Understanding Russian Honey Bees: A Guide for New Beekeepers

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There are several different varieties of honey bees that capture the most interest of beekeepers. One that has been the subject of much conversation is the Russian honey bee. Lets look at some of the traits and characteristics of Russian bees that have earned them a place in the hearts of America’s beekeeping community.

Worker Russian honey bee drinking water.
Bartosz Kosiorek (CC BY-SA 3.0)

While most of us beekeepers end up with a genetic mix or “mutt” bee, we still enjoy considering the various types of honey bees available. Even if it does not exist – we seek the perfect honey bee to make our beekeeping goals attainable.

Exploring the Buzz about Russian Bees

The hybrid known as Russian honey bees was introduced to the United States during the late 1990’s.

They boasted some remarkable characteristics such as: good over-wintering abilities, hardy colonies with disease resistance and some resistance to certain pests – namely varroa mites.

Origins

Russian honey bees trace their ancestry back to the Primorsky region of Russia – near the China border. This is an area of rugged terrain and harsh winters. Over several generations, bees living here adapted to survive in this climate.

The survivors were able to resist disease, conserve stored food resources and endure long periods of cold. All traits that made them a really hardy subspecies.

Introduction to the United States

In the late 1990’s, a group effort between American and Russian scientists allowed the importation of Russian honey bee stock into the United States (The Russian Honey Bee Program).

The goal was to infuse some of the resistant traits and genetic diversity of these hardy bee into our domestic bee population.

Though closely related and very similar to the current bees used by beekeepers (European subspecies), the project was initially met with some skepticism but a lot of hope for improved bee genetics.

Dark queen bee on comb and small swarm in tree.

Characteristics

In all honesty, the untrained eye could probably not pick a Russian honey bee out of a lineup. We know that honey bee colors vary – even within the same genetic grouping.

However, Russians are typically darker in color than Italian bees with color variations from deep brown to almost black. This coloring helps them absorb more heat- a valuable asset in a colder climate.

In regards to bee anatomy, they are a bit smaller in size and have slightly longer wings relative to their body size. This helps them fly in cooler temperatures.

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However, the most important trait of Russian honey bees that garnered a lot of attention was their resistance to the deadly Varroa destructor mite. This parasitic pest was causing large bee colony losses worldwide – and still does today.

These bees had existed in a region with varroa for a long time. Their worker bees have advanced grooming and hygienic traits.

They do a better job of detecting and removing mites from the hive. This type of natural mite control is not 100% control, but much better than the other bees in use.

Infographic chart comparing Italian and Russian honey bees.

Challenges and Considerations

Using Russian honey bees in your apiary has some definite advantages. However, you will face some challenges too as you deal with this subspecies.

Management

Be prepared to adjust your hive management schedule as needed when keeping Russian bees. The rate at which they build up brood in the Spring may be different than what you are used to.

Once nectar and pollen is available, they may explode in population and you can have issues with increased bee swarming behavior.

They also quickly adjust to a lack of pollen in the field. The queen may reduce laying or stop all together for a while.

Strive to understand conditions in your area and be aware of any nectar dearth or lack of pollen that may affect your hives.

Russian colonies are more likely than others to keep numerous queen cells on hand. This is not always a sign of swarming preparation as is normal with Italian or Carniolan honey bees. These extra cells may be torn down quickly.

Queen Issues

Finding pure Russian honey bee queens can be a challenge. They are not as readily available as some of the other breeds.

Some beekeepers report problems with trying to requeen Russian hives with queens not of the same subspecies.

It can certainly be done but a longer introduction period is advised. Don’t be in a hurry to release the queen.

Likely due to bee pheromones, Russian queens “smell” really different and it takes the colony longer to accept her. 

It is not uncommon for beekeepers to split a colony into two parts when requeening a hive with a Russian queen. 

Introduce her to the small half first. Then, once she is accepted and laying eggs, combine the two small hives back into one.

In time, your hives will requeen themselves. Because of the way bees reproduce, this leads to a queen that is mated with non-Russian drones. Her offspring may not have all of the desirable traits that you hoped for.

Pest Management

While Russian bees have shown some resistance to varroa mite infestations, this does not mean that you don’t have to monitor the hives.

Regular mite counts and treatment if needed are still necessary to keep mite levels from reaching damaging levels.

Temperament

According to the researchers, the Russian honey bee is supposed to be a gentle bee. From personal experience, most of those I have had experience with are not especially calm. Yet, this could have been due to the hives not being pure but rather hybrid crosses.

Beekeeping Goals

The best bee for your hives is the one that fits your climate, beekeeping style and goals. While Russian bees can and do produce good honey crops – they are not considered the very best honey producers.

Final Thoughts

The breeding program introducing Russian honey bee genetics into the existing Apis mellifera population is just one example of how researchers attempt to improve the quality of bees available to beekeepers.

Finding one type that is perfect for every beekeeper and every situation seems quite a task – impossible maybe. Yet, breeding bees that have more resistance to pests and disease promotes a sustainable approach to keeping bees.

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