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Stingless Bees Guard Tasty Honey With Barricades, Bouncers and Bites

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The honeybee that sweetened your tea isn’t the only kind of bee that makes the sweet stuff. More than 600 bee species across Mexico, Central and South America and tropical regions worldwide do too. But they don’t have stingers to defend their precious product. So, how do they keep thieves away? And what does their honey taste like?

TRANSCRIPT

At the break of dawn, in Oaxaca, Mexico, bees are tearing down the barrier they built last night to cover their nest entrance.

Another successful night protecting their honey and babies from thieving ants.

They make this lattice out of a blend of wax and a potent ant repellent. More on that later.

They’re not eating the waxy material – they’re stashing it to reuse tonight.

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Just like the honeybees that sweeten your tea, these honeymakers live in a colony.

But they’re smaller and don’t have stingers to protect the sweet stuff.

That’s why they’re known as stingless bees.

There are more than 600 species of them in the tropics around the world, mostly in the Americas. And they’ve been around twice as long as honeybees.

No bee stingers? No bee suits needed!

Emilio Pérez is a stingless beekeeper in the highlands of Oaxaca, land inhabited by the Chinantec people.

This is Melipona beecheii, one of the four bee species he keeps. He only raises native bees. Scientists say moving species around can spread diseases that harm them.

So, how do these teensy bees without stingers protect their honey?

By annoying you. Some tangle in your hair … or eyebrow … and give you a bite.

It only feels like a pinprick. But they could summon a whole swarm of their sisters by releasing pheromones.

In any case, for these bees, the best offense is a good defense.

Guard bees stand watch at the nest entrance. Melipona beecheii has just one imposing guard, stationed on this ledge shaped like a flower.

Other species employ as many as 15 guards. They cover the perimeter of trumpet-shaped entrances.

If an outsider tries to come in – like this bee from another colony – the guards sniff it out and kill it.

These peculiar structures also make great runways, as bees go off to work in the flowers.

They’re not picky. They collect nectar and pollen from dozens of plants, which they pollinate in the process.

Stingless bees also collect resin.

It’s the sticky stuff that plants like this cedar make to keep out burrowing insects.

See how she stows the drops on her back legs?

Different plants have different hues of resin: yellow, white, red.

They mix the resin with wax to make a pliable building material called cerumen. Your average honeybee just uses wax.

Stingless bees shape cerumen into little capsules for their offspring, and stack them like a tiered cake.

They also use the material to make their honey pots … these orbs. Yum!

It’s a freewheeling architectural style, compared to honeybees’ hexagonal cells.

Now, remember this protective barrier? It’s made of cerumen. The resin mixed in with the wax is what keeps the ants away. They hate the resin’s smell and stickiness.

Once a year, Emilio and his daughter Salustia collect honey from their nests.

Stingless bee colonies are smaller and usually make less honey than honeybees.

Each of their Melipona beecheii colonies makes about 9 pounds a year, just one seventh of what a honeybee hive produces.

Salustia: We’re having a honey tasting.

The Deep Look team got to sample it.

Gabriela: A strong fermented flavor.

Josh: It tastes like SweeTarts.

Stingless bee honey is sold as a health product to treat things like sore throats.

All honeys contain hydrogen peroxide, which is antimicrobial.

Stingless bees visit a variety of plants, many in the rainforest. So, scientists are studying their honey and resins for chemicals that might have medicinal properties.

As the sun goes down, bees head in for the night and cover their nest entrance once again.

No effort is too great to protect the riches everyone is after.

Hi, I’m Deep Look producer Gabriela Quirós. Thank you to our Patreon supporters, who funded our trip to Mexico to film this episode and our video about cochineal, the brilliant red insects you might be eating. Go watch, and join our Patreon today. Links in the description.

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