HAVE you ever been soothed by the relaxing hum of busy honeybees as they hurry from flower to flower in the brilliant sunshine of early spring? Truly, they are beautiful insects. If only they didn’t sting!
You might be surprised to learn that there are bees that don’t sting. They are known as Australian stingless bees, and they can be found in many parts of eastern Australia. Stingless bees are little more than a sixth of an inch [4 mm] in length. They are black in color, with thick white hair on their faces and sides. Many of them have tiny yellow dots on the back edges of their middle body segments. At least ten species of stingless bees can be found along the coast from the far north of Queensland down to southern New South Wales. Some have also been found in the continent’s tropical Northern Territory.
Think of the benefits for those who extract honey from hives. One beekeeper says: “Whereas I will wear a bee veil and turtleneck sweater to work with [other bee species], I need nothing at all to protect myself from [stingless bees]. Five minutes after opening the box, the bees are still working as though I’m not there.”
The hives of stingless bees are quite different from those of other honeybees. In fact, they are often called nests. Instead of storing their honey and pollen in the usual hexagonal honeycomb arrangement, the stingless bees construct clusters of oval pots. The pots are sealed after they are filled, and then other pots are built on or around them.
Inside the Nest
Let us take a tour inside the nest, home to some 15,000 stingless bees. Be careful, though, for although these bees do not sting, they can nip you with their mandibles, or jaws.
Passing along the corridor of the nest, we encounter a world of activity. There is real teamwork among these bees. Each one knows exactly what to do and where it needs to be done. We see one tiny bee shaping and polishing a new honey pot, as if meticulously following a perfect blueprint. Four more bees are beside us, sealing a pot that has just been filled with honey. A huge three-dimensional trellis provides the framework into which the honey pots are built. This engineering masterpiece helps support the weight of the honey.
We now enter the next compartment and notice a bee that is much bigger than the others. This is the queen in all her splendor! How beautiful she is, dressed in her bright black and gold rings and surrounded by a crowd of other busy bees! Now the queen begins laying eggs in the 60 cells that have been prepared for her. How delicate and precise she is, reminding us of a mother putting her baby into a crib! Notice, too, how quickly the workers seal the cells behind her. In just a few minutes, the job is done.
When the Eggs Hatch
When the eggs hatch, each resultant tiny grub (or, larva) consumes the food that was placed in the cell prepared for it. After it outgrows the waxy cell, the larva spins a silken cocoon for itself. In this cocoon the grub becomes a bee (passing through a pupa stage). Later, it emerges from the cocoon and gets to work—that is, after it receives a little pampering from some nursing bees. What happens to the waxy cells? They are immediately collected, and the material is recycled. Once the bees emerge from their cocoons, the cocoons are no longer needed. If left there, they would only clutter the nest. So numerous cleaner bees dispose of these leftovers.
Many species of stingless bees produce a building material called cerumen. This is produced from wax from the bees’ own bodies combined with resins and wax that they collect from plants and trees. Cerumen is used to build a framework of pillars and beams and crossties, with all joints reinforced. As they form the honey and pollen pots in this framework, bees run around inside the pots, shaping and compressing the cerumen. Then the pots are filled and sealed for storage. Instinctively, the bees seem to know the seasonal value of plants and the hazards of seasonal weather. They seem well aware that the collection and preservation of food is a primary requisite for survival.
The bees leave the nest and forage for their building material as well as for nectar and pollen. Once outside the nest, the bee becomes a qualified pilot and navigator. The bee also knows just what to collect and where to find it.
Starting a New Home
As the colony grows, the nest becomes filled to capacity. What happens now? “We’ll have to build another house” seems to be the message sent out to the family. Occasionally, a single scout will investigate a cavity that may be a suitable nest location. Next comes the visit from the “engineers.” Usually from 30 to 50 of these experts will inspect the inside surface of the cavity for several hours, as though marking it out with lines and stakes. Then, having determined that the foundation is good, they return home, apparently to report. Next, usually within 48 hours, the actual “builders” arrive. There may be more than a thousand bees in the crew—but no queen. They quickly get to work, flying in building material and food from the mother nest.
In preparation for the arrival of the queen of this new nest, the brood nest must be constructed to maintain the right temperature—about 80 degrees Fahrenheit [28°C]. To achieve this, the worker bees surround the nest with a wall of cerumen, as if wrapping the nest in a blanket. It is as though these wise bees know that the eggs must be kept warm. Now everything is ready, and about the ninth day, the new queen, who has been developed in the mother nest, is brought in. Immediately, she begins laying the eggs that will produce more bees for her palace.
Gradually, the bees that moved in from the mother nest will die off and be replaced by new, younger bees from this new home. In time, the bees from this nest will find it necessary to build another house. And so another amazing cycle designed by a matchless Creator goes on!