In my earlier post on these bees I said how I hoped to get photos of the inside of a beehive in October, the month when Elke Haege, a Stingless Bee expert, resumes opening them up. Last Thursday I was lucky enough to see Elke service a hive at a home in Hurlstone Park.
The hive box was in a good position for getting sunshine until mid-morning. The box in this picture is actually the temporary placeholder, put there while Elke serviced the actual hive. You can just see some bees milling about in the sunlight above and behind the temporary box:
A hive box consists of two or three inner boxes inside a sturdy outer box, which may itself be in two parts. The first step is to remove the inner boxes – not always easy when the spaces between have been gummed up with the bees’ propolis (a mixture of plant resins and beeswax with the resins providing antiseptic properties). This is the view when the two inner boxes are separated:
The hive or nest’s most obvious structure is the flat spiral sheet of brood cells. The sheet starts in the lower box, and grows as the bees add new brood cells at the edge which in turn spirals into the upper box. In the above picture you can see that the connecting sheet of brood cells between the lower and upper boxes has been partially torn. Also visible around the sheet of cells in the lower box are the pollen stores (lower LH and upper RH corners) and the honey cells (upper LH and lower RH).
Here’s a close-up of part of the ripped sheet, showing the standard brood cells for worker bees and one much larger queen brood cell on the edge of the sheet.
The upper box holds the spiral structure of the brood-cell sheets as it grows upwards, and you can see the newer spiral layers in the centre. We didn't see the queen - she would have been near the advancing front of cells, out of sight from the central section.
Back in the lower section, you can see some leakage glistening on the big honey cells on the right hand side of the box, but most cells appear to be broken and empty.
Most stingless beekeepers keep their hives for conservation, pollination, or pleasure, with only a small percentage of beekeepers nominating collection of the sugarbag honey as a primary reason for owning a hive. Some owners never harvest the honey, especially in non-tropical climates where yields are lower. Just a small amount of honey was taken from this Hurlstone Park hive, and the actual harvesting was a decidedly low-tech process where the honey is poured off through a filter into a collecting jar, like this:
I tried a drop – warm, sweet, mild, quite runny, probably from a variety of flowers. Elke commented that some hive’s honey was more lemon flavoured, reflecting a different flower source.
The hive was in good shape and needed no further attention, so the different boxes were recombined and returned to their original position. However before returning them, Elke applied a liberal dose of wax to the outer box, to weather-proof it. Ironically, the wax she used was honeybees wax!
Before the boxes were recombined I had a couple of minutes to take a few more photos, particularly close-ups. This was the entrance to the temporary box. You can see that the entrance hole has been divided with a thick strand of black propolis, and a bee with full pollen baskets is about to fly through:
And this is a closer view of one of the hive’s pollen stores:
Elsewhere, a worker bee was moving one of its sisters - a pupa. At this stage in the life cycle, its external shape shows many of the body structures of the final imago.
As the pupa matures it develops darker structures, until it emerges as a “callow” adult in which only the thorax, legs and part of the head have yet to darken. The darkening happens over the next few days. I didn’t see any callow adults, but these two pupae show the trend. They are more advanced than the one being carried by the adult, as their eye structures are forming and visible as black discs:
Another thing I admired was the regular patterning of the brood cells, rather like an abstract artwork. This was one view:
Overall, I was struck by just how much complexity must be programmed into these amazing little (5 mm) bees. A worker bee emerging from the pupal phase must know immediately how to perform a range of tasks.
One such task is brood cell construction. After building a new brood cell with propolis, the worker has to provision it with food supplies for the hatching larva. For the food, it has to find the right quantities from the separate storage areas for honey and pollen, and mix enough of them with glandular secretions to fill about 2/3rds of the cell. Then when the queen has laid an egg on top, the worker must cap the cell to enclose the egg.
Propolis is itself not a simple product – it’s mixed from plant resins with the bees’ own wax in ratios that vary depending on the usage required. Brood cells are mostly wax, being softer for ready remodelling, while the propolis used at the nest entrance is higher in resin to give a harder finish and higher pest-repellent effects.
Removal of waste is another task, as is hive defence and the lining of areas with propolis. It’s only in the later stages of their lives that the workers leave the hive to forage for nectar and pollen, and resins for propolis. Foraging is another challenge – each bee needs to recognise food sources up to 500 metres from the hive, and when laden be able to find its way home. When you’re only 5 mm long, finding your way around a 5 metre crepe myrtle like the bee below is already quite a feat. Amazing little creatures indeed!
The Hurlstone Park bees were Tetragonula carbonaria, which is the only species of stingless bee that can live as far south as Sydney. The other commonly kept Australian species of stingless bee, Austroplebeia australis, is not found far south of the Queensland border. Although related, there are differences in their behaviour and nest structures. Apart from the dozen or so Austroplebeia and Tetragonula species in Australia, there are many other species in the world, almost all in the tropics.
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