mated yet leave to a drone congregation area and mate with multiple drones before returning to their home colony. Unlike many bee species, honeybee colonies are not established by solitary queen bees. Honeybee colonies are established by a group of bees known as a swarm. The swarm moves to a location where a new nest will be built and constructs a new wax comb to raise new worker brood. This way of nest founding is unique for honeybees and isn’t seen in any other living bee genus. Stingless bees also start a new nest with a large number of worker bees, but they cannot be considered a swarm. Their queen bee is escorted to a new nest after the nest has already been constructed. But, more on this topic later.
Since these bees live in tropical areas, they are mostly active all year round. As with honeybees, in colder weather stingless bees are less active. Like we mentioned before, stingless bees cannot sting but nature has made sure to give them other ways of defending themselves. Their weapon for defense is their mandibles, they can bite hard, and some species even secrete formic acid. A mixture of bite and formic acid causes painful blisters on the skin where the bite happened.
Even though they cannot sting, their colonies can have many bees ready to defend their hive. These bees usually make nests in hollow trunks, underground cavities, termite nests, and rock crevices. But you can also encounter them in old rubbish bins, wall cavities, and storage drums.
As far as beekeeping goes, many like to keep the bees in their original log hive or transfer them to a wooden box, which makes it easier to control the hive. These bees store honey and pollen in egg-shaped pots made of beeswax mixed with plant resin. Usually, these pots are arranged around central brood combs where larvae live. When a young worker bee emerges from her cell, she initially remains inside the hive. When the worker bee is older, she becomes a guard or forager. Unlike honeybees, stingless bees don’t feed their larvae. Nectar and pollen are placed in a cell where an egg is placed, and then the cell is sealed until an adult bee emerges.
The caste system in the stingless bee colony is also a bit different than the caste system in the honeybee hive. In a honeybee hive female bees become workers or queens depending on what kind of food they receive as larvae. Worker bees are fed pollen, while queens are fed royal jelly. In a colony of stingless bees the caste system is based on the amount of pollen consumed. More consumed pollen means that there will be more queens. When there is a lot of pollen, queen cells can be recognized by a large size because the cell is stocked with pollen. In the case of small amounts of pollen, queen cells are identical to worker cells. After maturing and leaving their cells the queens try to mate, but most of them die.
Swarming isn’t a deciding factor when choosing a new nest. The procession of worker bees gradually constructs a new nest at the desired location. A newly mated queen then joins a finished nest, and worker bees make the nest their permanent home so they can help the queen raise new workers.
Another thing differentiating stingless bees from honeybees is the existence of a soldier caste, which is typical for colonies of ants and termites. This soldier caste consists of defensive specialist bees that help guard the nest entrance. In some cases, soldier bees are even larger or a different color than regular worker bees.
Honey production can only start once all required resources have been collected, and that is the job of foraging bees. During forage bees will look for flowers with sugary nectar and high protein pollen, which is then carried to the hive to be used as food or larvae and adult bees. When we consider that bees flap their wings about 11,000 times per minute, we realize that they need a lot of energy for their flights.
Honeybees collect nectar using their long tongue (proboscis) and suck the nectar out like through the straw. Nectar is then stored in their second stomach that doesn’t digest it, only stores it. An interesting fact is that the honey stomach can hold up to 70 mg of nectar, which weighs almost as much as the bee. Honeybees carry pollen in special pollen baskets on their back legs so they can carry both pollen and nectar while flying back to the hive. During the flight, the honey stomach mixes enzymes with nectar in order to pull some water out of it.
Some believe that honey is made out of bee vomit, but that is not true. When a bee “eats” nectar, it goes through one of two valves, depending on the need for energy at that moment. If a bee needs more energy the intaken nectar is sent into digestion, but if energy is not needed then nectar is sent to the honey stomach. Upon returning to the hive, a young worker bee will suck the nectar out of the honey stomach of the forager and start the process of chewing it in order to create honey. While chewing nectar, a bee adds enzymes that break down the nectar and form a simple syrup. Moreover, enzymes also reduce the water content, which makes it easier to digest and less likely to be plagued by bacteria.
Processed honey is distributed over the comb cells, which is done by spitting up chewed up nectar. However, the process of making honey doesn’t stop here. Honey in the current form still has too much water content, so bees fan it with their wings to reduce water content. Once the honey has the right level of water content, bees will cap the cells with honey by putting a beeswax cap over it.
To explain honey production of stingless bees we will use two examples, stingless bees in Australia and stingless bees in Brazil.
Stingless bees in Australia don’t produce much honey, so they can be used only for minor honey production. In order to harvest an amount of honey that won’t harm the bees, special methods have been developed. Same as honeybees, stingless bees have special baskets for collecting pollen and an extension to the gut for collecting nectar. In the hive bees ripen and dehydrate the nectar droplets by “chewing” them multiple times until honey is formed. The process of ripening nectar concentrates it and increases the sugar content, but this honey is still not as concentrated as the honey from honeybees.
The taste of honey depends on plant resins used to build honey pots and hives, which depends on the time of year the trees and flowers are visited. Bees store their honey in small resin pots near the extremities of the nest. When used in honey production, stingless bees need to be kept in a specially designed box which makes honey stores accessible without damage to the rest of the nest. Stingless bees storing their honey in beeswax pots instead of regular honeycombs is what makes honey extraction difficult. When we compare the honey production of honeybees and stingless bees, we can notice a huge difference. While honeybees produce about 75 kg (165 lbs) of honey in one year, stingless bees only produce about 1 kg (2 lbs).
Stingless bees of Brazil still produce a lot less honey than honeybees, but their yield is higher than that of Australian stingless bees. On average stingless bees in this location produce about 4 kg (9 lbs) of honey in a year. However, some species of stingless bees have high productivity and can produce up to 8 - 12 kg (18 - 26lbs) of honey per year. However, these bees are usually aggressive so they are not a popular choice among beekeepers. Beekeepers looking for higher production of honey have thousands of hives of less aggressive stingless bees and that way can produce over 1.5 tons (3 000 lbs) of honey each year.
The honey from stingless bees has a thinner consistency and is more prone to spoiling; water content ranges from 25% to 35%. Since it can spoil easily, stingless bee honey needs to be processed through pasteurization, or else it has to be kept under refrigeration. Moreover, their honey is considered more palatable because it is not overly sweet and has higher medicinal properties than honey from honeybees because of higher levels of antimicrobial substances. Honey also has a lighter color compared to the honey from honeybees.
Honeybees have an effective defense system of using their stingers to fight the intruders. Moreover, alarmed bees release a pheromone that stimulates the attack response in other bees. In honeybee colonies, both the queen bee and worker bees have stingers but their structure is a bit different. While queen bee has a smooth stinger and can sting multiple times, worker bees have a barbed stinger which gives it only a one time use. It is believed that the barb may have evolved in response to predation by vertebrates because barbs function only when the sting is embedded in fleshy tissue. However, some species of Apis genus have an additional method of killing intruders. The defense against larger insects, such as predatory wasps, is to surround the wasp and vibrate their bodies in order to raise the temperature and practically cook the wasp. This method of defense is also used to kill a queen perceived as intruding or defective.
Another exciting thing is what happens with the stinger after the sting. Since the sting is associated with a venom sack, and both can be pulled out of the body once the stinger is lodged into something, bee venom plays a significant role in honeybee defense. Unfortunately, a bee dies after stinging, but the venom still keeps going even after the stinger has been pulled out from the bee’s abdomen. The sting apparatus has its own musculature and ganglion that allow it to keep pumping venom and alarm pheromones even after the stinger is torn out. The venom used by honeybees is known as apitoxin.
If you get stung by a honeybee we have some helpful tips and tricks here.
Since stingless bees cannot use their stinger for defense, they had to develop different ways to defend the hive. Their defense system involves guard bees, which can be separated into two groups: hovering guards and soldier guards. Hovering guards are stationed in the air near the entrance, while soldiers stand inside and around the entrance. Guards are usually bigger than regular workers and display different structural features. Foragers have larger heads, while guards have larger hind legs. Research has shown that bees with bigger bodies can fight longer and thus be more effective in defense, which shows that nature always finds a way.
Due to nonaggressive behavior and the lack of a functional stinger stingless bees can be reared in densely populated areas such as cities. The only condition is that bees have enough flowers nearby. However, if they perceive the hive is in danger then they start to show aggressive behaviors like biting, entangling in the hair, trying to enter in the nose or ears, etc. Some species are so tame that they won’t be aggressive even when their hive is opened for colony division or honey extraction. However, stingless bees are dependent on the environment and type of flowers around them, so they cannot be kept in any climate like honeybees can. Their productivity is also a lot lower than that of honeybees, so you should make sure that your stingless bee colony has flowers from its natural habitat nearby to keep producing honey. There are many more types of bees than we mentioned here, and it just shows us how amazing the bee world is. Do you have any experience with stingless bees? Let us know!