Stingless Bees: Their Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution by Christoph Grüter

Review by Tobias Smith, stingless bee researcher at the University of Queensland, June 2021

With over 600 known species globally, the stingless honey bees (Apidae: Meliponini) are the largest group of highly eusocial bees. Like the Apis honey bees (Apidae: Apini), stingless bees live in colonies of hundreds or thousands, comprising an egg laying queen, her worker daughters and male drones, and they make and store honey. Unlike the honey bees, stingless bees are restricted to the tropics and subtropics and rather than storing their honey in hexagonal wax cells, sting-less bees store their honey in honey pots constructed from a mix of wax and plant resins. Research on stingless bees has a long history, and recently the keeping and management of stingless bees is becoming increasingly popular throughout their range.

In Stingless Bees: Their Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution Christoph Grüter provides a sensationally comprehensive overview of what is currently known about stingless bees. This is a technical, academic book that delves deep into the biology, ecology, behaviour and evolution of stingless bees. Grüter has brought together the globally dispersed, and often hard to access scientific literature on stingless bees and essentially catalogued and summarised it in a single volume for the benefit of readers. The referencing is an achievement in itself, with each chapter meticulously referenced, and the whole book bringing together about 800 different pieces of global stingless bee scientific literature, from multiple languages. Summary tables and figures are used throughout, to support the information in the text, as well as photos and drawings in some places. The writing is scientific but is presented in an accessible, easy to read and enjoyable manner.

The book is divided into ten chapters, covering topics including stingless bee evolution and diversity, nesting biology, mating, brood rearing, colony defence, division of labour, communication and foraging, and pollination. Each chapter is then organised into sections covering different components of the chapter topic. For example, the chapter on swarming and mating has eight sections, covering topics such as swarming phases and swarming distances, queen replacement and production, and the complexities of mating. The detailed description of the stages of stingless bee nest establishment are a particularly nice part of this chapter, explaining the slow and cryptic process from start to finish using examples from the handful of species for which this has been studied.

Another notable section is from the chapter that covers nest defence, in which Grüter explains in great detail the interesting case of the Lestrimelitta robber bees from the American tropics. This section opens with the memorable statement: “One of the main threats to stingless bee colonies is other stingless bee colonies”. Lestrimelitta robber bees are found only in Central and South America, and evolutionary time has led to these bees not collecting pollen and nectar from flowers, but instead raiding other nearby stingless bee colonies to plunder their hard-earned resources.

During this story Grüter also introduces us to the other robber stingless bee genus, Cleptotrigona, which occurs in the African tropics. Of course, this chapter also covers the literature on the dramatic intercolony takeovers that occur within our Australian species, Tetragonula carbonaria and Tetragonula hockingsi. The same chapter has sections summarising the pest insects that prey upon stingless bees around the world.

In bringing together the huge amount that is currently known about the behaviour, ecology and evolution of stingless bees, Grüter also infects the reader with intrigue and excitement for what remains unknown. While Grüter presents a well explained and detailed overall story of the stingless bees, he does so by piecing together bits and pieces of the puzzle from individual studies across many

different species. Reading between the lines it is clear that for the vast majority of the world’s stingless bee species, most aspects of their individual biology, ecology and behaviour remain unknown or poorly understood.

Something small that further impressed me about this book is that Grüter includes, in the brief section about honey in chapter one, a summary of the very recent Australian research from the University of Queensland that identified the rare and healthy sugar trehalulose in stingless bee honey. This is despite the fact that this honey research was only published in mid 2020, not long after Grüter submitted his book manuscript to his publisher. No doubt extra edits such as this are a reflection of the huge effort that Grüter must have gone to in putting together this comprehensive resource.

This book is not a stingless bee keeping manual and makes only passing mention of the stingless bee keeping industries that are rapidly growing in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. As such, this book does not include any content on stingless bee keeping techniques. Luckily other relatively recent publications, both here in Australia and elsewhere, such as in Brazil, Mexico and Malaysia, provide detailed accounts of the management of stingless bees. Grüter’s book follows from and builds on other great, but now dated books that cover in depth the science of stingless bees, including Roubik’s 1989 publication Ecology and Natural History of Tropical bees and Michener’s 1974 The Social Behaviour of Bees.

It is hard to critique this book, as it is truly an immense contribution to the field of stingless bee science. It is worth considering though, that this book is published only in English, as are over 77% of Springer publications. Yet if one looks at the distribution of stingless bees globally, only a small percentage of species are found in English-speaking countries. South and Central America are thought to have over 500 species, with Brazil alone having over 330 known species. While English has, rightly or wrongly, become the international language of science, it would be a great shame if being published only in English limits the number of new students, researchers and enthusiasts of stingless bees that can access the content of this book. I hope that the publisher considers publishing translations of this book in languages spoken in the regions that are particularly rich in stingless bee species and stingless bee research, in particular in Portuguese and Spanish.

This is a very expensive book, which does reduce its accessibility. The publisher has somewhat frequent sales though, sometimes of up to 40% off (sign up to the Springer Publishing newsletter to be alerted to these). Given the huge interest for stingless bees in Australia, perhaps encouraging local libraries to add this book to their catalogue could help improve its accessibility here.

I was waiting for the publication of this book ever since I first heard that it was in progress, and after the long wait I was not disappointed. I have spent many enjoyable hours reading this book and am still finding little gems of content that I wasn’t aware of before. This book will be indispensable to students and established researchers of sting-less bees alike, as well as being of interest to motivated stingless bee keepers and enthusiasts who want to dig deeper into the science of these unique and exciting bees.

Springer International Publishing, 2020. x + 385 pp. Price €109.99 hardcover, €93.08 ebook, ISBN 9783030600907