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Why are Honey Bees Different Colors?

Among the 20,000 different species of bees, only a small percentage are honey bees.  These honey bee races share many anatomical characteristics.  They have wings, pollen baskets and stingers – things they need to get their jobs done.  Interestingly, there is some color variation in honey bees. This leads us to ponder why honey bees are different colors.

Honey Bee Color Variations

Multitude of honey bees of similar color image.

Honey bees are known for having yellow and brown bodies with back stripes.  Yellow and black are two of the “warning colors” in nature.  It is natures way of warning you to stay away and avoid the bee stinger.

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Imagine the surprise of a new beekeeper who opens a hive that is supposed to contain dark bees – only to find many golden striped workers. These obviously look like honey bees but something is different.

What has happened to your colony? Is something wrong with them. Yes, it is possible that your colony could have a problem but most likely that is not the case.

While some bees are darker than others, finding a significate variation of bee colors in your hive is actually a good sign.

Honey bees of different colors inside a beehive image.

Genetic Diversity in a Bee Colony

Colonies with a good mix of worker bee colors and patterns tend to be some of the healthiest colonies to have.  This indicates a wealth of different genetic material used to produce the workers.

A queen honey bee only mates over a few days early in her life.  During these mating flights, she mates with around 12-20 drones or males.

Upon returning to the hive, the queen will lay fertile eggs to produce workers.  Worker get half their genetic material from the queen and half from a drone.  Naturally, this results in worker bees of different colors.

Some of the fertilized eggs produce individuals from drones light in color and others come from dark colored drones.

Bees in same colony showing different shades of color image.

Breeding Races of Bees

There are times when we want a closely related hive.  All the members of the colony are the same color and possess common traits. 

This is often the case with bee breeders that are working to develop colonies with certain characteristics such as varroa resistance etc.

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Can you identify a type of honey bee by color alone?  No, not normally but the color of the bees can give some hints about their ancestry.

Italian honey bees tend to be lighter in color with brighter yellow markings.  Workers fathered by light colored Italian drones would be brighter in the hive.

Carniolans are sought after by many backyard beekeepers.  They have the characteristics of being winter hardy, quick spring build up and having some tracheal mite resistance.

They are also a darker bee than many of the those we are familiar with. Carnis are often mixed with other bee blood lines to strive for varroa resistance.

Russians also tend to be darker. If you see many darker bees, they are likely related to Russians or Carniolans.

Cordovan Color in Bee Colonies

Cordovan are not a separate race or family of bees.  It is merely a term used to describe a color variation.

Cordovan bees are those in which the parts of a bee that are usually black become reddish brown. The queen often has a yellow abdomen that is a solid color all the way to the tip.  

Often used by bee breeders, cordovan is a useful genetic marker that is controlled by a recessive gene. They are not known to have any special desirable characteristics beyond their color markings.

Cordovan Italians are beautiful and prized by beekeepers for the easy to find queens.

Do Bees Change Color?

Honey bees do not change color during their lifetime.  However, the appearance of a bee can change giving the impression of a change in body color.

 After weeks of hard work outside the hive, workers can take on a ragged look.  Some of the fine hairs on their thorax are lost giving them a bald spot appearance. They lose some of their fuzziness.

Those involved in robbing are often darker because they have lost their hair during fighting. They also get wax and honey all over them during the fighting frenzy

However, shiny black greasy bees can be a sign of disease. Some of the viruses that plague bee colonies can cause a dark greasy appearance.

Older worker bees inside the hive image.

Honey Bees of a Different Color – Not a Bad Sign

Seeing a noticeable color change in your honey bee colony can be rather perplexing.  However, do not panic. 

This is likely not due to the bee changing color but rather workers being born with different fathers.  Enjoy the genetic diversity of your honey bee colony.  Hopefully they will be strong and productive.

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