The Web of Life (92-3) Stingless Bees

Stingless Bees

Meliponines – commonly called stingless bees – evolved on Gondwana ~100 MYA, long before honeybees first appeared. Like certain Australian solitary bees, meliponines independently evolved to fit niches occupied elsewhere by later-arriving honeybees and bumble bees.

Meliponines are native to tropical and subtropical biomes in Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and tropical America. Being tropical, meliponines are typically active year-round, though less so in cooler weather. Some species practice diapause (dormancy).

Meliponini females have residual, futile stingers; hence the designation of ‘stingless’. (The term stingless is something of a misnomer, as females in other bee tribes are incapable of stinging, as are all male bees. Further, meliponines do not lack stings: the stingers simply are so reduced as to be useless for defense.) These bees are not defenseless: they bite if disturbed.

Meliponines are eusocial, forming permanent colonies with a single queen, a corps of workers, and drones. Some meliponines have a soldier caste: defensive specialists like those found in ants and termites. Meliponini guards are larger than workers, and sometimes sport distinct coloration.

Meliponines typically nest in rock crevices, underground cavities, hollow tree trunks, or among tree branches. Like other bees, they build their own planned structures wherever they reside, using sophisticated construction techniques.

Like honeybees, meliponines have corbiculae (pollen baskets). Meliponines are usually generalist foragers. Scouts communicate to other workers about promising harvest fields, but do not dance as honeybees do.

Generally having smaller colonies than honeybees, meliponines produce less honey. Meliponini per-bee foraging productivity is often higher than honeybees. Meliponines store their honey within the nest in egg-shaped pots constructed of beeswax and propolis.

Meliponini honey is somewhat watery: 25–35% compared to honeybees’ 19%. To compensate, meliponines add more antimicrobials to their honey.