There are more than 2000 species of bees native to Australia, about 14 of which are stingless.
The main species of stingless bees, studied in Australia, are the Trigona Carbonaria and the Austroplebeia Australis. These bees are also known as “Sugarbag” after the unique honey they produce, or “Sweat Bees” for their peculiar habit of collecting human sweat. This is thought to be a source of minerals for the insects.
Stingless bees are much like traditional honey bees in many ways. Their main role is pollination. Their social structure, though seemingly more sophisticated than traditional honey bees, is also similar; a hive consists of a Queen bee, Worker Bees, and Drones. Honey and Beeswax production is also principally similar.
Here’s what makes stingless bees different.
The first and most obvious difference is that they are stingless. They do possess a stinger, but it is vestigial and useless for defense. Though they may give you a pinch with their jaws if threatened, they are usually more laid back and docile.
These bees thrive in tropical climates, only emerging from their hives in temperatures ranging from 18-35 degrees celsius (64-89 degrees fahrenheit). Stingless bees are also significantly smaller than european honey bees, only averaging about 4 mm in length. Because of their smaller size they are excellent pollinators of plants with small hard to reach blossoms, namely that of the macadamia plant. They are also good pollinators of mangos, watermelons, strawberries, avocados, and citrus fruit.
The honey these bees produce is also quite diverse, being more tangy to the taste. Named “sugarbag” by the Native Australians, it has been compared to the taste of lemon and eucalyptus. The honey is considered a very special treat because the bees produce a significantly lower amount than the european honey bee. A single hive will produce about 1 kg or less of sugarbag every year, most of which is needed for food storage.
Close up of a very tiny minute Australian native stingless Bee Tetragonula on an onion flower
Though it is possible to extract sugarbag from the hive for human consumption, experts advise most keepers to only do so occasionally as splitting the hive to collect the honey can cause a lag in colony growth, and taking too much can cause the death of the colony.
Stingless bees usually build their hives in hollow tree logs. The nests are made of cerumen, which is a mixture of glandular secretions and plant resin. This mixture creates a wax that not only constructs the inner workings of the nest, but also seal the cracks and holes in the tree log, protecting the colony from invading predators.
The brood cells of the comb form a spiral shaped raised structure. Each cell within the comb is filled with honey and houses immature bees until they reach adulthood. When the adult bee emerges, the cell is destroyed.
Many gardeners and farmers choose to keep these bees for conservative efforts, as land clearing and burning has destroyed much of their natural habbitat, causing a large decrease in stingless bee population. They are also kept for their many unique qualities.
Besides their large contribution to crop pollination, native stingless bees are also less susceptible to disease and mites which makes them easier to tend. These bees also do very well in a greenhouse setting because they usually won’t fly any farther from their nests than necessary, which makes them ideal for pollinating smaller areas.
Whether for pollination, for sugarbag, or for a pleasant addition for a backyard, stingless bees are a great fit for many gardeners and farmers.