Novel ways to assess the density and distribution of sugarbag bees

A project undertaken at the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, The University of Sydney, and supervised by Dr Ros Gloag and Prof Ben Oldroyd


Many seed, vegetable and fruit crops depend on pollination by bees. The security of these food crops rests predominantly with managed and feral populations of a single bee species: the honey bee. Global instability in honey bee populations, however, have lead to calls to better enlist some of the world’s other bee species as alternative crop pollinators. Stingless bees (Meliponini) are top candidates for this role: like honey bees, they live in colonies comprising a queen and many workers, pollinate diverse plants and produce honey. They have a large native distribution spanning the global tropics and subtropics, including Australia, and are proposed pollinators of key fruit crops grown in these regions. Their pollination services can be exploited simply by encouraging their presence in relevant orchards. Furthermore, knowledge of how to maintain these bees in agricultural landscapes will have knock-on benefits for their conservation in the wild, where they provide key ecosystems services. 

A critical first step is to develop a tool for estimating the density and distribution of stingless bee populations. Most social bees nest in trees and other cavities, which makes them cryptic and challenging to survey by traditional means. This problem has been overcome in honey bees via a protocol that exploits the bees’ reproductive biology. Male bees (drones) gather in large numbers at mating aggregations awaiting queens. If the typical distance that drones travel from their natal nests to an aggregation is known, then these drones can be sampled, genotyped, assigned to colonies, and thus used to estimate the number of colonies in the catchment area.

Outcomes of the project:
  1. Development of a protocol for estimating colony density of the Australian stingless bee Tetragonula carbonaria at landscape scales, based on collections of males from mating aggregations.
  2. Estimates of population densities of a stingless bee, Tetragonula carbonaria, in agricultural landscapes in Northern NSW and Southern Queensland that will help inform future efforts to increase stingless bee abundance in target areas for crop pollination.
  3. New knowledge of the fascinating reproductive biology and ecology of T. carbonaria that will contribute to management of this species.

University of Sydney PhD candidate Francisco Bueno will continue this research over the next two years, refining ways to estimate wild stingless bee colony densities via a better understanding of male stingless bee behavior.

Figure 1. The entrance of a natural nest of the stingless bee, T. carbonaria (photo: R. Stephens).

Figure 2. The nest structure of T. carbonaria (photo: R. Gloag).