Stingless Bees

What is a stingless bee - a stingless bee standing alone
Stingless Bee Classification
Class: Insecta
Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Apidae
Tribe: Meliponini
Genus: Melipona

A stingless bee is a bee that appears very similar to a honeybee, but is incapable of stinging. 

Approximately 550 species of stingless bees are found within several genera that are members of the Meliponini tribe. Stingless bees are also related to bumblebees and carpenter bees. [1]

Austroplebeia, Melipona, and Tetragonula are three common genera of stingless bees.

Stingless bees do possess stingers, but they are too small to be useful in defense. Instead of stinging, stingless bees use their mandibles to bite their attackers.

Not all bees that can not sting belong to the Meliponini tribe – there are many types of bees without stingers, and the Meliponini tribe encompasses only some, including stingless bees.

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    Where Can Stingless Bees Be Found?

    Africa, Australia, Southeast Asia, and parts of the Americas are the main areas where the stingless bee is found. They can even be observed in these locations during the cooler months since they are active all year long.

    In temperate regions such as Canada and North America, stingless bees are not found. The temperature in these areas becomes too cold for stingless bees to survive.

    Why Are They Called Stingless Bees?

    The stingless bee is so named because it does not sting. Despite having small stingers, stingless bees rarely sting and do not use them for defense. However, stingless bees possess mandibles that can be used to bite humans and other animals if threatened, which is their primary defense mechanism.

    In addition to stingless bees, there are many other species of bees that are incapable of stinging, and not all of them are members of the Meliponini tribe. Therefore, not all bees without stingers are necessarily stingless bees, which is unique to the tribe.

    Meliponini, the scientific name of this tribe, is derived from a Greek verb meaning to toil. [2] There are many genera of stingless bees, each with its own name.

    Stingless bees at the entrance of their hive
    There are many species of stingless bees, including one which consumes rotting fruit and meat!

    Most species of stingless bees belong to the Melipona genus, which also has the same meaning as Meliponinito toil. There is also the Austroplebeia genus, which is named after the Latin words for “south” Austro and “common people” plebeius.

    Stingless bees are also known as sweat bees and sugar-bag bees. The names of stingless bees vary according to the region where they are found. For example, the Australian native honey bee or the Maya stingless bee. 

    Additionally, stingless bees have been given the Mayan name Xunan Kab, which translates as “royal lady bee”.

    How to Identify a Stingless Bee

    A stingless bee can be identified by its typically black color with occasional yellow markings. Additionally, stingless bees can be identified by their small size, round abdomens, and two sets of wings.

    In general, stingless bees have oval faces with distinct pointy chins, short antennae and large, oval-shaped eyes.

    Since stingless bees exhibit a wide range of appearances, it is difficult to identify them solely by their appearance. A stingless bee’s behavior and hive help to further identify the species.

    Where Do Stingless Bees Live?

    Stingless bees are eusocial, which means that they live together in hives and produce honey. The nests of stingless bees are typically found in hollow spaces such as tree trunks, termite nests, and even within walls.

    Keepers of domesticated stingless bees often keep them in flower pots or wooden boxes. There is only one stingless bee species, Dactylurina staudingeri, which builds its own nest without utilizing a preexisting cavity for nest building.

    In order to build their nests, stingless bees forage for materials such as tree resin and mud.

    When the weather is adverse, such as cold, cloudy, or rainy, stingless bees stay inside their nests. Stingless bees prefer sunny days with warm temperatures for foraging and mating.

    Even though the stingless bee has a stinger, it is largely ineffective. As a result, they use their bite to defend their nests.

    The larvae of stingless bees are housed in hexagonal containers made of beeswax and resin produced by plants. Stingless bees store honey and pollen in these containers and lay one egg in each.

    Among stingless bee species, the organization of these cells varies greatly. In some species of stingless bee, the cells are organized into spirals, while in others, they are randomly arranged.[3] 

    All the cells, as well as the rest of the nest and the entrance tubes, are lined with wax and resin. This offers protection and avoids unwanted water entering the nest.

    Stingless Bees vs. Honeybees

    While stingless bees are very similar to honeybees, there are some key differences. The table below to outlines these differences.

    Honeybee Stingless bee
    Size 15 mm 4 to 7 mm
    Colony size 20,000 to 80,000 individuals 300 to 80,000 individuals, but most colonies are on the smaller side
    Behavior Queens mate with multiple drones. Colonies are established by swarm. Queens mate with a single drone from another colony. Colonies are formed by worker bees and a single mated queen.
    Hive appearance Honeycomb structure Individual hexagonal cells are arranged in a spiral or randomly
    Location Worldwide Tropical and subtropical areas
    Honey production Easy to extract. Honeybees have large colonies and produce large amounts of honey. Honey is thick and does not need to be refrigerated. Honey is very sweet. Difficult to extract. Stingless bees have smaller colonies but produce more honey per bee. Stingless bee honey is thinner and spoils more easily. Honey is less sweet.
    Defense Honeybees can sting once, but they die when they do. Only the queen can sting multiple times. Stingless bees have a stinger, but it is virtually useless. They defend their nests by biting more than stinging.
    Color Light brown with yellow or gold bands Usually all black
    Species 8 550

    How Big Is a Stingless Bee Colony?

    In a colony of stingless bees, there can be between 300 and 80,000 bees, depending on the species. There are several types of stingless bee, each with its own function. This includes workers, drones, soldiers and queens.

    It is the worker stingless bees that collect food for the hive, the queen stingless bees that produce eggs for the next generation, and the drone stingless bees that provide fertilization for the queen bees. The majority of the colony consists of worker bees.

    Several species of stingless bees have soldier bees that protect their nests. Soldier bees are present in at least 10 species of stingless bees. Soldier bees are physically different from other stingless bees in that they are larger and have a different coloration. Among these species are Tetragonisca angustula and Tetragonisca fiebrigi.

    What Do Stingless Bees Eat?

    Generally, stingless bees eat nectar and pollen from flowers. There are, however, some species of stingless bee that feed on rotting fruit or even dead meat. 

    The adult stingless bee consumes nectar for energy and collects pollen in order to create balls of protein on which the queen will lay its eggs.

    Do Stingless Bees Pollinate?

    The diversity of stingless bees makes them an important pollinator. The pollination process occurs when stingless bees transfer pollen from one flower to another while feeding on the flowers they visit.

    Stingless bees are buzz pollinators, meaning that they vibrate flowers to shake the pollen out of their anthers.

    close up shot of a stingless bee pollinating a yellow flower

    Pollen grains are collected by the tiny hairs on the body of stingless bees. These pollen grains are then transported back to the nest by stingless bees. However, pollen grains often fall from stingless bees, which is how pollination occurs between flowers. 

    As a result, stingless bees play an important role in pollination.

    Do Stingless Bees Make Honey?

    Stingless bees do produce honey, and they are often farmed for this reason. The honey produced by stingless bees is edible, tastes pleasant to most people, and may have a number of therapeutic benefits.

     As stingless bee honey contains antibiotic and antioxidant properties, it may be beneficial to eat and apply to wounds.

    Stingless bees store their honey in small pots within their nest, making extraction difficult. As a result, stingless bee honey is relatively expensive in comparison; to honey produced by honeybees. 

    In addition, stingless bee colonies are much smaller than honey bee colonies. It is therefore necessary to maintain a large number of stingless bee colonies in order to produce a significant amount of honey for commercial use. As a result, the price of stingless bee honey is affected.

    Do Beekeepers Keep Stingless Bees for Their Honey?

    There is a high value placed on the honey produced by stingless bees, which is why beekeepers keep them as pets and use their honey for a wide variety of purposes.

    Malipona marginata, a species of stingless bee, can produce almost a gallon of honey per year with only 300 individual bees in a hive.

    Honey production rates are very high for all stingless bee species. At the colony level, stingless bees produce less honey than traditional honey bee hives due to their fewer bees. However, stingless bees produce much more honey per bee than honeybees.

    It is only the availability of flowers for nectar and pollen that limits the production of stingless bee honey. It is imperative for beekeepers to provide stingless bees with a wide variety of flowers.

    Medicinal properties and a delicious flavor make stingless bee honey extremely valuable.

    Stingless bee nest with bees working to produce honey
    Although having smaller colonies than the traditional honeybee, stingless bees produce more honey per bee.

    The reason for its high price is that one must maintain a large number of stingless bee colonies to produce the same amount of honey as one honey bee colony. Additionally, the cost of extracting honey from stingless bee hives is higher than from honeybee hives.

    Since stingless bee honey has a higher water content than honey bee honey, it must be pasteurized. As a result of pasteurization, the stingless bee honey is more likely to spoil. For this reason, stingless bee honey must also be kept refrigerated.

    For centuries, Maya people have kept stingless bees for their honey and its purported therapeutic properties. Maya culture even considered stingless bees sacred.

    Do Stingless Bees Bite?

    Stingless bees are capable of biting to defend their nests. Stingless bees use their mandibles for biting to defend themselves rather than stinging. In some species of stingless bee, venom is released upon biting, and this can cause intense pain and itching.

    A few species of stingless bees, including Trigona species, exhibit greater aggression than others. [5] According to researchers, however, stingless bee bites cause much less pain than those caused by honeybees. 

    There are some species of stingless bees that are willing to lose their wings in order to continue biting a perceived threat.

    Reproduction & Lifecycle of Stingless Bees

    Stingless queen bees mate with a single drone and collect the sperm needed to fertilize their eggs. The queen and drone stingless bees mate in midair, flying throughout the process of mating. The queen stingless bee then returns to the nest and lays one egg in each waxy cell.

    Both fertilized and unfertilized eggs are laid by the queen stingless bee. An unfertilized egg develops into a drone stingless bee. Stingless bee eggs that are fertilized develop into worker or queen bees depending on how much and what kind of food they are laid on.

    Stingless bee eggs are laid individually in waxy cells inside the nest. Each larva is given its own cell, which is sealed over until it becomes an adult stingless bee.

    Once the worker stingless bees hatch, they begin to assist the queen by foraging, defending the nest, and feeding the larvae. 

    Upon hatching, drone stingless bees mate with queens from other colonies to promote reproduction and populate the colony.

    Sometimes, stingless bees swarm. It occurs when there are abundant resources and stingless bee colonies grow to be too large for a single queen. A new colony of stingless bees will form with a queen and move out of the old nest. This is called swarming.

    The following table compares the unusual behaviors of four species of stingless bees:

    Ptilotrigona lurida, P. pereneae, P. occidentalis Trigona necrophaga, T. hypogea, T. crassipes Schwarzula coccidophila Lestrimelitta
    These bees cultivate yeast from pollen. This preserves the pollen for storage. These bees collect rotting fruits and meat for food. These bees cohabitate with scale insects in a symbiotic relationship. In this relationship, the bees protect the scale insects and the scale insects provide honeydew and wax in exchange. These bees steal food from other bees and put it in their own nest.
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