Many known health benefits of eating stingless bee honey regularly include anti-ageing, enhanced libido and immune system, fighting bacteria and treating bronchial catarrh, sore throat, coughs and colds.

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“I have seen the smoking gun with what is poisoning honeybees worldwide that has convinced me of the need to balance the pollinator portfolio with redundancy,” he said. Buchmann calls that smoking gun a class of synthetic insecticides used to treat seeds before they germinate. He contends the insecticide travels into plant tissues after the seeds sprout, gets into the pollen and nectar, and is picked up by honeybees when they visit the flowers.

“Different stingless bee species have been tested successfully in protected cultivation of tomatoes, green peppers, hot peppers, seedless watermelons, strawberries and melons,” he added. “Other crops can also benefit from their pollination services, it is only a matter of conducting more studies to determine which ones.”

So rearing your own honey bees is an option to obtain real honey. If you are afraid of being stung, then rear the stingless bees.

They have stingers but these are highly reduced and cannot be used for defence.

Instead, these bees collect dead meat, and also get their sugars from eat rotting fruits or dead flowers, or from extrafloral nectarines (nectar-secreting plant glands that develop outside of flowers and are not involved in pollination).

Just as a prudent financial investor needs a balanced stock portfolio in case one of the stocks starts underperforming, the world’s forests, fields, and farmers need a balanced pollinator portfolio in case a key pollinator becomes threatened or goes extinct.

For centuries honey is known to be the enemy of diseases. Stingless bee honey is called Mother Medicine and there are an increasing number of traditional practitioners and researchers suggesting its use.

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This is, in my view, one of the most interesting tribes of bees, due to some unusual habits and behaviours.

The size of a colony in a hollow tree can range from a few dozens to over 100,000. The bees store pollen and honey in large egg-shaped pots made of beeswax, mixed typically with various types of plant resin (sometimes called propolis).

The scale insects (Cryptostigma sp.) were found attached to the gallery walls, in the interior of the nest.  In return for ‘protection’ and ‘care’ from the bees, the scale insects offered  the bees not only honeydew (the sweet secretions), but also the additional wax the bees could use in their nest construction. The honey dew secretions are a subproduct of sap from the plant, on which the scale insects feed.

That honey bees and bumblebees may consume aphid secretions of honey dew during lean times (i.e. not much available nectar from flowers), is well known.

“When bees were pulled by the wings, large segments of the wing membrane would tear off or the wing would separate at the joint, such that the bee could no longer fly,” says Shackleton. “In this state, the bee can no longer return to the nest or function in any of its duties, and has functionally sacrificed itself.”

(3) Historical Biogeography of the Meliponini (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Apinae) of the Neotropical Region  João Maria Franco de Camargo† and Patricia Vit

Stingless bees belong to the tribe Meliponini and are mainly found in tropical countries.  Some of them have interesting and unusual behaviours, such as eating dead meat!  They are part of the Apidae family, along with honey bees, bumblebees, and carpenter bees.  

Biting behaviour may have evolved as an adaptation to the bees’ particular enemies.”Stinging causes greater pain, but venom is metabolically expensive to produce,” says Shackleton. While stinging is a great way to defend against larger vertebrate predators, the main threats to stingless bees are ants and other bees.

Many species had individuals that were willing to die, but the highest proportion was seen in the super-aggressive species Trigona hyalinata, where 83 per cent of individuals would keep biting until they suffered irreparable harm.

The researchers first brushed a biting bee with a paintbrush, causing no harm. They then stepped things up by gripping its wings with forceps. Lastly, they started to tug on the forceps, attempting to pull the bee away by its wings, and putting the bee in danger of losing them if it didn’t loosen its bite.

Until my visit to Kampung Senah Rayang in upper Padawan, about 90km from Kuching, I always regarded these stingless bees as worthless social insects.

The bees encouraged the scale insects to secrete honey dew by stimulating them. 

Stingless bees from Tetragonisca angustula are popular for beekeeping. (Photo: Demeter /Wikimedia Commons)

Do you know what are inside the boxes? Bees, yes bees. What’s really special about these bees is they are stingless – and known as Trigona or Kelulut in Malaysia. They belong to the family apidae.

Stingless Bee

The stingless bees Melipona beecheii and M. yucatanica are the only native bees cultured to any degree in Central America. They were extensively cultured by the Maya for honey, and regarded as sacred. These bees are endangered due to massive deforestation, altered agricultural practices (especially insecticides), and changing beekeeping practices with the arrival of the Africanized honey bee, which produces much greater honey crops.

Nowadays, many people are fond of honey and some have even bought fake honey. This is because technology today is so advanced that it can help formulate honey identical to the original product.

The other is that stingless bees are destined for increased use as pollinators in protected cultivation.  “I believe this kind of agriculture will grow a lot with the climate changes to come,” he said.

Stingless bees are closely related to their better-known cousins, the honeybees, which sacrifice their lives when they sting animals that pose a threat to the hive. When a honeybee deploys its sting, it self-amputates, causing lethal injury. Although stingless bees have lost this heroic ability, they still suffer predation and attack from animals ranging from anteaters to other bees – and have taken to biting instead.

Buchmann is one of a group of researchers in the U.S., Central and South America, Australia, Japan, and several countries in Europe who are studying stingless bees and trying to expand the historical pollination role of these bees into agriculture. While in ancient times stingless bees certainly helped to pollinate crops of civilizations such as the Mayans, the goal now is to explore their commercial agricultural potential to enhance global food production and distribution.

Stingless bee honey is twice as nutritious as ordinary honey, according to the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi).

The worldwide decline of the honeybee has occurred in part, Buchmann said, because honeybees tend to be sickly. “They don’t have a lot of genes for genetic repair.” Their susceptibility to diseases and other problems has led him to another conclusion.

Ratnieks was inspired to study aggression in stingless bees by a casual but painful encounter in 2012. “Trigona bees have painful bites and are very persistent,” says Ratnieks. “I allowed a worker to bite me for as long as it wanted to. It persisted in its biting for 30 minutes and left a large red mark on my arm.”

The honey from stingless bees has a lighter color and a higher water content, from 25% to 35%, compared to the honey from the genus Apis. This contributes to its less cloying taste but also causes it to spoil more easily. Thus, for marketing, this honey needs to be processed through desiccation or pasteurization. In its natural state, it should be kept under refrigeration.

He said the villagers had tried rearing these stingless bees on recommendation by Mardi. A two-day course on this venture was held at the village in May with 60 participants.

Below is a photograph of Trigona hypogea eating a dead lizard:

Assistant Minister in the Chief Minister’s Department (Entrepreneur Development) Datuk Naroden Majais said in May Malaysia spent RM26.7 million on imported honey in 2008 and this increased to RM40.8 million in 2011 and RM50 million last year.

He believes those who may not have heard about stingless bees will be hearing a lot more about them. That’s because he sees stingless bees playing an important role in two distinct fronts.

Johari said to attract armies of sterile workers, the queens which live in hollow trees found in the wild or near the village, had to be brought to the boxes.

“Biting is likely more effective against these more numerous foes where the objective is not to drive off a single enemy through pain, but fight off hundreds through killing them,” says Shackleton.

However, the stingless bees don’t whizz around so much, seemingly much more relaxed, and somehow will not make you feel as tense with their lack of sting during an encounter.