There are around 500 sub species of stingless bees (Meliponini) throughout the world. Found in tropical and subtropical areas such as Australia, Southeast Asia and South America, stingless bees produce a highly valued honey with almost ‘magical’ therapeutic qualities. Known by various names such as Meliponini honey, pot-honey, sugarbag honey and Kelulut honey, it has a long history of medicinal use within indigenous communities. But as with many super foods, the health claims surrounding stingless bee honey seemed more myth than fact, as they lacked attribution to any specific bioactive components. However, in 2020, researchers from Australia were able to confirm the health qualities of stingless bee honey by isolating one unexpected component - trehalose.
Trehalose is a naturally occurring disaccharide with known acariogenic and low glycemic index properties. This rare sugar has an unusual glucose-fructose glycosidic bond, which results in enzymes breaking down three times slower than normal, and a more gradual release of monosaccharides into our bloodstream. Trehalose can protect cellular membranes and labile proteins against the damage and denaturation caused by desiccation and oxidative stress.
The uncommon glucose-fructose bond has the added benefit of preventing the bacteria in our mouths from digesting it, making it an ideal sweetener without the downside of tooth decay.
Research on honey
The Australian research team conducted NMR and UPLC-MS/MS analysis on stingless bee honeys sourced from Tetragonula carbonaria and Tetragonula hockingsi species in Australia, Geniotrigona thoracica and Heterotrigona itama in Malaysia and from Tetragonisca angustula in Brazil. The discovery represents the first isolation of trehalulose from a natural food commodity.
After the discovery of trehalose in stingless bee honey, another question quickly arose. How exactly did it get there? Unlike Apis melliferra that store honey in comb, stingless bees store honey in pots made from a mixture of resin and beeswax. It was theorised that the trehalose came from an outside source such as a foraged resin. But in August 2021, it was discovered that the trehalose was actually converted from sucrose in the gut of the Tetragonula carbonaria stingless bee.
«We fed confined colonies of the Australian stingless bee Tetragonula carbonaria the most common sugars found in flower nectar - sucrose, glucose and fructose…What we found is that stingless bees have a unique capacity to convert sucrose to trehalulose and produce honey rich in trehalulose in their gut»
The team now aims to research the nectar sugars in crops such as lychee, macadamia and avocado, so that stingless bee pollination may result in higher yields of the prized, trehalose rich honey.
Stingless bee honey, a novel source of trehalulose: a biologically active disaccharide with health benefits
Mary T. Fletcher, Natasha L. Hungerford, Dennis Webber, Matheus Carpinelli de Jesus, Jiali Zhang, Isobella S. J. Stone, Joanne T. Blanchfield & Norhasnida Zawawi
Native bees make a healthy honey no others make, and now we know how
Anthea Moodie, Kallee Buchanan
Healthy sugar origin in stingless bee honey revealed
Natasha L. Hungerford, Jiali Zhang, Tobias J. Smith, Hans S. A. Yates, Sadia A. Chowdhury, James F. Carter, Matheus Carpinelli de Jesus, Mary T. Fletcher. Feeding Sugars to Stingless Bees: Identifying the Origin of Trehalulose-Rich Honey Composition. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2021; DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.1c02859
University of Queensland. "Healthy sugar origin in stingless bee honey revealed." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 August 2021. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/08/210824135350.htm