Stingless bees on show at environment festival

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Stingless bees on show at environment festival


Published on 28 May 2012

28 May 2012

Did you know that you can keep stingless native Australian bees in your garden as pets? And that the honey from these bees has similar antimicrobial properties to the famous Manuka honey?

That’s the buzz from University of Sunshine Coast PhD student Flavia Massaro of Italy who is researching the chemical properties of honey and a resinous mixture called propolis produced by Australian “sugarbag” bees (Tetragonula carbonaria).

Flavia and fellow USC researchers will team up with bee keepers to present information about bees and bee products at the Sunshine Coast World Environment Day festival at the University on Sunday 3 June. The team will use special beehives made of observation glass to allow inspection of bees at work.

This annual festival, from 9am to 4pm, is jointly organised by the Sunshine Coast Environment Council, Sunshine Coast Council, the University of the Sunshine Coast and the Sunshine Coast Institute of TAFE.

Flavia said research on the Australian bee and its bee products was still limited compared to European honey bee (Apis mellifera spp).

“Social stingless bees usually nest in log hollows where they use large amounts of propolis as a building material and to keep their colony free of microbes,” she said.

“Stingless bees play a vital role in pollinating crops and native plants in Australia and, by doing so, the bees collect nectars and plant resins to produce honey and propolis. These bee products are likely to have chemical and biological properties that are only partially known and yet to be fully discovered.”

Flavia’s PhD into natural product chemistry has earned her a Research Scholarship and an International Tuition Fee Scholarship from USC.

She is particularly interested in varieties of stingless bee propolis and honey derived from Corymbia torelliana fruit resins and Leptospermum polygalifolium floral nectars, which have been linked to a potential Australian-made source of Manuka honey.

Flavia is currently using 33 hives on the Sunshine Coast, Gympie and in northern NSW for her research and is collaborating with several stingless bee and honey bee keepers.

Her enthusiasm for the little black Aussie insect is infectious, as she describes opening a stingless bee hive as similar to unwrapping a Christmas present.

“When we open the hive box, it’s like Christmas Day,” she said. “All the chemicals are right there in front of us.

“Bees are a bit like chemists themselves. They are able to pick up plant odorants with their antennae from a few kilometres away to determine which plants they will visit for nectar and resin foraging.

“After foraging on plant resins, bees mix them with beeswax to make propolis which keeps their honey and colony free from pathogens.”

Flavia did her undergraduate studies in Nutritional Science at the Faculty of Pharmacy, University of Urbino, Italy, and was inspired to research propolis applications during an exchange program to Malta in 2006. Further exchanges to universities in the United States and Australia finally led her to choose USC for her Honours and now PhD studies.

She is being supervised by Senior Lecturer in Chemistry Dr Peter Brooks and her work will provide a chemical reference point for analyses by other USC researchers into the biological potential of propolis, possibly for medicinal applications.

— Terry Walsh

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