Skyscraper hives and territorial bee wars!

By Sabiha Malik

Founder of The World Bee Project CIC

Bees at war

The Australian stingless bee Tetragonula Carbonaria is one of only 500 bee species that lack a sting – but that doesn’t deter their colonies from waging territorial wars against their neighbours, resulting in hundreds of casualties and murdered queens.

The species have also perfected gruesome self-defence strategies. They let invasive predators enter their hives, and once in, they shower them with mud, plant resin and wax, burying them alive.

How do they build skyscraper hives?

Waging long bloody wars and deploying violent self-defence tactics aren’t the stingless bees’ only characteristics. Swarms of T. Carbonaria rear their young in 10-20 layers of brood combs, each with hundreds of individual egg chambers linked together and spiralling upwards to form towers.

Worker bees secrete wax from their abdominal glands and mix it with plant resin to create the construction material to build the cells. The queen lays an egg on top of the food store, and the cell is sealed. Next, nurse workers regurgitate food to about two-thirds of the cell capacity to nourish the larva’s entire development into a pupa. The larva develops into an adult in about 50 days, whilst worker bees build new cells outward and upward in a compact spiral pattern.

Could a single colony of Australian stingless bees live indefinitely?

Entomologist Dr Tim Heard thinks it is possible. When adult bees emerge from the earliest cells in the centre of the lowest level of the brood comb, they leave behind a steadily growing cavity of empty cells, and workers begin creating new broods inside each, continuing the cycle. In this way, a single colony could live indefinitely as long as it has a queen to lay new eggs.

How do they know how to form a spiral shape?

Could it be an inherent algorithm that every T. Carbonaria stingless worker bee innately ‘knows’? And do sunflowers know it too? Nature is astonishing. Look at these sunflower seeds self-organised into a spiral form. Quite a delight to know that researchers don’t know the biological mechanism of their formation.


Suggested Reading:

  • For fascinating observations on hive construction, read ‘Brood comb construction by the stingless bees Tetragonula hockingsi and Tetragonula carbonaria’. You can download the pdf here.
  • Tim Heard’s The Australian Native Bee Book.


Sabiha Malik founded The World Bee Project CIC in 2014 to utilise AI and novel technologies to initiate a global perspective, addressing pollinator and biodiversity decline, food insecurity, climate change and threats to human wellbeing as a single interactive, interconnected challenge confronting humanity. Sabiha believes that bees lie at the heart of the relationships that bind the natural and human worlds, and in safeguarding bees lies the means to safeguard life itself.