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Are stingless bees moving north?

No one knows how they got there, but a colony of stingless bees was recently discovered at the Elizabeth Gamble Garden in Palo Alto, California. The scant information I’ve read came from an observation posted to iNaturalist on Sunday, March 31.

The bees are in the genus Plebeia, a member of the Meliponini tribe, which are often known as stingless honey bees. They do not normally occur north of the Mexican border and, as far as I know, they appeared to be living on their own.

The person who recorded the sighting, screen named “selwynq,” wrote that the garden manager of the Elizabeth Gamble Garden contacted someone to come and remove a bee nest from the premises. Upon seeing the bees, that person sent a specimen to an entomologist, who recognized the bees as Plebeia. After posting on iNaturalist, the bee was again identified as Plebeia by John Ascher of the National University of Singapore, an acclaimed specialist in bee identification and distribution.

Moving north

It’s possible that someone imported the bees into the United States and then they escaped. It’s less likely that they traveled by themselves, although they could have nested in a vehicle or merchandise that moved north along the interstate highway. According to Google, the distance from Tijuana to Palo Alto is roughly 500 miles, but the bees probably originated further away than Tijuana. I haven’t found detailed distribution maps, but it seems the genus Plebeia is concentrated on the eastern side of Mexico, and south from there.

Regardless of how they got to Palo Alto, it’s amazing to know they were doing fine at the time they were spotted. I don’t know what was done about them, if anything. I also don’t know whether they are still there or if they managed to spread before being found. In any case, they are beautiful bees.

Special thanks to selwynq and iNaturalist.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Are stingless bees moving north? A stingless bee in the genus <emPlebeia</em> found in Palo Alto, California.
A stingless bee in the genus Plebeia found in Palo Alto, California. Photo © selwynq, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). See original photo at iNaturalist.
The small Plebeia bees, about 5 mm long, were foraging on geranium flowers. Photo © selwynq, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC). See original photo at iNaturalist.

Comments

Vince Poulin
Reply

Their arrival like many other plants and animals is not unexpected as climate warms. Scientists argue climate change will result in loss of biological diversity but this is a reverse example and one played out since the beginning of time. There are going to be winners and losers as habitats change. Good chance Seattle and Vancouver will become San Francisco-like. Sorry Californians. We can do with a few redwoods.

E.T. Ash
Reply

Rusty…
I am sending this link to my wife who is currently in Palo Alto looking after her dad. She has a STEM project going on with grade school children in the community and I think she and they would have this contact interesting…

Gene in Central Texas

Rusty
Reply

Gene,

It would be great if the kids got to see them. I know I would love to see them.

Keith Schultz
Reply

Interesting news. Wonder if they found their own way north. I guess a second colony would confirm. I would think the bees migrate in every direction. Forage and weather would prune the ones that have strayed too far.

Keith

Rusty
Reply

Keith,

I agree. It sure would be nice to learn more about it.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Hello Rusty–
You’ve gone and tantalized us with not quite enough information and so I had to do a Google search. You’ve probably read this too but here is a quote from an article from 2005 titled “Stingless Bee Nesting Biology”. Article author David Roubik observes:

”Large variation occurs, for example, within the Neotropical genus Plebeia. The nest sites and architecture include nesting habits on tree trunks, in crevices within rocks, in holes made by other animals, hollow stems (including tree trunks) and in active termite nests. Some Plebeia build the regular pancake-like stack of brood cells separated by pillars and arranged in circular combs, like that made by most stingless bees, whereas the smallest species do not build combs but instead make loose chains of cells or clusters.”

The variations are fascinating even if not in this case illuminating. It certainly seems this population must have moved with the help, intentional or not, of people. The real story will be when (if) a second population is discovered either this year or next year. I had thought I had read that there was historical evidence of their cultivation in southern Arizona, but nowhere else north of Mexico. We shall see.

Liz (Eight Acres)
Reply

We have native stingless bees here in Australia where I live. They prefer sub-tropical to tropical climates as they only forage when temperatures are above about 64F. Their range is only 500 yards so it sounds like they had some help leaving Mexico! They are common in the pacific and south east asia. I feel so lucky when I see them and know that a wild hive is close. They are also great for pollinating city gardens as you don’t need to worry about stings, people keep them in small hive boxes which can be split to propogate hives. They don’t produce much excess honey and is difficult to harvest without significantly disturbing the hive, but you can get a taste when splitting a hive.

Rusty
Reply

Liz,

A couple of years ago I was given a small sample of stingless bee honey from Brazil, and it was amazing.

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