Stingless Bees at a Honduran Coffee Farm

Posted by Robert Rice on January 31, 2012

At a small farmer’s holding in western Honduras, this box (one of several kept by the farmer) is home to a colony of stingless bees native to the area. As the conversation running in the background states, it’s not everyone who can attract and keep these bees. The very light-in-color, almost clear honey produced by these bees derives from a variety of local native and introduced plants, including many that comprise the shade cover for a diverse shade coffee system. In Honduras, the honey is called “chumelo” honey and is prized for its supposed medicinal properties.

These stingless bees belong to the same family (Apidae) as bumble bees and honeybees, and are classified as being in the Meliponid tribe. This species, Tetragonisca angustula, is interesting for a couple of reasons. Unlike other similar species, the entrance to the hive (usually a wax tube, as seen in the video) is guarded by individuals that sit at the entry tube itself, as well as by others that hover nearby. Such guarding is necessary for other species that might invade the hive and rob it of brood provisions, honey and/or wax. It’s an excellent example of “cleptobiology” in action.

The hovering guards meet other bees that fly toward the entrance and accompany them for the last 10 cm or so of their flight. If those arriving belong to the hive, they are allowed to enter. If, on the other hand, they are determined to be invaders like the robber bees, then some of the stingless bees guarding the entrance go into action. And this is the second interesting aspect of this species—the presence of “soldier” bees.

Ants and termites have been known to have such dutiful categories of individuals, but these bees present the first known instance of “soldier bees”. Even though they are unable to sting the invader, these soldier bees use their mandibles to bite down on the invaders’ wings, incapacitating their ability to fly and hence foiling the robber bees’ invasion of the hive.

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