Stingless bees, sometimes called stingless honey bees or simply meliponines, are a large group of bees (about 500 species), comprising the tribe Meliponini (or subtribe Meliponina according to other authors). They belong in the family Apidae, and are closely related to common honey bees, carpenter bees, orchid bees, and bumblebees. Meliponines have stingers, but they are highly reduced and cannot be used for defense, though these bees exhibit other defensive behaviors and mechanisms. Meliponines are not the only type of “stingless” bee; all male bees and many female bees of several other families, such as Andrenidae, also cannot sting. Some stingless bees have painful and powerful bites.
Stingless bees can be found in most tropical or subtropical regions of the world, such as Australia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and tropical America. The majority of native eusocial bees of Central and South America are stingless bees, although only a few of them produce honey on a scale such that they are farmed by humans.
Being tropical, stingless bees are active all year round, although they are less active in cooler weather, with some species presenting diapause. Unlike other eusocial bees, they do not sting, but will defend by biting if their nest is disturbed. In addition, a few (in the genus Oxytrigona) have mandibular secretions, including formic acid, that cause painful blisters. Despite their lack of a sting, stingless bees, being eusocial, may have very large colonies made formidable by the number of defenders.
Stingless bees usually nest in hollow trunks, tree branches, underground cavities, termite nests or rock crevices, but they have also been encountered in wall cavities, old rubbish bins, water meters, and storage drums. Many beekeepers keep the bees in their original log hive or transfer them to a wooden box, as this makes controlling the hive easier. Some beekeepers put them in bamboos, flowerpots, coconut shells, and other recycling containers such as a water jug, a broken guitar, and other safe and closed containers.
The bees store pollen and honey in large, egg-shaped pots made of beeswax (typically) mixed with various types of plant resin; this combination is sometimes referred to as “cerumen” (which is, incidentally, the medical term for earwax). These pots are often arranged around a central set of horizontal brood combs, wherein the larvae are housed. When the young worker bees emerge from their cells, they tend to initially remain inside the hive, performing different jobs. As workers age, they become guards or foragers. Unlike the larvae of honey bees and many social wasps, meliponine larvae are not actively fed by adults (progressive provisioning). Pollen and nectar are placed in a cell, within which an egg is laid, and the cell is sealed until the adult bee emerges after pupation (mass provisioning). At any one time, hives can contain 300–80,000 workers, depending on species.