Sunday 7 December 2014

Stingless Bee

Image: Bibafu
What happens when a hard-working, busy, busy bee with a hive full of honey doesn't have a sting? Surely it's certain death and constant disaster! Gluttonous bears and nonchalant bee keepers!

And what of the unquenchable appetite of that dread beast, Winnie the Pooh?

Image: James Niland
You know what? It turns out Stingless Bees get by just fine! There are a good 500 or so species of them across the tropical and subtropical world, all belonging to a group called Meliponini. This name comes from meli, which means "honey" (and also gave us the word mildew, which is pretty much the opposite of honey) and, as far as I can tell, poneo, which means "hard work" or "toil".

They work hard for the honey.

Image: Alberto Rossettini
So far they sound a lot like good, old fashioned honey bees. And it doesn't stop there, either.

Stingless Bees are eusocial, which means they live together in large families/slave camps where a whole bunch of bees do all the work so that the queen can sit around laying eggs. Those eggs will of course hatch into yet more mouths to feed, which is fine because they'll also grow up into yet more workers who can go out and gather yet more food. It's the treadmill of life.

Their colonies can number anywhere from a few hundred to several tens of thousands of bees, depending on species. Usually there will only be one queen, but in some species there can often be closer to five! Eugh, that's a lot of work for a lot of bees.

Video: Diego Frangi

Stingless Bees build their nests in tree hollows or rock crevices. Like the more well-known honey bees, they construct an array of pots out of beeswax which they secrete from special glands and resin collected from trees. These pots house the most important things in their bee lives: eggs, larvae, pollen and in some species, honey.

It's a TREASURE TROVE! Winnie the Pooh would love the honey but creatures with a healthier, more balanced diet will find a full meal of meaty protein from all those delicious babies, sugars and yet more protein from the pollen, and a delicious drizzling of honey to help it down. Mmmm mmm! Babies!

Image: Bernard DUPONT
But surely this is a disaster waiting to happen? A palace of yummy yum yums "defended" by bees that can't sting? What are they thinking?

Well, it turns out a bee without a sting is not nearly as defenceless as one might suppose. In fact, they have a whole arsenal at their disposal!

Image: Francis Ratnieks
Suicidal Bites Unending

One thing Stingless Bees retain is their trusty mandibles. They bite. And the most aggressive ones don't really stop once they've started.

One group of scientists wanted to check out just how bitey they could get. They started by waving little flags outside the bees nests to provoke them into attacking. The bees did so in their thousands, flying out of the nest and biting the hell out of those flags. Of the 12 species tested three in the genus Trigona were the most aggressive. One particular individual continued biting for over an hour!

The scientists didn't stop there, though. They went all evil to test how many of the attacking bees would be willing to die for the hive. They used forceps to grip their wings and then pulled. If the bee didn't stop biting, the wing would be ripped right off and they would never fly again, which would certainly lead to their eventual death. In one particular species called Trigona hyalinata, 83% of the bees tested were willing to continue biting as their wings were ripped away.

I hope they got a medal or something.

Burning Bites of Acid Wrath

Some Stingless Bees in the genus Oxytrigona don't merely bite, they also have glands in their mandibles that secrete formic acid. This stuff is usually found in stinging ants but this bee has managed to pack some venom into its face! It makes their bites all the more painful and blistering and horrible in general.

Video: Hendra Ja

Walls of Adherent Ceasing

Remember how they collect resin from trees to build the nest? Well, the stuff is sticky. Stingless Bees can deposit blobs of the stuff around the mouth of their nest. It dissuades ants from coming too close and if they're not sufficiently repelled, they can become stuck there.

I guess they'll die if it's really bad but the very least it's quite embarrassing.

Video: Will Holz

The Glorp

OK, so maybe there's only like one guy who calls it the glorp attack, but he's a Dear Reader of Real Monstrosities so he's, you know, better than most people.

Here, that same sticky resin is used less as a passive defence of the nest and more as an active weapon of attack. The bees take the resin into their mouth and manually place it onto an ant's legs. The ant staggers away if it can, with a big, sticky blob stuck to its spindly leg. Or else it could get its legs stcuk together. Or maybe it'll get stuck to the floor! None of these possibilities are good for the ant.

Image: James D. Ellis
Small Hive Beetle
The Walling

Perhaps the worst of them all. This has been observed to be the fate of a pest called the Small Hive Beetle from sub-Saharan Africa. Adult beetles enter bee hives to lay their eggs. When they hatch, the larvae feed on stored pollen and honey. They don't do it tidily, either. They chew their way through the nest and what they don't eat is often spoiled by their faeces. Bad infestations can lead to the bees abandoning the whole nest, so it's clearly unfortunate to find that the Small Hive Beetle has spread to America and Australia.

Stingless Bees have an effective defence. They can eat the eggs. They can drag the larvae out and throw them to the floor. They can bite the adults and eject. But there is always the option of the glorp.

One Australian scientist decided to investigate how the native bees might deal with this newly introduced beetle. She found they would often use that sticky resin in their attacks. There's a problem for the beetle: she's inside the nest, hoping to lay her eggs, so the bees simply won't stop until the intruder is completely immobilised and no longer a threat.

Image: Esperanza Proxima
Keep out. Seriously
The result is that the bees continue piling on the resin until the Small Hive Beetle becomes cemented into the nest itself. The scientist observed that after 24 hours the beetles were typically still alive, though they were essentially a kind of horrible, living wall ornament.

After 60 hours all the beetles were dead and some were decapitated. They cut off their heads. Did the queen say "off with their heads"? Did one of those aggressively bitey bees get all bitey? Or was it... The Tell-tale Heart?

This really is one of those times when it's sweet to be significantly larger than an insect. These guys are SICK. You hear about a bee that can't sting and you imagine it's like a tiny teddy bear that wants to be your friend. But instead it wants to bite your arm off, spit poison in the wound and then hide you in the space inside the kitchen wall so it can listen to you die over lunch.


So it's pretty clear that Stingless Bees are not without defences. At all! But some take their powers to the dark side.

Image: Chantal Wagner Kornin
You see, there are many Stingless Bees who really are a lot like honey bees. The queen lays an egg in a pot filled with pollen. The egg hatches, the larva eats the pollen and eventually grows up into a worker. Unless the pot is especially large and filled with extra pollen, then it'll be a queen. In some species the eggs that grow into male drones are laid by workers, since males hatch from unfertilised eggs.

Young workers work in the hive and only begin foraging outside when they're a little older. Now they visit flowers, drink nectar, collect pollen in their hairy legs and pollinate flowers. Then they round off their career with guard duty and die. No retirement plans here.

At some point a whole bunch of budding queens (princesses, I suppose) leave the nest and mate with a drone in flight. Workers from her old nest will help her build a new one and some will move in to tend her young until a whole new hive is born.

Image: James Niland
Good stuff! Work ethic and all that, yes?

But there are some Stingless Bees who don't really bother with all this "sweat of your brow" stuff. Some, like the Robber Bees of the genus Lestrimelitta indulge in what's known as cleptobiosis. Basically, they're marauders and thieves.

They live in nests, they just don't build them. They prefer to take them over from other species. They eat nectar and pollen, they just don't collect it for themselves. They break into the nests of others and plunder it. And they do all this to other Stingless Bees. Or at least they try to. Stingless Bees are not without their defences, after all.

As you can imagine, it's complete war! And incredibly bitey. The Robbers try to overpower their smaller, daintier victims, but it's a bitter fight. Scientists have even discovered soldier bees in one species. We've all seen soldiers in ants and termites, they with the big heads and extra-powerful jaws, but here is a caste of bee that's extra large and has extra long legs for defending the nest from marauders.

And so, in the end, it turns out a Stingless Bee's worst enemy is another Stingless Bee!


Massive thanks to Will for suggesting this one and helping out and... glorp!


TexWisGirl said...

'they work hard for the honey'... cracked me up!

poor bees tortured for science!

Lear's Fool said...

If I can't turn Jumping Spiders into Kitten Spiders I can have the Glorp attack!

Excellent article! An instant classic. And I'd say that even without the obvious bias.

Porakiya said...

never mess with a be, even one without a stinger.

Crunchy said...

I think referring to a bee that bites viciously as the "stingless bee" is a little misleading. Makes the little buggers sound harmless, but poke that nest and suddenly it's all, "they're defending themselves somehow!"

elfinelvin said...

Fascinating! I'd never heard of stingless bees before. They have some excellent defenses, but the Glorp is decidedly the most hideous. Pass my thanks on to Will. The Poe was quite good, but next time you do a walling you might want to use "The Cask of Amontilla."

Porakiya said...

@elfinelvin: I remember reading that during my first year of high school!

Joseph JG said...

@TexWisGirl: I guess they work hard for science, too!

@Lear's Fool: Glad you liked it! Hopefully "Glorp attack" will go from strength to strength, it's certainly descriptive!

@Porakiya Draekojin: That's the takeaway message!

@Crunchy: I know! Maybe they should be called "stingless but still hurt you bees"

@elfinelvin: Oooo, I'll check that one out!