Meliponula bees

Summary

Honey bees are not the only bee species that are significant for human wellbeing. Meliponula bees (which like a number of groups of bees are known as stingless bees) are a group of native bee species that produce honey and store pollen which is harvestable. Their honey and pollen is widely harvested from the wild but in a destructive and non-sustainable manner. Meliponula bees are also important pollinators of crops and wild plants. Although they are widely known in East Africa,  Meliponula bees are not thought to be bees by most local people. These smaller to medium sized bees do not sting. They nest in colonies both in the ground and in woody material. This fact sheet provides information about these bees to encourage farmers to understand and protect them to help ensure that their crops are effectively pollinated.

From a conservation and agricultural standpoint it is not necessary to recognise all the different bee genera. However, it is important to know that there is a large bee biodiversity. Different bee genera pollinate different plant species, although there is some overlap that acts as a buffer as bee populations wax and wane. For healthy ecosystems, including agro-ecosystems both diversity and abundance in the bee fauna is important.

Common Name (Language)

Stingless bees (English); Maranga, Obwiza, Obugashu, Obuzagali, Obuganza (Abayanda or pygmy language of Uganda), Obuhura (Rukiga - Uganda), Ebihura (Kinyarwanda-Uganda); Ngilû and Mbûa, Kadoma (Luganda, Uganda) (Kamba and other communities – Kenya).

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Hymenoptera

Family: Apidae

Subfamily: Apinae

Tribe: Meliponini

Genus: Meliponula Cockerell, 1934

Species in the Genus

Stingless bees are a large and diverse group comprising over 600 species in 56 named genera. However, there are only about 22 species inAfrica. They mostly occur in the tropical and subtropical areas of the world, including the dry savannah between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn in Africa. Meliponula bees are a small genus with species only found in sub-Saharan Africa.

Species in Kenya, Tanzania & Uganda

Meliponula bees are among the best known taxonomically of the Meliponini bee species occurring inKenya, Tanzania and Uganda (Eardley and Urban 2010, Byarugaba 2004, Kajobe 2008). However, it is likely that more than the six Meliponula species documented by Eardley and Urban (2010) occur in the region.

Description

Meliponula bees belong to the tribe Meliponini (stingless bees) which along with the honey bee (which belong to the tribe Apini) constitute the two highly eusocial bee groups. i.e. bees that live in large colonies of individuals in which there is a division of labour including reproductive queens and sterile workers.

Although these insects are well known to farmers they are generally not recognised as bees, as the name bee is generally thought only to apply to honey bees.

Meliponula bees are important pollinators in sub-Saharan Africa. In common with many eusocial bee groups and the mostly solitary orchid bees (Euglossini) they have a corbicula (or pollen basket), a pollen-carrying structure on the hind legs that is modified from the common brush of hairs.

Possible Causes of Confusion

Some insect species look like large Meliponula bees. These include other stingless bees in the genus Plebeina. Plebeina bees are mostly smaller than Meliponula bees. Some hoverflies can resemble Meliponula bees like Meliponula bocandei. Flies can be distinguished from Meliponula bees as they have only two wings while bees have four wings.

Distribution in Kenya, Tanzania & Uganda

The genus Meliponula is found in most districts/regions ofUganda, Kenya and Tanzania (Eardley et al. 2009).

Habitats

Meliponula bees are well distributed in tropical Africa and can be found in various specific habitats (land-uses) in East Africa such as grasslands, natural forests, wetlands, marshlands, protected areas, farmlands, woodlands, woodlots (forest plantations) and riparian forest areas.

Nesting

Meliponula bees use various structures in the nature for nesting. These are social bees that nest both in the soils and in wooden materials (Michener 2007, Eardley 2005). InUganda, when collected in agricultural landscapes, these bees are commonly found nesting in termite mounds and sometimes on walls of old buildings. In forest habitats, these bees are observed nesting in holes found in dead and living standing trees. In savannah ecosystems, these bees are frequently found nesting underground or in standing stumps of shrubs. Overall, these bees prefer choosing their nests near or inside primary, secondary or degraded forest habitats. In Uganda, these bees are also seen nesting in leaves of wetland plant species (e.g. Papyrus).

Crops Visited

Meliponula bees are likely to be among the most effective crop pollinators in East Africa. These bees collect nectar and pollen from various flowering crop species belonging to a large number of plant families found in East Africa. These bees visit almost all crop plant species.

Other Plants Visited

InUganda, Meliponula bees have been recorded visiting flowering plants from almost all plant families. Either in natural or in farmland habitats, they frequently visit almost all shrub/herbaceous flowering plants with flowers of different colours and sizes, especially those with yellow to white flowers of small size.

Economic / Ecological Importance

Meliponula bees are of high economic importance as providers of pollination services that contribute to increased agricultural productivity and the conservation of the natural biological diversity of the region. They also contribute hive products. Improved management holds the promise for increased economic benefit from Meliponula bees.

Threats

InEast Africa, Meliponula bees and other bee taxa are threatened by factors such as habitat degradation, agricultural intensification (e.g. replacing hedges with barbed wire fences, and increased use of herbicides which can affect wild flower numbers) and the misuse of insecticides. Meliponula bee populations in East Africa are likely to be affected by pests and diseases but information on this subject is lacking. These species are also threatened by unsustainable exploitation of their honey. In Uganda, they have been wrongly accused together with honeybees as vector of banana bacterial wilt, making them being chased from habitats by banana growers. However, there exists no trustable scientific evidence of their implication in transmitting pathogens of banana bacterial wilt much as they visit banana flowers to collect nectar and pollen. The above fallacy illustrates the fact that the relative lack of knowledge of about these bees and their economic importance by people (de facto custodians of nature) is significant as their conservation and management practices implemented at the farm level will depend to a large extent upon the value that people attach to them.

Conservation and Management Practices

Stingless bees play an important ecological role as pollinators of many wild plant species and seem good candidates for future alternatives in commercial pollination (Slaa et al, 2006). Stingless bees can pollinate most cultivated crops; therefore, their presence nearby fields can be very beneficial to farmers. It is therefore important to manage habitats to conserve these bees.

There have been some attempts in domesticating stingless bees inEast Africa . Stingless bee beekeeping is known as meliponiculture. It is not yet well organised in East Africa but is of great potential for small-scale farmers as source of income and as source of pollinators for particularly the greenhouse farming which has become very important in the region. Theoretically, bee conservation and management is inexpensive and adopted activities can also improve the aesthetic value of the landscape. Such practices involve setting land aside (e.g. a 1-metre strip) in the farmland to host all year round food resources for the bees, as well as safer sites for nesting, mating, resting and refuge from natural enemies (Slaa et al. 2006). During flowering, farmers should manage pesticide usage carefully to avoid poisoning flower-visiting bees. Farmers should also minimise pesticide drift from the field to adjacent areas. Laws governing registration and use of plant protection products indirectly play a major role in the protection of pollinators. Other management measures for these species are educating people not to destroy nests while collecting honey, management of bee pests and diseases and provision of good nesting sites (Eardley et al. 2009). Much of the work of conserving native bees will be underpinned by raising public awareness of the importance of these species.

Legislation (National and International)

There is not yet any legislation in East Africa that explicitly addresses pollinators. However, there is scattered legislation for the protection of biodiversity particularly that covering environmental protection, protection of wildlife and heritage sites, protection of forests and natural resources such as water catchments. In addition, laws governing registration and use of plant protection products also indirectly play a major role in the protection of pollinators Such legislation, together with market-based mechanisms such as the Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) codes and practices may help to protect bees albeit incidentally. At the international level, the Conservation on Biological Diversity (CBD) is spearheading strategies to enforce bee management for pollination purposes within the member countries, which include Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Farmers should lobby their governments to develop Integrated Pest Management policies that would protect bees and other insects of importance in agriculture.

References

1. Byarugaba D (2004) Stingless bees (Hymenoptera: Apidae) of Bwindi impenetrable forest,Uganda and Abayanda indigenous knowledge. International Journal of Tropical Insect Science 24(1): 117–121.

2. Cortopassi-Laurino M., Imperatriz-Fonseca VL, Rouik DV, Dollin A, Heard T, Aguilard I, Venturieri CG, Eardley C and Nogueira-Neto P (2006) Global meliponi culture: challenges and opportunities. Apidologie, 37:275–292

3. Eardley CD (2005) Taxonomic revision of the African stingless bees (Apoidea: Apidae: Apinae: Meliponini), African Plant Protection, 10:64–74

4. Eardley CD, M Gikungu and M.P Schwarz (2009) Bee conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar: diversity, status and threats. Apidologie, 40: 355–366.

5. Eardley CD, Kuhlmann M and Pauly A. (2010) The Bee Genera and Subgenera of sub-Saharan Africa. ABC Taxa vol 7: i-vi, 138 pp. http://www.abctaxa.be/volumes/vol-7-bees

6. Eardley CD and R Urban (2010). Catalogue of Afrotropical bees (Hymenoptera: Apoidea: Apiformes). Zootaxa, 2455: 1–548.

7. Kajobe R (2008) Foraging behaviour of equatorial Afro-tropical stingless bees: Habitat selection and competition for resources. PhD thesis, University of Utrecht, Netherlands, 128pp.

8. Michener CD (2007) The Bees of the world, the John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, pp 913.

9. Slaa EJ, Chaves LAS, Malagodi-Braga KS and Hofstede. FE (2006) Stingless bees in applied pollination: practice and perspectives. Apidologie, 37: 293–315

10. Rasmussen C and Cameron SA (2010) Global stingless bee phylogeny supports ancient divergence, vicariance, and long distance dispersal. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 99: 206–232.

Editors

Théodore Munyuli, Busitema University - Uganda; Muo Kasina, Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) - Kenya; Juma Lossini, Tropical Pesticides Research Institute (TPRI) – Tanzania; John Mauremootoo, BioNET-INTERNATIONAL Secretariat – UK; Connal Eardley, Plant Protection Research Institute (PPRI) – South Africa.

Acknowledgements

We recognise the support from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), Tropical Pesticide Research Institute (TPRI)Tanzania and Busitema University (Faculty of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences) - Eastern Uganda. This activity was undertaken as part of the BioNET-EAFRINET UVIMA Project (Taxonomy for Development in East Africa).

Contact

BioNET-EAFRINET regional coordinator: eafrinet@africaonline.co.ke