The peculiar shape of this nest entrance caught my eye. Bees were moving in and out of the trumpet-shaped nest which was located below a large dipterocarp tree, at the foot of Doi Chiang Dao mountain, north of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
These waxy nests are constructed by stingless bees (Meliponini tribe of the family Apidae), a large group of eusocial insects – meaning they live together in colonies with a queen and have different castes – which play an important role in the pollination of crops and wild flowers in tropical countries. Thirty species of stingless bees in the genus Trigona, have been recorded in Thailand; T. collina is the most common species in the north of the country. (1)
As the name implies, stingless bees lack a functional sting, but they have powerful jaws and will aggressively defend their nests against intruders. Non-foraging bees near the nest entrance are there to protect the nest from a range of insects including parasites – which might try to enter. They also deposit fresh resin on the external entrance tubes, in order to deter ants, which are important predators of the bees. (2)
The nests of stingless bees are usually associated with a living tree, either in a cavity in the trunk or at the base of the tree, as in this case. The nest architecture is extremely variable between species, but the shape of the external nest entrance, as well as the internal nest features, are often characteristic of a given species. When nests come under attack, hovering bees emerge in force to defend the colony: they ‘face the nest entrance, and engage in aerial fights with non-nestmates, or directly attack larger animals, which retreat with a cloud of defending bees surrounding the head’ (2).
Based on looking at different photographs posted on the Internet, the trumpet-shaped nest opening looks like it might be that of Tetrigona binghami (Schwarz, 1937), also called Trigona apicalis variety binghami Schwarz 1937, although this species was only described for the first time in 2005, in Thailand. (1) Such an identification can only be tentative as there is no definitive key available online that I am aware of. The bee’s nest was located near the base of a huge dipterocarp tree, Dipterocarpus alatus, which was festooned with epiphytes.
Stingless bees live in colonies of somewhere between a few hundred to several thousand individuals. They usually visit many different types of flowers although some species seem to be fairly host specific. The main host plant of T. binghami is said to be teak (Tectona grandis), whereas T. collina has a number of different host plants, including the large dipterocarp resin tree, Dipterocarpus alatus. (1) These trees often have a sort of scar – a tapping hole or resin trap – in the trunk, not far off the ground, that exudes an oily resin.
The resin has a number of traditional uses, including: wood lacquering, drought-proofing of boats, water-proofing of baskets and traditional medicine. Tapping involves cutting a hole into the trunk of the tree and using fire to stimulate a continuing flow of resin. Tapping can be sustainable, but it depends upon the skill of the tapper. (4) In sites like this one, in Chiang Dao, where these dipterocarps are the only remnants of a cleared forest, the trees will probably be more susceptible to damage and their loss as a shade would be a severe blow to the resorts and houses which exist underneath their wonderful boughs.
Stingless bees are called ‘channarong’ in Thai. Some species, such as T. laeviceps – which commonly occurs in suburban areas – are kept by beekeepers for their honey, which is slightly more watery and acidic than western honeybee honey (3). It also ferments. The process of keeping stingless bees is known as meliponiculture.
Also lurking in and around the resin trap were a number of so-called resin bugs. These carnivorous assassin bugs (Family: Reduviidae; Subfamily: Harpactorinae; Tribe: Ectinoderini) coat their front legs with sticky tree resin and use this to attract and trap insect prey such as the stingless bees; a strategy called sticky trap predation. Some authors have called them living fly-paper (or bee-paper) or bee-assassins (South American genera). They really are quite strange looking insects and move very slowly.
There are said to be 20 species in the Ectinoderini tribe of resin bugs: ten Amulius spp.; and ten Ectinoderus spp.. The species shown here is similar in appearance to Amulius malayus but I have not been able to confidently identify it.
There were also one or two smaller assassin bugs, the nymphal stages of the resin bugs, which also looked to be efficient predators (below).
There was a very attractive spider located near the top of the resin trap. This orb spider, Argiope pulchella, builds a web with a zig-zag stabilimentum (below). It has weaved together its web to create a much denser and thicker X-shaped cross. The spider aligns its legs against the X-shaped stabilimentum, two legs against each arm of the cross. This presumably acts to camouflage, or hide the spider whilst it is sitting on the web, and perhaps the X-shape also attract flying insects into the web. The spider moves off the cross when attending to a catch.
There are probably many other insects attracted to the resin trap, including moths and other sap-sucking species. It is a fascinating little ecosystem, if that is the right word, and once again a system that is ripe with opportunities for further research.
- Klakasikorn, A., Wongsiri, S., Deowanish, S., & Duangphakdee, O. (2005). New record of stingless bees (Meliponini: Trigona) in Thailand. Nat Hist J Chulalongkorn Univ, 5, 1-7.
- Roubik, D. W. (2006). Stingless bee nesting biology. Apidologie, 37(2), 124.
- Chuttong, B., Chanbang, Y., & Burgett, M. (2014). Meliponiculture: Stingless Bee Beekeeping In Thailand. Bee World, 91(2), 41-45.
- Ankarfjard, R. (2000). Ïmpacts from tapping oleoresin from dipterocarpus alatus on trees and timber value in LAO PDR. submitted to the Journal of Economic Botany.
- Zhang, J., Weirauch, C., Zhang, G., & Forero, D. (2015). Molecular phylogeny of Harpactorinae and Bactrodinae uncovers complex evolution of sticky trap predation in assassin bugs (Heteroptera: Reduviidae). Cladistics.