Australia’s Native Bees Are So Damn Precious, New Study Shows

Australia’s Native Bees Are So Damn Precious, New Study Shows
Australian native bee (Tetragonula carbonaria). Image: Tobias Smith / University of Queensland (Supplied)

Australia’s native bees are angels. Not only do they not sting you, new research shows the rare honey from two species is so healthy it doesn’t cause tooth decay or sharp rises in blood sugar.

There are about 2,000 species of native bees living in Australia but you likely won’t recognise them. Unlike the non-native European honey bee, known for its tiger stripes and painful stinger, Australia’s native bees are far more passive and their honey is considered ‘tangy’ in flavour and ultimately, less desirable.

According to a new study by a team of researchers from University of Queensland and Malaysia, that very honey could be far healthier than the one we spread on our toast each morning.

Associate Professor Mary Fletcher was the lead researcher on the paper, published in Nature's Scientific Reports, and said the honey contains a rare sugar not seen in other honeys -- something Indigenous Australians had long stood by.

"We tested honey from two Australian native stingless bee species, two in Malaysia and one in Brazil and found that up to 85 per cent of their sugar is trehalulose, not maltose as previously thought," Professor Fletcher said in a media release.

Native bee honey is healthy, but more complicated to harvest

This is a major step in the world's understanding of what kinds of honey native bees produce. Trehalulose, Professor Fletcher said, doesn't cause tooth decay and slowly releases sugar into the bloodstream so may be a better choice for those with diabetes.

"Traditionally it has been thought that stingless bee honey was good for diabetes and now we know why — having a lower GI means it takes longer for the sugar to be absorbed into the blood stream, so there is not a spike in glucose that you get from other sugars," Professor Fletcher said.

"Interestingly trehalulose is also acariogenic, which means it doesn't cause tooth decay."

Australia native bee honey is available to purchase, but only in small quantities, as the process of extracting it is complex compared to that of the European honey bee. While the native bees work in the same way we all know — a hive with a queen bee and her workers producing honey — warm weather is needed in order for the colony to thrive.

Harvesting in colder temperatures, for example, could leave the colony without a food source and lead to starvation. Therefore, having hives in southern Australia is off the table.

Still, the honey is in high demand from chefs for its unique flavour, and it means it'll set you back a pretty penny.

"Stingless bee honey sells now for around $200 per kilogram, which is up there with the price of Manuka and Royal Jelly honey," Professor Fletcher said.

"People have patented ways of making trehalulose synthetically with enzymes and bacteria, but our research shows stingless bee honey can be used as a wholefood on its own or in other food to get the same health benefits."

The team is now working on better understanding the storage and collection of the honey in order to optimise its trehalulose content. Hopefully, if native bee honey demand surges, we can find a way to keep these little hard-working angels safe.