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A treat that has been enjoyed for tens of thousands of years by Australian Aboriginals, involved finding a nest of native bees in a hollowed out tree branch, and tasting their delicious honey. But, the Aboriginals never got stung robbing the hive. These bees don’t sting.
Almost all honey available commercially in Australia and worldwide comes from hives in apiaries of what we commonly call the honey bee. The most common species has the technical name of Apis Mellifera. There are other species kept, but generally they are all in the Apis genus. These bees originated in Europe and Asia. They did not exist in the new world, the Americas, and Australia etc., until they were taken there.
The native Australian bees whose honey was enjoyed by the indigenous population before European settlement in Australia have some similarities with their honey bee relatives, but also very many differences.
Let's explore some information about bees.
Bees first appeared about one hundred and twenty million years ago when one species of wasps started feeding its young pollen from plants instead of insects. These bees further evolved into many species, and forged a very beneficial relationship with flowering trees and other plants.
In Australia we have around 2,000 bee species, but worldwide there is about 25,000 species. That is more than all the species of birds and mammals combined. What all of these species of bees have in common is that they all collect nectar and pollen to feed their young, and themselves, of course. This is also beneficial for fertilisation and propagation of plants. So, it is not just the honey bee that has a symbiotic relationship with flowering plants.
However, although all bees collect nectar from plants, not many species produce honey that can be harvested. That is because most bees live as solitary insects. There is only a relatively small number of species that have developed the complex social behaviour that we see in honey bees, and also ant populations.
We could write reams on the 25,000 species of bees worldwide, but, we will narrow it down to the 2,000 Australian species. Of those 2,000 species, there are only eleven species that we know are highly social and live in colonies. And, these eleven species all fall into two only genera, Tetragonula and Austroplebia.
The Australian native bees that do not live in colonies, live as solitary individuals, or in very small groups. These bees vary tremendously in size, looks, habits, and in other attributes. And, unlike their social, stingless cousins, most of these bees, like honey bees, can sting.
But, the title of this paper is, “Deliious Honey—From Stingless Bees.” So, we will concentrate on these gentle little guys.
Yes, gentle they are, and little they are also. All bees in the genera of Tetragonula and Austroplebia measure only three to four millimetres for both the workers and the drones in the colonies. The Queen bee in colonies is larger. The division of labour is similar to that of honey bees. The main job of the Queen is to lay eggs, the sole job of the drone is to mate with a virgin Queen, and the workers are the busy little females doing household work in the hive. Towards the last few weeks of their life, flying out to collect nectar, pollen, and resin. The resin is used to make propolis. Propolis is the building material for the cells in the hive for larvae, and for the storage of honey and pollen. It is a mixture of wax produced by the bees and plant resins. Honey bees of course make all of their cells out of pure wax.
Unless you have been made aware of these little native bees, you could easily mistake them for other insects such as small flies. They are mostly black in colour, and as I have already said, measure only a couple of millimetres. They are only about one twelfth of the weight of a honey bee.
Being so small, they can not range anywhere near as far from their hive as honey bees can. Their range is only about 500 metres, whereas honey bees can range more than five kilometres.
The honey they produce is very different from honey bee honey. It is delicious with a slight eucalyptus flavour, or even a citrus taste. Some have described it as tasting like a good port. Native bee honey, which is sometimes also called sugar-bag, is less viscous than honey bee honey. Honey bees have strong wings to fan the nectar in the hives to help dehydrate it. Native bees help process their honey by eating it and regurgitating it several times. Being more runny than regular honey, it does tend to ferment if stored for too long.
Australian native stingless bees like a tropical or sub-tropical climate, and occur naturally in the northern and north-eastern parts of Australia. In recent years an increasing number of hives are being kept. The main species being kept in man-made hives are: Austroplebia australis, Tetragonula hockingsii, and Tetragonula carbonaria.
There are important reasons for the interest in keeping and propagating our native bees.
- There has been a serious decline in the number of honey bees in some parts of the world. There has, for example, been a 60 percent decline in honey bee hives in the USA since the 1940s. The introduction of the varroa mite and Colony Collapse Disorder, have been major contributors to this decline.
- Habitat loss and pesticide use has had an adverse affect on both wild honey bees and native bees in Australia. Native bees can be safely kept in suburbia, There is plenty of nectar and pollen for them to do well, they don’t sting, and their hives are relatively small. 280mmx200mm for the length and width, and about 250mm for the height.
- Native bees seem resistant to many of the problems affecting honey bees.
- They can be kept as interesting pets for hobbyists. Hives can even be kept safely in places such as childcare centres for the children to observe bee behaviour.
- Studies have shown that some crops propagate better with hives of native bees than with hives of honey bees
The keeping of native bees in Australia is in its infancy from a commercial point of view, but there is increasing interest amongst hobbyists. A single healthy hive of Tetragonula or Austroplebia will provide around 700 grams to one kilogram of harvested honey in a year. A regular hive of honey bees can produce 60 to 70 kgs of honey in a year. Native bee honey would therefore have to be sold at excess of $250 per kilogram to make it commercially viable.
In 2019 the Australian Native Bee Association (ANBA) was formed for those with an interest in Australian native bees. Its website is here.
Native bees will often try to make their home in places such as water meter boxes, pots in the garden, behind concrete walls, compost heaps, and of course hollowed trunks of trees. If you live in a part of Australia and you come across a hive of native bees in a place they should not be, please do not destroy them. Even if is a branch of a tree that has blown down in the wind, they will not live for long without being attended to.
Feel free to contact me, Ian McKenzie, on +61 403 543 827. If they are in Brisbane or somewhere close, I’ll probably come and rescue them myself. If not, I will certainly contact someone else who will be able to do it. There will not be a charge.
Native bees living in colonies also live in other parts of the world. The same rule applies as with Australian native bees. Please find someone locally who will be able to rescue the colony.