Why must we know stingless bee flight range?Many new stingless beekeepers wonder how far it is that their newly acquired native stingless bees will travel in search of pollen and nectar. This is important information to know for many reasons. Firstly it is good to know what forage is available when siting your bees by looking what is growing and flowering within the known flight range. Perhaps more importantly it is essential information to have when moving hives short distances. If you don’t move a hive far enough (out of their old foraging range) then you can have a large number of the hives workers return to the old hive location. Knowing the flight range of the stingless bees lets you work out the minimum required distance when moving your hives.
So what is the flight range of native stingless bees?
Stingless bee visiting a flowering gum.[/caption]Recent research published by researchers at the University of Sydney showed that the flight range of native stingless bees is probably around 500 meters. The study was done on Tetragonula carbonaria, the most commonly kept stingless bee species in Australia. I imagine though that most stingless bee species would be fairly similar, a hypothesis based on bee size and I am happy to be proven wrong about this. The research team did this by marking forager stingless bees and then releasing them at increasing distances away from their hive. Most of the bees returned home at distances less than 500 meters while only a few returned home at distances greater than 500 meters. This homing range is suggestive of the foraging range of the bees. It is important to remember that the upper end of this range at 500 meters would indicate their maximum foraging range and ordinarily foraging would occur much closer to the hive.
I have attached an image from Google Earth onto which I have marked the theoretical flight range of native stingless bees located at Northey Street City Farm in Brisbane (who keep both stingless bees and honey bees at this location).
How does flight range compare between stingless bees and honey bees?
It feels like it has always been known that honey bees forage much further from the hive than native stingless bees do. It may interest you to know just how much further though. Studies have been done where honey bee hives were moved further and further away from a single nectar source in a desolate environment and hive weight monitored. What these studies found was that right up until 6.4 kilometers from any food source these hives were still able to increase in weight over the summer. The same study showed that honey bees would actually fly much further than this in order to forage, though hive weight started to decrease beyond this point. Based on the findings it can safely be said that the sustainable foraging range of the honey bee is about 6400 meters, well over twelve times that of native stingless bees. To show just what a difference that is I have zoomed out using Google Earth at the same location shown above to show the forage range of the honey bees at Northey Street. As above the green circle represents the flight range of the native stingless bees while the yellow circle is that of the honey bees. An amazing difference and it certainly shows why hive placement is such a concern to the stingless beekeeper.
Eckert, J. E. 1933. The flight range of the honeybee. J. of Agricultural Research 47:257-285.
Smith, J., Heard, T., Beekman M., & Gloag, R (2016) Flight range of the Australian stingless bee Tetragonula carbonaria (Hymenoptera: Apidae). Austral Entomology. DOI: 10.1111/aen.12206