The mystery of what creates the rare, healthy sugar found in stingless beehoney, has been solved by researchers at The University of Queensland, incollaboration with Queensland Health Forensic and Scientific Services.
The team found that the sugar trehalulose – which is not found in other honeyor as a major component in other food – is produced in the gut of the bees.
UQ organic chemist and research leader, Dr Natasha Hungerford said the originof this rare sugar had been a puzzle since the discovery of high levels ofsugar trehalulose in stingless bee honey.
“We did not know if the trehalulose was coming from an external source –perhaps from native flora,” Dr Hungerford said.
“It could have been something in the resin from trees that stingless beescollect and take home to their nest – because unlike European honey bees,which store their honey in honeycomb made only from beeswax, stingless beesstore their honey in small pots made from a mix of beeswax and tree resins.”
Stingless bees are found throughout tropical and subtropical parts of theworld.
The larger, European honey bees ( Apis mellifera ) produce significantlymore honey, and are the world’s major honey production species.
However, stingless bee honey which is highly prized as a specialty food, isnoted in Indigenous cultures for its medicinal properties and attracts a highprice.
“Trehalulose is more slowly digested and there is not the sudden spike inblood glucose that you get from other sugars,” Dr Hungerford said.
She said the UQ team was keen to determine if the trehalulose content instingless bee honey could be increased, potentially making stingless bee honeymore valuable.
“We fed confined colonies of the Australian stingless bee Tetragonulacarbonaria the most common sugars found in flower nectar – sucrose, glucoseand fructose.
“What we found is that stingless bees have a unique capacity to convertsucrose to trehalulose and produce honey rich in trehalulose in their gut.”
Native plants such as Grevillea and Banksia are believed to have nectar highin sucrose, and it is believed bees feeding from these plants will naturallyproduce honey rich in trehalulose.
The team also found that stingless bees fed a solution containing table sugarcould convert it into a ‘honey’ containing high levels of trehalulose.
“But the ‘honey’ they produce from table sugar does not meet the requirementsof real stingless bee honey which is made from nectar,” Dr Hungerford said.
“The honey we produced in the lab is in fact fake honey, and we were able todistinguish it from natural honey by isotopic testing.
“This trehalulose-rich syrup that was produced might be considered a potentialsecondary product of stingless bees, but it is not honey.
“It is also not good for the health of the hive to feed the bees only tablesugar.
“Honey contains a complex range of phytochemicals from nectar, making itvitally important for brood rearing and the expansion of the colonypopulation.”
The UQ team will now work to identify different horticultural crops that havenectar high in sucrose.
“We want to investigate the nectar sugars present in crops such as macadamia,lychee and avocado, and whether stingless bee pollination of these crops couldresult in a high level of trehalulose in their honey,” Dr Hungerford said.
The research was funded by AgriFutures Australia, Queensland Health,Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Australian Native BeeAssociation.
It is published in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (DOI10.1021/acs.jafc.1c02859).
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