Hypotrigona bees


Honey bees are not the only bee species that are significant for human wellbeing. Hypotrigona 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. Although some bee keepers have domesticated Hypotrigona, their honey and pollen is widely harvested from the wild but in a destructive and non-sustainable manner. Hypotrigona bees are also important pollinators of crops and wild plants. Although they are widely known in East Africa, Hypotrigona bees are not thought to be bees by most local people. They are considerably smaller than honey bees and do not sting. They nest in colonies both in the ground and in woody material. The number of local names for Hypotrigona bees in the region reflects their familiarity. 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 - Uganda), Obuhura (Rukiga - Uganda), Ebihura (Kinyarwanda - Uganda), Kadoma (Luganda - Uganda), Ngilû and Mbûa (Kamba and other communities – Kenya).

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Arthropoda

Class: Insecta

Order: Hymenoptera

Family: Apidae

Subfamily: Apinae

Tribe:  Meliponini

Genus: Hypotrigona 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.

Species in Kenya, Tanzania & Uganda

Hypotrigona bees are among the best known taxonomically of the Meliponini bee species occurring inEast Africa (Eardley and Urban 2010, Byarugaba 2004). Two species are known to occur in East Africa. These are Hypotrigona gribodoi (known from, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) and H. ruspolii (known from Tanzania and Uganda).


Hypotrigona 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. In the Luganda language (in Uganda) Hypotrigona bees are known as “Kadoma? or peaceful small insects that visit coffee flowers.

Hypotrigona bees are vital pollinators within tropical ecosystems (Roubik, 2006) and vary widely in both individual and colony size. In common with many eusocial bee groups and the mostly solitary orchid bees (Euglossini) they have a corbicula , a pollen-carrying structure on the hind legs that is modified from the common brush of hairs. The taxonomy of these bees is the most well-known and fully explored by scientists in East Africa.

Possible Causes of Confusion

Some insect species could be mistaken for large Hypotrigona bees. Bees in the Genus Liotrigona (also known as stingless bees) can be confused with Hypotrigona bees but Liotrigona are generally shinier. Some hoverflies could be mistaken for Hypotrigona. Flies can be distinguished from Hypotrigona bees as they have only two wings while bees have four wings.

Distribution in Kenya, Tanzania & Uganda

Hypotrigona bees are found in most districts/regions ofUganda, Kenya and Tanzania (Eardley et al. 2009).


Hypotrigona bees are well distributed within the tropics 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. In Uganda , these bees are equally found abundant in farmlands as well as in forest habitats.


Hypotrigona bees use various structures in the nature for nesting. These social bees nest both in the soils and in wooden materials (Michener 2007, Eardley 2005). In Uganda , when collected in agricultural landscapes (Munyuli, in press), these bees are commonly found nesting on walls of old human buildings and in dry wooden materials in forest habitats. Sometimes they are found nesting in termite mounds and tree leaves in forest habitats.

Crops Visited

Hypotrigona bees are among the most frequent crop visitors 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, Hypotrigona 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 small yellow to while flowers.

Economic / Ecological Importance

Hypotrigona 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 Hypotrigona bees.


InEast Africa, Hypotrigona 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. Hypotrigona bee populations in East Africa are likely to be affected by pests and diseases but information on this subject is lacking. The 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

The importance of Hypotrigona bees for as efficient crop/plant pollinators is well documented inEast Africa . These bees are well known by farmers in Uganda . There have been some attempts in domesticating stingless bees in East Africa . Stingless bee beekeeping is known as meliponiculture. This activity, generally undertaken by traditional communities, has local variations according to regional and traditional knowledge. Honey and a waxy material are the traditional products. Resin is also occasionally an important income source for the stingless bee beekeeper, as well as the renting of colonies for pollination services (Cortopassi-Laurino et al. 2006). Meliponiculture is not yet well organized in East Africa but is of great potential for small-scale farmers as source of income and as source of source of pollinators for future just in case honeybees disappear.


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.

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. 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 also 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.


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

8. Munyuli (in press) Pollinator biodiversity in  Uganda  and in Sub-Sahara Africa: Landscape and habitat management strategies for its conservation. International Journal of biodiversity and conservation.

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.

11.Roubik DW (2006) Stingless bee nesting biology. Apidologie, 37: 124–143.


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.


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).


BioNET-EAFRINET regional coordinator: [email protected]