Why These Stingless Bees Build Spiral Hives

Colloquially called "sugarbag bees" in Australia, this stingless species forms complex, spiral hives.

Watch How Australian Stingless Bees Make Their Hives

Think about that bear-shape bottle of sweet, golden liquid you probably have sitting in your cupboard at home. It's filled with honey, a sticky, thick substance that you might use as a sweet addition to your tea or toast. Ultimately made out of nectar from flowering plants, bees produce and store honey to use as sustenance when other food is scarce.

But how does honey get from pollinators to your pantry? The answer is simple: Beehives.

Beehives are constructed differently, depending on the species that's building them. At Sugarbag Bees in Australia, entomologist Tim Heard keeps more than 400 hives. One species he rears, Tetragonula carbonaria, forms unique hives that form upward spirals.

Puny Pollinators

Stingless bees are closely related to common honeybees, carpenter bees, orchid bees, and bumblebees. They have strict hierarchies like any other apian species, but stingless bee castes are determined by how much pollen an individual consumes. (Related: "What Happens If the Honeybees Disappear?")

The insects are highly social, with a ratio of one queen to thousands of worker bees. The species referenced in this video, Tetragonula carbonaria—called "sugarbag bees" in Australia—can be found in tropical habitats along the northern and eastern parts of the country.

In general, Australian stingless bees are black with white fur on their faces and sides, and they measure a miniscule fraction of an inch. (Less than one-sixth of an inch, to be precise.) Some beekeepers maintain colonies to harvest small amounts of honey, as a single hive can make fewer than four cups each year.

Hive Time

Stingless bees naturally nest in hollow trunks, tree branches, and rock crevices; if available, they'll go for manmade cavities. Commercial honey producers keep common honeybees in boxes layered with removeable screens, but stingless honeybees have a different way of architecting their hives.

"The foundation of the hive is the first step," says Claus Rasmussen, a bee expert and an assistant professor of biology at Denmark's Aarhus University.

Stingless bees store pollen and honey in honeycomb cells, which they make by chewing wax and bonding it into egg-shape pots. Some species clump small, grape-like cells together, while others arrange them in horizontal lines. The carbonaria species, however, builds its hive in a clockwise spiral, regardless of the shape of the box it's kept in.

Carbonaria bee hives are broad, flat, spiral constructions that gradually ascend. In these complex hives, individual cells must be built at different heights in order to keep the structure going.

"What we're looking at is the advancing front of a stingless bee colony," Heard says. "In the middle of the spiral, you have to construct cells that move with the change."

Enterprise: The Bee Journey

A colony of bees will synchronously build and provision cells in batches of 80. Then, the queen will come along and lay eggs in the cells for five minutes before the worker bees come back to seal them up.

"The cell is almost completely filled with food, and only then will the queen accept that cell for egg-laying," Heard says.

One cell cycle takes about five hours, and a colony can complete five of those in a day. So 50 days later, there might be about 400 cells in a colony.

Heard says no one's quite sure why carbonarias make their hives in spiral formations, but the architecture could help queen bees navigate them easier. It could also make for better air circulation, because generally, other bee colonies are not well ventilated.

The Flavor of Honey

Honey created by stingless bees has a high concentration of water, which leads it to ferment quicker. The flavor of honey can change depending on what the bees feed on, so honey made in one location with one type of flower may differ from honey made in a location with a different type of flower. Stingless bees tend to feed on the same types of flowers, so their honey has a stronger taste than honeybee honey.

"The stingless bee honey really wins in terms of having a more floral taste," Rasmussen says. "For function and taste, stingless bee honey is just as good as honeybee honey."

Bee Prepper

Stingless, Not Defenseless

As the name implies, the nearly 500 species of stingless bee can't defend themselves by stinging. Instead, they bite and inject an irritating formic acid into their enemies.

"It's probably more efficient being able to bite than to sting," Rasmussen says, though "some of the species are much more docile."

Stingless bees also pick up a sticky resin on their legs from pollinating, so they can defend themselves by literally sticking down intruders that try to get into their hives.

Carbonaria bee hives only have one entrance, which is heavily protected by guard bees and a mix of sticky resins. Antibacterial properties from the resin clean any pathogens from the bees as they enter the hive, like a sticky welcome mat. The substance also keeps out predators such as ants, like a moat.

When a fire ant colony floods, they join together to form a raft.

A pile of 500 ants floats on water in a laboratory.

Ant rafts are so buoyant that they are hard to sink.

When the researchers put some of the ants in a dry beaker and swirled it they rolled into a ball.

Even a single ant is buoyant thanks to its rough, waxy hairs.

A lone ant steps onto the water in a lab.

Ants can cluster to form structures like towers or bridges.

The ants form the raft by joining leg to leg or mandible to leg.

Fire ants in a group often act like a pourable fluid.

Tap images for captions

If they don't feel threatened or angry, stingless bees don't often bite. The bees in the clip appear to be well-behaved, since they don't seem to be attacking Heard.

"It can be a little annoying to work with them if they get upset," Rasmussen says. 

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