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A peek inside a stingless beehive…

June 8, 2013 | Natural Beekeeping | 20 comments | Author:

1306 Inside singless hive - 03

‘Sugarbag bees’ are the common name for Australia’s native and social stingless bees, which home themselves in hollow logs and produce these amazing hexagonal spiral combs to rear their baby bees in.

These stingless bees can also be kept in boxes in your front yard in some parts of Australia; they pollinate many different flowers, are fascinating to watch and even sometimes produce enough honey for you to have a taste…

Brood comb to left, sugarbag to the right - photo by Costa Georgiadis
Brood comb to left, sugarbag to the right – photo by Costa Georgiadis

Inside the hive, there’s two main aspects of how the colony is set up – there’s the central spiral comb where the brood is housed, and the surrounding ‘sugarbag’ which is a complex arrangement of conjoined small resin pots, that the bees manufacture to hold their stores of honey and pollen.

Tim Heard and friend inspecting a Tetragonula hive
Tim Heard and friend inspecting a Tetragonula hive

Australia’s social stingless bees just got re-named recently, but I doubt this ancient and exquisite species noticed much. What was Trigona, is now Tetragonula. The bees remain the same.

Australia has over 1,500 species of native bee, but most of them are solitary, meaning they don’t live in a colony with others. Tetragonula are the main exception to this, and create hives in hollow branches to house their young.

Up until the 1980s, Tetragonula was just another insect/bee thing to most Australians, until it became apparent that they were crucial for ensuring good pollination rates for some crops. And like many of our native species,  the clearing of older trees with hollows in them was affecting their numbers.

It was around this time that Tim Heard, an entomologist with the CSIRO, started figuring out a hive box model that these bees could live happily in, which was easily transportable, and most importantly could be ‘split’ to increase hive numbers.

These days Tetragonula box hives are used widely for crop pollination purposes. They’re also used widely by regular gardeners who install just the one box to increase garden pollination, and aid general garden diversity.

Spiral brood comb surrounded by sugarbag
Spiral brood comb surrounded by sugarbag
Sugarbag hive with sugarbag layer on left and brood box on the right
Sugarbag hive with sugarbag layer on left and brood box on the right

Depending on where in Australia you are, you can sometimes harvest some of the sugarbag from the top part of the hive by pricking holes in the honeypots and standing the box over a tray to drain out the honey within.

Tetragonula’s range extends down past Sydney on the east coast, but you’d be lucky to get anything like a ‘honey harvest’ below Brisbane. This is because (a bit like european honeybees) in most climates the colony needs significant honey and pollen stores to see out the winter, when its too cold for them to forage.

So you might be in for a taste, but not a jar of this particular honey come hive checking or splitting time . Which doesn’t make these bees any less wonderful, just different.

Tim Heard's Stingless Beehive design
Tim Heard’s Stingless Beehive design
An article from 1984 in the 'Gatton Star' about Tim Heard's new box hive design
An article from 1984 in the ‘Gatton Star’ about Tim Heard’s hive design – click to enlarge and read
Tetragonula on a grevillia flower alongside Apis Mellifera, the Italian Honeybee
Tetragonula on a grevillia flower alongside Apis Mellifera (European Honeybee)

To tell you the truth, I just really like the idea that, sitting in the garden out front of the community center where we run our Sydney courses, there is a small box containing thousands of amazing creatures who live together in a spiral comb, surrounded by honey. And who fly out each day to pollinate and gather in the garden and beyond.

How good is that? Who wouldn’t want that in their garden?

For those of us on the west of the great divide, though, it’s not an option. Tetragonula have their natural range, and it don’t extend to Mudgee! It’s too cold. Oh well. We can grow great stoned fruit without masses of fruit fly. There’s upsides to everything.

But back to Tetragonula – we’re pleased to be hosting Dr Tim Heard (yes, the same guy who pioneered the hive design) for occasional Stingless Beekeeping courses in Sydney

We’re running these in order to facilitate a super expert who also happens to be a lovely guy to teach us all the details of stingless bees and their beekeeping, as well as the history and wider story of stingless bees in Australia.

I’m looking forward to learning lots more about these little quiet achievers, their rather incredible hives, and how they fit into our ecosystems to ensure diversity and abundance.

Some resources to get you thinking:

>> More posts on Natural Beekeeping

Stingless beehive in a cart at the Tending garden in Rozelle, Sydney
Stingless beehive in a cart at the Tending garden in Rozelle, Sydney


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