Stingless Bees

What are Australian Stingless Bees?

Stingless native bee
Stingless bee (Tetragonula carbonaria).

Australia has eleven named species of social native stingless bees. All are quite small, roughly 4mm long and predominantly black with white or yellow patches in some species. Australia’s stingless bee species are all within the Tetragonula (was Trigona) or the Austroplebeia genus but similar species do exist across other genera outside Australia. They are the Australian equivalant of the honey bee and have a very similar social structure. They even produce a honey that in my opinion is superior to that of honey bees. Unlike honey bees, stingless bees do not sting but will bite if disturbed. These bites are barely noticeable though can become very bothersome when doing hive maintenance and you have several thousand bees up your nose, in your ears and generally on your case!

Native stingless bees in BBQ
Native stingless bees made a hive in my brothers BBQ

In nature stingless bees usually build their nest within the hollow of a tree but they are quite adaptable and can just as often be found within the weep holes of a brick wall, household water meters or even inside a barbeque stand (not kidding, this actually happened to my brother). Occasionally there is conflict between bees and people where a hive needs to moved for whatever reason, more often then not because the tree housing the bees is scheduled for felling. This is a tremendous shame and efforts should be made to save such hives by contacting a bee removal specialist.

Australian stingless bees, like the honey bee, make their own version of wax in which to store honey and pollen. Unlike the honeybee though, Australian stingless bees do not store their honey and pollen in an organised comb structure. Instead they have a network of round storage pots that surround the central brood spiral. It is design that works well within in the confines of a hollow tree but means that captive stingless bee hive design must differ to that of the typical honeybee hive. The wax too, differs from that of the honeybee and is technically called cerumen. It is in fact a mixture of wax and propolis, a resin that has been taken by the bees from plants.

Stingless bee keeping is an interesting hobby that is on the rise in Australia. Stingless bees can be kept for their honey, for conservation, or just because they make really interesting pets. Traditionally keepers were leaving their hives in the hollow log that they were collected in. Now days though boxed hives are common and stingless bee hive design is continually improving.

Stingless Bee Social Structure

Natural stingless bee hive entrance
Natural stingless bee hive entrance in a hollow tree.

As has already been mentioned, the social structure of native Australian stingless bees is very similar to that of the honey bee. There is a single mated queen that lays the eggs, female worker bees that carry out all the general hive business and male drones that do, well not much. Ok the drones are not entirely useless. Like honey bee drones they mate with the unmated queens in order to form new colonies.

There is a key difference between stingless bee and honey bee social structure though and it is one that is worth noting. Within a stingless bee nest there are often several unmated or virgin queens ready to replace the current queen or go off and start new hives. These virgin queens are seemingly tolorated by the mated queen, a very different situation to that found in the honey bee hive. These unmated queens are what make current stingless bee hive propogation or hive splitting techniques so successful.

Keeping Native Stingless Bees

It is no surprise to most that bees are important. Very important. Many people want to do their part to help bees and for many keeping a stingless beehive in the suburban back yard is their way of doing so. Stingless bees are important native pollinators and so by hosting a hive you are helping your local environment. Being stingless they are also the much safer option when compared to honey bees if you want bees but have pets or small children around.

If you live on the east coast of New South Wales or Queensland then you really should have a stingless bee hive in your backyard to pollinate your garden and provide you with a little native bee honey if you so desire.

Hive Placement

Successful stingless bee keeping is very dependent on proper hive placement. Perhaps the biggest difference between European honey bees and stingless bees (other than the sting) is their size. Stingless bees are tiny and have a correspondingly small flight range that must be considered when placing hives. Hives must be placed well within 500m of good foraging ground. Keep in mind what you and what your bees think is good tucker may differ!

In nature stingless bees live inside thick sided hollow logs and the insulation provided by these logs is very good. When we place a hive of stingless bees in a man made wooden (or otherwise) box it is hard to reproduce these insulative qualities while maintaining a manageable hive box design. For this reason keepers mut place boxes in locations where they are not likely to overheat or experience extreme cold. This is obviously even more important with hives that have thinner walls (such as the OATH) or those that lack any kind of lid or insulative cover.

Place your native stingless bee hive where it will not be exposed to direct sunlight after 10:00AM. Morning sun can be beneficial as it warms up the hive after a cold night, getting the bees working earlier. Afternoon sun must be avoided as in summer the intensity can be such that an unprotected hive can overheat. This very often results in the loss of the colony. In the ideal situation the hive would face northeast with protection/shade provided from above and from the west.

Hive Design

The optimal native Australian stingless bee hive design is quite different to that of the well known honey bee hive. Stingless bees need to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Insulation is key and the hive design must reflect this.

The Many Different Stingless Bee Hive Designs

OATH Stingless bee hive
OATH Stingless bee hive brought into common use by Tim Heard

No mention of stingless bee hive designs would be complete without the well known stingless bee hive standard, the OATH hive (Original Australian Trigona hive). This design was first brought into common use by Tim Heard. It is a simple hive designed in two halves that makes keeping stingless bees and their hive propagation or splitting very straight forward. When I first got into hive propagation in a serious way I was using these hives almost exclusively, though with a tropical lid.

I have provided a diagram with all required measurements. The OATH I have drawn here has a slight modification to that of Tim’s design in that the hive lid is a separate piece. I prefer this as it makes the possibility of future expansion with a honey super a very simple one. Note though that it is another weakness in the hive and so will need to be taped to keep pests at bay during a split, just as you would the mid box break.

There are many other designs and to go through them would be an article by itself. Just know that although the OATH is by far the most common, there is an increasing number of people having an impact on this space. How long will the OATH remain the standard?

Dealing With Heat

The Australian summer can be brutal on a stingless bee hive. The thin walls of a wooden hive can allow too much heat to build up inside the hive causing the structure to melt and slump, often destroying the hive. Excessive temperatures can also cause bees to overheat and hive death. One way of mitigating problems associated with summer heat is the tropical hive lid. The tropical lid has a false roof that keeps direct sun off and allows ventilation above the actual hive roof.

Another way to keep a hive cool in summer is to use thick walled hives or a Styrofoam cover. This slows the temperature rise of the hive on a hot day. Of course the blessing can also be a course once the hive is hot as it then takes a lot longer to cool down. Some keepers are also experimenting building their hives out of other low conduction hive materials in the quest for a cooler hive. Hive materials in an interesting area of innovation.

While measures such as Styrofoam and the tropical lid certainly improves internal hive temperatures, it is not a solution for bad hive placement. You must still place your hives in a suitable location if you want your bees to thrive. Stingless bee hives should not be placed in direct midday or afternoon sun in summer.

Honey Super

Now I know you all want to collect a little of your stingless bee honey and a honey super is the way to do that. Using a honey super ensures that you get more honey and less pollen/brood that can alter the taste of your honey when you extract. It also makes collecting honey much safer for the bees as stores and brood in the bottom two boxes are undisturbed. Reducing bee deaths should be a goal whenever stingless bee hives are manipulated.

Hive Propagation

Splitting a bee hive is the process of creating two daughter hives from the one mother hive. The method you use to split the hives is dependent largely on what type of hive you have.

Natural Hive Split

In nature Australian native stingless bees reproduce differently to the more widely known European honey bee. Stingless bees do not swarm in the way that honey bees are well known to. A strong colony of native bees will send scouts to find another hive location. Workers then seal the new hollow, set it up to house the new hive and stock it with resources.

Once the hive is ready a virgin queen will then fly across to the new site accompanied by many workers and drones. WIthin days a mating swarm will bee seen outside the new hive. The virgin queen will mate only once and stores this sperm for her entire life, up to 5 years! Interestingly these virgin queens are present at most times in native bee hives, again very different to honey bees!

Boxed Hive Split

The easiest way to split your hives is by doing a boxed hive split. This method is as simple as taking the top box and it’s half of the contents off an established hive and putting it on a fresh bottom box. You then replace the removed top box with a fresh top on the original hives bottom box. This effectively splits both stores and brood in half. Each half will then go on to become a new hive. The method is traditionally used with the OATH hive but can be done with any boxed hive that can be pulled apart (usually into two halves, top and bottom). It is a very successful method of hive propagation.

Soft Hive Split (Eduction)

Native bee soft split eduction
Native bee hive being soft split (educted) from a natural log hive.

Sometimes you will want to split a hive that is in a natural tree, log, brick wall or other inaccessible location. In these situations the best way forward is what is known as a soft split or hive eduction. This is the method when you want to preserve the original nest and also produce a new boxed hive.

We already know that bees undergo natural hive splits, they naturally propagate into their local area once or twice a year. We can use this tendency to our advantage by giving a very attractive proposition to the bees. This is in the form of a hive box through which the bees have to enter and exit their own original nest. Over time the bees will build structure, place stores and hopefully build brood in this new hive box. It doesn’t always work, but there are a few tricks that increase the odds of obtaining a successful split using the method which are as follows.

Honey and Wax

Stingless Bee Honey

Firstly, let us talk about the elephant in the room. You WILL NOT get a lot of honey from a stingless bee hive. From my very best stingless bee hives I have been able to harvest about 1kg in a calendar year. That is under perfect conditions and if I do not split the hive that year. Many of my honey bee hives produce over 100kg a year to put that into perspective. Ok now that we are being realistic let us talk about this very unique bush food.

The honey of Australia’s native stingless bees is quite different to that well recognized and delicious thick, golden honey produced by the European honey bee. Native stingless bee honey has been described by Tim Heard as reminiscent of lemon and eucalyptus in flavour and I certainly agree with him here. It is runnier than normal honey and stronger in flavour.

Others have compared it to a mixture of European honey bee honey and mellow port. I have have to say I can also see some merit in that description. Taste is such a personal thing and it almost feels wrong for me to tell you what it should taste like, you just have to get out there and taste some! I will say this though, once have have had a teaspoon of native bee honey drizzled over some ice cream or waffles you will have a hard time eating them any other way.

In terms of where to buy native bee honey I have both some bad news and some good news for you. The bad news is that anybody who is propagating their hives is unlikely to rob their bees of the stores needed to do so. The good news though is that once you have your own hive in the right type of box, you can easily harvest some honey for yourself.

Stingless Bee Wax

Stingless bee wax is actually not pure wax like you might find in freshly drawn honey bee comb. It is in fact a mixture of the native bee’s wax and propolis and is called cerumen. The wax portion of the cerumen is produced by glands on the bee’s body and is a yellowish soft material while the propolis portion is produced by plants and is a dark sticky resin that hardens with age. Bees collect the propolis from plants and then take this back to the nest where they mix it with the wax before using it to make their nest.

Stingless Bee Species

There are currently ten named species of native Australian stingless bees. Taxonomy is a fluid science and the number of described stingless bees will change over time. Of the ten species, only Tetragonula carbonaria, T. hockingsi and Austroplebeia australis are readily available by Australian stingless bee suppliers. If suggest starting with T. carbonaria if south of Brisbane for their hardiness and vigour. If you are north of Brisbane either T. carbonaria or T. hockingsi would be a good starting point. Austroplebeia bees in general have smaller colonies and are less resilient than the Tetragonula bees.

Pests and Diseases

Stingless bees are relatively pest free. The well known hive beetle that is a pest for honey bees has never been an issue for me with stingless bees. In fact studies have shown that when a hive beetle does manage to get past the stingless bee hive guards it will then be entombed in cerumen by the workers, forever becoming a part of the hives structure. In saying this there are still a few pests and one disease to keep an eye out for.

Cadaghi Tree

Stingless bee and Cadaghi seed
Stingless bee and Cadaghi seed
ered a weed outside the tree’s natural range. The Cadaghi is a large tree with rough bark on the lower part and smooth greyish-green bark on the upper part of the trunk. The leaves are relatively large, broad, and hairy (unlike most other eucalypts). The leaves are commonly affected by a sooty mould which produces black sooty deposits on the leaf blades.

The Cadaghi tree makes an excellent forage tree during flowering and bees collect copious amounts of nectar from white flowers borne in large clusters at the tips of the branches. The tree has a dark side though as once pollinated, the seedpods begin to develop before opening in early January. Native bees visit the opened seedpods to collect the resin that exudes from the seeds and this is where the problems begin. Cadaghi trees have evolved to use native bees as a vector to disperse their seeds. The seeds get stuck to the foraging bees and travel with the back to the nest. The tree of course benefits if the bee doesn’t make it or drops the seed but all too often the bee arrives at the nest with seed in tow.

The main problem I have seen with this is that the seeds clog up the hive. The bees collect so many of the seeds that they take up valuable hive space and can even narrow or completely block the hive entrance to the hive. Other native beekeepers also report that hive collapse becomes an issue in warm weather due to the lower melting point of the cadaghi tree’s resin. I must admit I have not experienced this second issue myself and experiments suggest that the hive would die from overheating before the resin melting became an issue.

Predators

Crab spider eating native stingless bee
Crab spider eating native stingless bee

One of the pests that I am completely ok with in the patch are the natural predators. You will always lose some bees to predators around the garden but those same predators are also taking care of other garden pests. On balance they are worth the expense! My one exception is when a web building spider builds their web directly in front of a hive entrance. That is just being greedy! The few times this has happened I have simply relocated the spider to another part of the garden.

Syrphid and Phorid Fly Pests

Syrphid Fly
Syrphid Fly outside a destroyed honey beehive.

Both Syrphid and Phorid flies will happily lay their eggs in the pollen and honey stores of a hive. The larvae of both can really make a mess and destroy a weak hive given the chance. The best defence is to keep your hives strong and to not split hives until strong enough to easily survive the process. When a hive is strong the guard bees will easily fight of these imposters, negating any issues. It is good practice to tape up any gaps (between boxes etc) after splitting or boxing a hive to avoid the problems that these pests can bring.

Shanks Disease

Shanks disease is brand new to the native bee scene. Named after its discoverer, Jenny Shanks, there is currently very little known about the disease. So far it is clear that the disease is caused by a bacteria (a strain of Lysinibacillus sphaericus) and that it has the ability to weaken hives. The first sign is often worker bees dragging discoloured (grey/brown) larvae and pupae from the hive entrance. If you suspect the disease contact the Brisbane Native Beekeepers Club for advice Watch this space for more information as it comes to light.

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