Stingless Bee FAQ
Introduction to stingless bees
Stingless bees are highly social insects, with one queen and thousands of workers who live together in a protected place, which, in nature, is usually in a hollow tree. Stingless bees inhabit the northern parts of Australia, although on the east coast they reach a bit further south than Sydney. They also occur in other tropical parts of the world. The Australian species are much smaller than European honey bees. They are generally black in colour. As their name suggests, they do not have a sting although they can give you a little bite with their jaws. Although there are hundreds of species of Australian native bees, the stingless bees are the only ones that make and store quantities of honey.
Where can you keep stingless bees in Australia?
Unfortunately, not all of the Australian continent is suitable for keeping stingless bees. These bees occur naturally in Australia’s warmer and wetter parts, and we recommend that species only be kept in their natural range. It is illegal to import stingless bee colonies into Western Australia, but you can establish hives using locally native stingless bee species (northern WA only). For more detailed information on where you can keep stingless bees, see our hives page.
The natural distribution of stingless bees in Australia. (Artwork: Anne Dollin)
How do I build my own hive?
For a set of plans for building your own hive, go to the Resources page.
What is the best position to keep my hive?
You should choose the best position for your hive before releasing your bees for the first time. Consider this carefully; you don’t want to have to move your hive more often than necessary, so it is best to get the location right first time.
Honey bees are said to benefit from facing into the north-east quadrant, but this is not important for stingless bees. However, you do need to choose a suitable microclimate. Think about whether you would be comfortable sitting in your chosen position 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Yes? Then the bees will probably be comfortable too. Remember that stingless bees do not need water, so there is no need to position the hive close to a water source.
On a house block, a covered outdoor area is usually a safe bet to position a hive. A position that receives morning sun in winter is optimal. Afternoon sun can cook a hive, so avoid exposed western positions. You can place the hive directly on the floor, but an elevated position helps the bees take flight. Also remember that you will enjoy observing them coming and going, so position the entrance so that you can see it easily.
If you place your bees on a verandah or patio, be aware that they may drop garbage pellets close to the hive entrance
How do I mount my hive?
The metal roof provided with your hive protects the hive from sun and rain. Attach the roof by flexing it open and releasing it onto the top of the hive so that it clamps on.
You need to protect the hive from threats from below, particularly termites and rot-inducing dampness. Raise the hive up a bit from the ground. This elevation will also help the bees to launch themselves into flight. For ideas for a solid and permanent way to mount a hive, see our Products page.
How many hives can I have on my property?
You can keep hives of stingless bees at moderately high densities particularly in suburban areas. Home gardens are particularly rich sources of food for bees because so many ornamental plants flower heavily and so offer abundant food for bees. Most suburban blocks will have spaces for at least four hives, maybe many more. Only when densities get very high, say around 50 hives on a hectare, will competition start to become limiting to colony growth. In areas which are poor for bees, then problems of starvation could arise at lower hive densities. Landscapes that are poor for bees include areas dominated by grass, monocultures of trees over large areas, pine plantations, etc. Another issue with high hive densities is that of fighting swarms which may become a greater problem when hives are closer.
Are stingless bees completely safe?
Stingless bees are entirely harmless. They have been used for years as an educational resource in kindergartens and schools. They do not have a sting, do not produce any venom, and are incapable of causing any serious allergies. They are commonly kept on verandahs in Australia in areas of high pedestrian traffic, without a single recorded problem to my knowledge. We have installed hives at many kindergartens in Brisbane and several schools in Qld and NSW. All are very happy with them and report that they provide a great educational resource for the children. If you have any doubts, email us for a list of kindergartens and schools we have dealt with, all of whom are happy to talk to you about their experience.
Can I move my hive, and where?
If you do need to move the hive, do so at night when the field bees are home. If you move it a short distance, the bees may leave the hive the next day and some may forget the new location and return to the old location and never re-unite with their hive. It’s best to move it incrementally if you can (less than 1 m each day). An alternative is to move the hive a distance of at least 1 km and leave it there for at least 3 weeks after which it can be moved again to the new permanent position. Remember that a healthy hive will produce about 300 new bees every day so don’t worry if a few get lost.
How can I transport my hive safely?
To transport a living hive, please observe the following:
- Pack the hive at night when the bees are all inside.
- Close all entrances to stop the bees leaving the hive. Use something that can breathe such as a piece of material, gauze or fly screen. Push the piece of material into the entrance loosely; do not pack it in. There may be more than one entrance so make sure that are all plugged.
- Place the hive into a cardboard carton, it should fit nicely into a wine carton. Ensure that the top of the hive remains up in the carton. Pack pieces of cardboard around the hive so it will not move in the carton. Tape the carton up well. Use a skewer to prick small holes into the box. This will allow the box to breathe but will not allow bees to escape if they find their way out of the hive.
- KEEP THE HIVE COOL. Turn down the AC in the car. Do not leave the hive in the car if you have to leave it in the sun. Take it with you and leave in a shady cool place.
- Treat the hive like you would a pet.
- It should be safe for a hive to travel for up to 5 days if it is carefully treated.
Do I need to register my hive of stingless bees?
There is no legal requirement to register hives of native bees in Australia. Although there is no legal protection of native bees (except of course in National parks and all other protected areas), I strongly discourage you from removing hives from the wild. Chopping down a tree to take the bees is even worse resulting in a loss of both tree and bees from their natural environment. However I encourage the rescue of colonies from trees that have been felled as part of legal land clearing or tree removal on private land. At least then the bees are saved.
Can I keep the colony in their log?
Yes, in fact, if the bees are living securely in a solid log, then I recommend that they be left there. The log provides a great home for the bees and an attractive feature for a garden.
But you need to protect their home. Keep it above the ground so termites are deterred from entering. Keep it dry to slow down the rotting process. Cover the open ends of the log to help the bees defend and insulate their nest.
You can lie the log horizontally or stand it vertically in its new location. You can also change its orientation from horizontal to vertical if necessary for transport or mounting, but do not do it often as it disrupts the rearing of the brood. Ants may cohabit with bees in the log. It may appear that they are living in the same space as the bees, but bees normally seal off their space so that ants cannot enter. So do not worry too much about ants; they may even help by deterring termites, which will eventually destroy the log.
When should I divide my hive?
Use the weight of your hive as your guide for readiness to divide. The box itself weighs 4.5 kg (if bought from Sugarbag bees). You can divide the hive when it reaches 3 kg of contents (which is mainly made up of stored honey and pollen, wax and resin building material and the immature and adult bees). So the total weight when it is ready to divide will be 7.5 kg. If the hive weighs 9kg or over, it will be close to completely full and you should be able to extract honey too.
We do not recommend that you remove honey at the same time as dividing. This places excessive stress on the hive. Instead wait at least a week and then collect the honey. Or you can extract honey and divide the hive at least one week later. If the original hive was full you should be able to extract honey from the original honey box (the top box). The hive resulting from the division that has the full bottom box will not fill its honey box with honey for some time, about one year under favourable conditions.
Do I need to divide my hive?
You do not need to split your hive. If it lives in a suitable habitat, it will put on weight and eventually fill the box. At this stage it may attempt to reproduce naturally by establishing a daughter colony in a new location. The mother colony will always remain in the original location. You will NOT see a swarm of bees leaving a hive as you do for honey bees. You may see some bees leaving the colony with materials on their pollen baskets. Otherwise the colony will appear normal. The only consequence of not dividing your hive is that you lose an opportunity to create a new colony.
Can I divide my hive myself?
With an understanding of some basic biology of stingless bees and a little practical knowhow, you can split your own bee hive at home quite simply. To find out all you need to know to perform a split, you can read the Splitting Stingless Bee Hives chapter in the Native Bee Book, or view our YouTube video series on splitting.
If you decide splitting is not for you, or if you don't feel confident enough to split your hive by yourself, we offer a split service where we come to you and split your hive for a fee.
After I divide my hive, how far should I separate the two?
After dividing a hive, one daughter hive should remain in the original position, but you need to find a new home for the new daughter hive. You can move one of the daughter hives far away (more than 1 km which is beyond the flight range of the bees) or you can leave it nearby (usually on the same property). Let’s treat these two cases:
If you move a daughter hive far away, the foraging bees from that hive will have to learn the new position. If the daughter hive is the original full top and a new empty bottom, then they also have to learn a new entrance which looks unfamiliar and does not continue into the familiar entrance tube that the bees build to defend their entrance. One strategy is to leave the original full top and a new empty bottom at the original location and move the original full bottom and the empty new top to the new location. The bees from the former half of the division then get an unfamiliar entrance but this is balanced by retaining the original position. Anyone who has moved a hive while bees are foraging will know just how loyal the returning foragers are to the original position. They will land and cluster very close to this position even though the hive itself is not there. The other half of the division, the original full bottom and the empty new top are taken to the new location. These bees have to learn the new location but they have the advantage of retaining the original entrance with all its familiarity. Another advantage of this strategy is that the half that you move is more stable for transport as the contents are in the bottom box. If you move the half with the contents in the top half, there may be a risk of slumping, which is very dangerous.
Often people wish to keep a daughter hive on the same property. There is no problem doing this. But how far away does it need to be moved? There are a variety of opinions about how to position the new daughter hive. The number of strategies that beekeepers use is almost equal to the number of beekeepers who you ask. Those strategies are largely about ensuring that the two hives each get a good number of forager bees. In my opinion, it does not matter very much where you put the new hive. Here’s my reasoning. The foraging bees that you see leaving the hive and returning with pollen, nectar and resin do not do any house duties. They are the oldest bees in the colony and they have graduated from house duties never to return to them. In fact only about 10% of the bees in a hive are foragers. The remaining 90% of the bees are house bees that are responsible for the duties of cleaning up after the split, sealing any gaps in the new hive walls, constructing the entrance tube, defending the entrance against attack by natural enemies, sealing up any broken pots, cleaning up any spilt honey as well as continuing the task of rearing brood. These are the jobs that urgently need to be done in the days after a division. As long as the hive has some stored food, it does not urgently need the foragers. If you move a daughter hive straight to another part of your property, regardless of how far away, most of the foragers will return to the original location. But for the above reason, it does not matter much. The hive in the new position may appear very quiet for a while, but do not fear, the house bees will not dessert it, they are busy inside. Over the next few weeks the new foraging bees that graduate to this duty after the hive has moved will bond to the new position and will start to bring back resources. So the most important decision about positioning is about a good micro-environment, not how far from the original hive.
I just received my new hive of bees from Sugarbag Bees. How do I unpack and release them?
Whether you pick your bees up from us, or we have them delivered to you, the hive will be packaged inside a cardboard carton. When you have an appropriate position prepared for them in your garden, take the hive out of the cardboard box and completely remove the plug from the entrance (note: all the plastic and cloth should be removed. When open, the entrance hole into the timber of the box should be full exposed). Also remove the plug from the smaller ventilation hole in the back. Bees should immediately emerge (if it is daylight and above 18°C). They will do an orientation flight to learn the new position. In this orientation flight they fly slowly backwards away from the hive, memorising the new position so they can get home after a flight. Within a day, you should see the first bees coming home with pollen on their hind legs, mission accomplished!
Do not open the wooden hive itself (our 12 month guarantee of your colony's survival will not apply if you have opened the wooden hive itself). Remember, your hive may have been recently split and transported so it may still be a little fragile. Also don’t remove the yellow plastic straps holding the hive sections together. Within a couple of months, the bees will have fully glued the parts together, but we recommend that you still leave the straps on for extra security.
Keep the area free of cobwebs, especially the area in front of the hive where most of the bee traffic will concentrate.
If you think that you need extra insulation against extreme cold or heat, such as experienced in Western suburbs of Sydney, you can use a polystyrene cover. However, I do not recommend that you permanently keep on such a cover. Although the cover can keep out the cold on a frosty night, it will not allow the hive to warm up again the next morning. Likewise, it can keep out extreme midday heat but does not let the hive's absorbed heat dissipate at night. If you are able to put the cover on at night when it's cold and off again the next day, then this would work well. Likewise cover the hive in the morning on a hot day and take it off at night.
Help! My bees are swarming/fighting/dying on the ground?
Stingless bees (at least the species in the group called Tetragonula) commonly swarm around the hive entrance and fight to the death on the ground below. We call them fighting swarms and they involve bees from the defending hive and another attacking colony. The attacking colony is attempting to take over the defending one by installing their own queen. Colonies do not die out as a result of fighting and in fact may be strengthened by it. It happens between nests of the same species and also between species, e.g. between carbonaria and hockingsi. Studies show that the genetics of the colony can change from the defending to the attacking after a fighting swarm.
There is not a lot you can do about it, except watch the spectacle. It may continue for a few weeks. Certainly let us know if the hive appears to have died out at the end of it, but we doubt this will happen.
Can I capturing a swarm?
Unfortunately there is not much chance of capturing a swarm of bees from an existing nearby hive into an empty box. I know of a few rare occasions where it has occurred for Austroplebeia species bees but perhaps never, or even more rarely, for Tetragonula species. It may only occur when there is swarming behaviour near the entrance of the existing hive. My experience is that empty boxes are not recognized or accepted even by a ‘blooded’ invading swarm. But if you happen to have a weak or recently dead hive, then you may be able to capture the swarm into this one and end up with a strong hive. Here’s how to do it. Remove the attacked hive to another site. Place the weak hive in this position where the attackers are focusing. The weak /dead hive has a lot of useful resource in the box, especially entrance tube, propolis structures and some stored pollen and honey. So instead of cleaning this box for re-use, put it in the place of the invaded hive. When I have tried this, I see lots of bees coming in and out of the box and sometimes they setup shop in there, install their queen and start rearing brood.
Can I remove a hive from a wall?
To find out how to bud off a colony of stingless bees from a wall or other location where demolition is not an option, then you can use the budding technique. This is explained in detail in The Australian Native Bee Book.
Coaxing a colony of stingless bees from a wall is almost impossible. As explained above, it is possible to bud off a hive from a colony in such a situation but the original nest will remain. To completely remove the colony, the only options are to remove part of the wall to gain access to the bees and transfer the whole nest into a hive box, spray them with insecticide, or learn to love them. You can probably guess which one of these options we recommend.
Are Cadaghi trees a problem for my bees?
The red objects around the entrance of the hive are seeds of the eucalypt known as cadaghi or Corymbia torelliana. They are brought back to the hive in December / January when fruit (gumnuts) of this tree are mature. The bees collect the resin secreted in the gumnuts and disperse the seed in the process. You can remove it if you wish but it does not have to be removed, the bees will model it to their satisfaction. This is just another fascinating aspect of the biology of these bees.
We do not believe that cadaghi is a serious threat to hives of stingless bees. Some have claimed this in the past but it does not seem to stand up to scrutiny. Giorgio Venturieri placed some cadagi hive structures in a container with adults of the stingless bee carbonaria. He placed it in a controlled temperature cabinet and slowly increased the temperature. At around 44 degrees Celsius, all the bees died but the resin was still firm and showing no sign of collapse. At higher temperatures the resin melted. Note that the bees died before the resin melted. Beekeepers who open a hive after it has died on a hot day observe dead bees and melted cadaghi resin. They attribute the death to the resin, but it appears the heat may be a primary reason the colony died and the resin melted later.
Are African Tulip trees a problem for my bees?
The nectar and pollen of the African Tulip tree (scientific name: Spathodea campanulata) do appear to be toxic to bees and other insects. It is possible to see native bees and various other flies etc dead inside the flowers on the ground. It is not just alcohol which is toxic to bees and can form when nectar ferments. There appears to be toxins in the nectar and pollen that can kill insects. But bees are not strongly attracted to this plant and it is uncommon to see many around the flowers. So it seems that there is little danger to the bees. The flowers are evolved to be pollinated by birds, the nectar is not toxic to them, toxicity to insects may have evolved because the dead insects may be attractive to birds as food and encourage their visits. The overall effect on hives appears to be minimal. These trees are common all over Queensland, particularly in suburbs where the bees do particularly well.
Do native stingless bees have natural enemies that attack hives?
Many different natural enemies attack stingless bee hives, often employing grotesque methods when they do. Curiously, stingless bees rarely suffer from diseases caused by microbes, but many insect pests can cause them grief. The most destructive pests are those that enter the nest and feed on the contents (e.g. hive syrphid fly, hive phorid fly, small hive beetle, native hive beetle, pollen mites). Other pests prey on foraging bees outside the hive (e.g. Bembix wasps, assassin bugs, spiders). Some are parasites that lay their eggs on the bees (e.g. the stingless bee braconid wasp).
The worst pests are those that enter the hive. Your colony is most susceptible after a hive manipulation (e.g. division, honey extraction). The process of colony transfer creates a particularly great danger. For pests that enter hives, the best defence is to prevent entry. Points of entry include gaps between hive sections, and the hive’s structural holes (entrance hole, etc). To reduce gaps, ensure you have a well-built box that has flat joining surfaces between the hive sections.
When opening boxes for division, honey extraction etc., clean any spilled honey from the surfaces and scrape the surfaces to remove any propolis or other material that may prevent the sections coming together tightly. Bees seal gaps as quickly as they can, so help them by ensuring these gaps are narrow. If you see wide gaps after closing the hive, then seal them with tape.
Recently transferred or divided hives are most susceptible to invasion by natural enemies. Of the two hives produced by splitting, the one with the original top half is particularly susceptible. This is because this half has a new bottom with an entrance that is unprotected. Eventually, the bees will build a tube internal to the entrance. This tube, approximately 150 mm long, is a key feature of nest defense. Guards line this gallery and fiercely repel any enemies attempting to enter. Without the tube, it’s easier for pests to sneak in. It takes the colony days or even weeks to build this tube. This may be too late for a hive if the intensity of pest attack is high.
In the event of the death of a hive, note that it is rarely clear whether hive death was actually caused by a natural enemy and, if so, which one did it. It is usually quite difficult to diagnose the cause of hive death. By the time a problem is recognised, various natural enemies may be present. Whether one or more of these enemies caused the demise or moved in afterwards is often ambiguous. But a good understanding of these enemies will help you to determine what may be attacking your hive and what you can do about it.
Are insecticides a danger to my hive?
Stingless bees are moderately susceptible to insecticides. It should be safe to have the inside of your house sprayed for pests as it is unlikely any drift will enter the hive. However, if you are having treatment for termites that involves heavy applications of insecticides around the house, then move the hive away for a few weeks.
Soft chemical insecticides are generally unlikely to be harmful to stingless bees. When considering chemicals to control pest insects, think about how likely it is the bees are to make contact with the chemical and how toxic is the chemical to bees. A fruit fly trap baited with insecticide is unlikely is harm the bees because the bees will not be attracted to it. Garden sprays may also be dangerous for the bees only if the spraying is done on a flowering plant that the bees are foraging on. If you suspect this is the case, move the hive away for a few days or close it and move it to a cool spot.
Hives placed in orchards in which chemical spray are applied have proved to be surprisingly resistant to these pesticides. Perhaps their very ancient trait of using plant resins as building materials has resulted in resistance. Plant resins are a cocktail of chemicals, some very toxic, but are used by the bees seemingly without any ill effect. Millions of years of sharing hives with these natural toxins may have given the bees resistance to artificial pesticides.
I think I have other native bees in my garden, what species are they?
Australia has a great diversity of native bee species. So far, scientists have formally identified over 1700 different species, and estimate that there are approximately another 300 awaiting discovery. The stingless bees (The Meloponine bees) make up just 11 of these estimated 2000 species. Some of the other commonly encountered Australian native bees include Blue Banded Bees, Teddy Bear Bees, Neon Cuckoo Bees, Carpenter Bees, masked bees, furrow bees and Leaf Cutter Bees. Most of our native bee species do not live in social colonies, they are instead solitary, with single females nesting on their own. There are a variety of different nesting strategies for these solitary bees, including species that nest in the soil, in small cavities left by beetles in dead wood, and in the pithy stems of certain plants.
What plants can I grow in my garden to provide forage for stingless bees?
Stingless bees fly for several hundred metres to feed on flowers so it is the neighbourhood that counts not just your garden. To contribute to the flowers available to your hive, you can grow plants with flowers that are attractive to bees. For ideas on plant species to grow, see the Valley Bees website page on planting and creating habitat to attract bees: http://mrccc.org.au/wp-content...
The Australian Native Bee Book
For more detailed discussion of all of these questions and many more, check out our new book - The Native Bee Book: Keeping Stingless Bee Hives for Pets, Pollination, and Sugarbag Honey, by Tim Heard. See here for sneak peeks, to purchase online and to find your local stockist.
If you do not wish to order online contact us for alternative ways to buy: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can pay by bank transfer and be sent a copy. Or you can collect your copy at Sugarbag Bees, 473 Montague Rd, West End. You can even send us a cheque with your address and we will send you a copy.
Price: $35. Postage in Australia $8.