Why These Stingless Bees Build Spiral Hives

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

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