Black Honey Bees

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A honey bee breed that was once prevalent in the US is the German Black Honey Bee (also known as European Dark bee (Apis mellifera mellifera). They were the foundation of beekeeping in America. Today, they are almost non-existent. Why did their prevalence wane? Lets see how the needs and desires of the beekeeping community determine which breeds are promoted. And, how those less than desirable characteristics of the Black Honey Bee played a role.

Various types of skep hives contains black bees brought over by colonists.

You may think that all honey bees are the same. No way, there are many types of honey bees – different races or breeds and even hybrids that are created by crossbreeding. Like their genetic background, the traits of these mixes differ too.

Dark Honey Bees Come to America

The dark bee of Northern Europe originated in Southern France. From there, they extended into the Northern and Eastern regions of Europe. 

Also, called the German Black Bee, their scientific name is Apis mellifera mellifera. These insects have a very dark abdomen and thorax.

Keep in mind however, we are not only referring to the color of the honey bee but rather the genetics.

Not every dark honey bee is Apis Mellifera mellifera. Colonies with Carniolan honey bee genetics or genes from Russian honey bees tend to be dark also.

The black honey bees journey to America was likely thanks to early colonists. Hives traveled in ships to make the journey to the new country. I can only imagine that this was very stressful to the bee colonies.

Early settlers brought the bees along because they wanted the products that bee colonies provide. Honey and beeswax are valuable resources that have many uses. 

Role of Black Bees in Agriculture

There are no native honey bees in the US. But, beehives were established in the area of Virginia as early as 1622.

Colonial beekeepers understood the value of bee pollination of their garden plants. More crops are produced in orchards and vegetable gardens with a beehive nearby.

The traditional bee hive skeps of straw were common in the old country. But, hive styles transitioned into log hives and various styles of boxes or beekeeping supers in the new world.

The Black Honey Bee did well in the New World finding ample sources of pollen and nectar. Like all healthy colonies, they produced bee swarms forming new feral colonies. For over 200 years, they expanded across the US.

A dark colored honey bee with german black bee genetics.

Factors Leading to Their Decline

There were several factors that played a role in the decline in popularity of the German Black Honey Bees.

  • new italian bees imported
  • beekeepers wanted calmer bees
  • hybridization with other breed

Italian Honey Bees

Black honey bees were the only honey bees available for American beekeepers until the mid-1800’s. At this time, Italian bees were imported. If we already had honey bees, why import more?

Each breed of honey bee has certain genetic traits. These tendencies include: defensiveness vs calm, good honey producer, swarm prone or less likely to swarm. All are important to beekeepers in terms of hive management.

Italians bees are very good honey producers and good pollinators. They thrived in the New World and were much easier for beekeepers to tend and work with.

Defensiveness

The German Black Bees were known to be rather fierce individuals. They were runny on the comb, prone to stinging and very defensive.

This can be a problem not only for the beekeeper who needs to inspect the beehives – but also family members, pets and livestock close by. While not as aggressive as the Africanized or Killer Bees we hear about today – the black honey bees were no picnic either.

Interbreeding

Being of the same species but different race, the Black and Italian bees were able to interbreed.  Unfortunately, when the black bees interbred with others – the resulting hybrids tended to be even more defensive.

It also resulted in a bee that was not pure German or Italian. Today selective breeding of honey bees is still underway. Researchers hope to develop a bee with superior traits. Calmness, honey production, mite resistant – we hope for the best of everything.

Swarm of dark bees living in tree trunk.

What Happened to Black Bees

As beekeepers bred for desired tendencies, fewer of the original colonies existed. Primarily, they only survived pure in remote locations where feral colonies had no outside genetics. 

However, when varroa mites arrived in the US during the 1980’s much of the feral population was lost.

Today, a beekeeper is unlikely to find the original German Black Honey Bee living in the United States. However, that does not mean they are completely gone. Their genetic contribution still exists as noted by genetic markers found in lab tests. (Schiff el all 1992).

Infochart about German black honey bee characteristics.

Were They Better?

Over time, we have reached the position we find ourselves in today. Unless you buy bees from a special breeder, you have “mutt” bees. 

They are a combination of many different races and strains of genetics that have been brought in to the country.

For many older beekeepers, the idea of those old-timey colonies is appealing. Some report that they were heartier, better able to over-winter and more productive. Were the black honey bees better?  I’m not sure. 

Though definitely a hearty insect, they were more susceptible to European Foulbrood. Also, they had a greater tendency to be bothered by wax moth infestations. And don’t forget their sassy attitude.

Perhaps, those better days of beekeeping were not just about the genetics of the German Black Bees. It was also a pre-varroa time in beekeeping. I can’t even image how wonderful that would have been.

FAQs

What role did German Black bees play in early beekeeping practices in America?

In early American beekeeping, German Black bees were vital due to their resilience and adaptability to the diverse climates of the colonies.

How do German Black bees compare to other bee species in terms of honey production?

German Black bees are generally less prolific honey producers compared to other popular bee species like the Italian bee (Apis mellifera ligustica) or the Carniolan bee (Apis mellifera carnica). While they are hardy and well-suited for survival in colder climates, their honey yields are typically lower.

What are the current research areas related to German Black bees?

Current research on German Black bees focuses on several key areas: understanding their genetics and breeding to improve disease resistance and adaptability, studying their ecological role and interactions with other bee species and pollinators, and developing conservation strategies to protect their dwindling populations.

A Final Word

While we do have darker colored bees today, they are not the same as the original colonies. If your heart still yearns for the dark bee experience, we do hear of some feral colonies in remote areas. These may still retain a lot of those early genetics. Do they really exist or is a similar to sightings of Big Foot? Maybe they are there and maybe not.