Choosing the Best Types of Honey Bees

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The Search for the Best Honey Bees

While all honey bees share some common characteristics, certain breeds or races tend to have slightly different traits. Of course, every beekeeper wants to choose the very best types of honey bees to fill their hives. With several options to consider, new beekeepers are often left confused over what to order. Your choices will be somewhat limited due to availability. The best way to decide what to do is to learn a bit about each kind of bee and go from there.

Color variations in 2 types of honey bees on comb image.

In making this important beekeeping decision, there are several factors to consider. Every beekeeper wants to fill their hives with a great bee. Seriously, who would want to invest time and money in a bee that was known as a poor producer.

Desirable Traits in Honey Bees

  • hardy – healthy
  • productive
  • temperament

What are the most desirable traits when choose a race of bee? We want colonies that are healthy and bothered by as few diseases as possible. Any hive may succumb to disease but some colonies are hardier than others.

Your climate may play a role in this decision as well, some types of bees do better in very cold regions.

Honey bees in hive, searching for the best type of honeybees image.

Though they are known as good workers, a beekeeper hoping to produce honey wants hives likely to produce enough honey to share.

And while there are some beekeepers who have an affinity for feisty attitudes in their hives, most beekeepers hope for colonies that are less defensive and easy to manage.

It may be difficult to find the perfect kind of honey bee that meets all your desires. And, the availability of bees to purchase will play a role in what you ultimately end up with.

How Many Types of Honey Bees are There?

Inside a normal honey bee colony you find 3 kinds of bees . A queen, thousands of workers and drones (during the warm months) can be found living in colonies.

These individuals work together to carry on the activities of the hive. In any colony, the role of each kind of bee is about the same. Every member has a special purpose.

However, when we talk about best types of honey bees, we are not referring to the individual kinds found in a hive. Rather ,we are referring to species and races.

The study of insects and their relatives is rather fascinating. A book such as The Bees in Your Backyard shows the great diversity in the world. I use mine to identify the non-honeybees in my backyard.

Honey Bee Species

How many honey bee species are there? At least 7 species of honey bees are found world-wide with many subspecies.

“Honey bees are not native to the United States. They were originally brought over by colonists coming to the new country.”

We only have 1 honey bee species in the United States. The species that lives in the US is Apis mellifera (or the European Honey bee). However, we do have several different races of honey bees – also called breeds, hybrids or strains. 

An easy way to understand this idea is this: a dog and a cat are 2 distinctly different “species” – they can not interbreed. But, 2 breeds of dogs (Lab and a Poodle) can mate and produce offspring.

Bee Races Can Interbreed

Researchers often cross-breed two or more different races of honey bees. In fact, that is how some the most popular varieties came into existence.

Breeders are always trying to develop a better bee. Commonly, Italian honey bees are mixed with Carniolan honey bees giving us an Italian-Carni mix.

Most of us beekeepers will have a colony with mixed genetics.  The label may say Italian, Carniolan, Russian etc, but the fact is that pure strains are hard to come by and very expensive.

Truthfully, this may be a blessing because quite often in nature – the pure bred animal is not the most healthy.  A mix of genetics may be beneficial in your colonies.

Most Commercially Sold Package are a Genetic Mix

Most of the bee packages sold, as well as, nuc colonies are a genetic mix. This is because most queens are open-mated, they mate with any drones in the area.   

While the offspring may be predominately one race, their genetics are mixed. This is because of the way the honey bee reproduces. Natural mating takes place in flight. The queen mates with many different drones from other hives.

Best Honey Bees for Beginners

Which type of honey bees is best for a beginner? This is a common question asked by new beekeepers. Especially those searching for a bee that is easy to manage.

However, any type of honey bee will sting when they feel threatened. Though, some breeds have a tendency to be more docile than others.

Large package suppliers know that their packages will end up in the hands of a lot of new beekeepers. They tend to breed for a degree of calmness and Italians are often included in this genetic mix.

Best Breed of Honey Bee Overall

This is one of those beekeeping questions that beekeepers love to argue about.  But, let’s not argue – let’s be friends. And besides, no one can prove their point for a certainty.

Each race of bee has admirable characteristics and some that may not be as well suited to your backyard hive.

For instance, some beekeepers have reported good mite control with Africanized Honey bees. However, having a hive of these highly defensive and dangerous bees in your backyard is not a good idea for most people.

Perhaps there is no best honey bee for everyone.  But, by comparing qualities of different races, you can choose the best type to try in your hive.

Races of Honey Bees in North America

We often call our local bees a wonderful mix of mutts.  A little of this and a little of that is a good way to describe the genetic makeup.

They are a combination of the genetics of different races and bee hybrids. Yet, any bee can have a concentration of genetic material and qualities from one specific type of honey bee – so this is where we begin.

Italian Honey Bee – Apis mellifera ligustica

The scientific name of a honey bee consists of the species name followed by the race. For Italians the proper name is “Apis mellifera ligustica’ The last word – defines our bee as Italian.

picture of italian honey bees in hive
Italians popular with beekeepers. Photo Creditt/Ken Thomas via wiki commons.

The Italian honey bee is the most common race kept in managed hives. They are known for creating large populations and being good honey producers.

Italians are often golden in color but you can’t rely on color to identify. We do enjoy looking at bee images and bee color gives us a glimpse into their possible genetic background.

Most Italian workers will be golden with various shades of black stripes. And, Italian Queens are often a shade darker than the workers.

Italian Honey Bee Characteristics

Italian bees originated in Italy and were brought to the US in the mid 1800’s. They are very adaptable to various climates but do not do best in tropical settings.

Having a mild temperament, Italians have earned a favored place in beekeeping culture. A prolific bee, Italians tend to grow into large colonies and are good workers.

They are not as prone to swarming as some of the darker bees and tend to produce beautiful white cappings on finished honeycomb.

However, Italian bees are not without challenges. Their large winter populations cause problems if food reserves are low. If you live in a region with long Winters, you want to be extra careful with winter food stores.

A large Italian colony without proper food stores faces starvation. The risk is greatest in late Winter/early Spring as the colony begins raising young.

They are also robbers (all bees are) and prone to drifting to other colonies. Some strains of Italians are more swarmy during the productive season.

Italians have not shown a marked resistance to disease and pests. It is hoped that other types of honey bees can be breed into the Italian line to improve varroa mite resistance.

Good robbing prevention practices and equalizing colony strength are useful management techniques.

Italians are a good choice for beginners. No type or race of honey bee is perfect. But, these bees have been a favorite of beekeepers for many years.

The Italian bee has a lot of good characteristics that make them easier for beginning beekeepers to work with and learn from.

Carniolan Honey Bee – Apis mellifera carnica

Carniolan bees are very popular in some beekeeping circles. They are a darker bee from the Yugoslavia region. Although, I prefer Italians, Carniolan “Carnis” are my second favorite. 

picture of carniolan honey bees

Because different races can inter-breed, I have used Carniolan Queens in my Italian hives in the past! This has become a common practice by package breeders too.

Carniolan Honey Bee Characteristics

The term Carniolan is often shortened to “carnis”. This sub species of bee developed in regions of Slovenia and the northern Balkans.

A darker race of bee, a typical carniolan honey bee will be a darkish grey with bright dark bands.

They have a calm, gentle temperament and are easy to manage. A good race of bee to keep in populated areas where aggressive behavior could be a problem.

Coming from a wet, cold region, Carniolans are more likely to forage on cool, wet days. This is a big advantage if you live in a cool damp climate.

Carnis over-winter with a smaller population than Italians. This gives a well-resourced colony a better chance of winter survival.

Carniolans do a good job of adjusting the number of workers in the colony to match available nectar resources. And, they build population quickly when natural nectar becomes available.

However, if you live in an area that has early nectar flows, this can be a problem. Will the colony build up to a large work force in time for the honey flow?  

Carnolian bees are more prone to swarming once the nectar flow hits. You may have to watch them closely to make sure they have enough space.

Because they are darker, finding your queen in the hive can be more challenging – perhaps buying marked queens would be a good idea.

Caucasian- (Apis mellifera caucasica)

Caucasian bees are grey to brown in color. They originate from the Caucus region near the Caspian Sea.

Caucasians are generally not as productive as Italians. But coming from a cold region, they will forage on colder days than Italians.

Caucasian Honey Bee Characteristics

Caucasians have a longer tongue than the other types of honey bees. This makes it possible for them to extract nectar from deeper blossoms.

They are considered by many to be the gentlest race. However, they make a lot of propolis. Propolis (bee glue) is used to seal cracks in the hive.

But, sticky propolis also makes hive inspections difficult. I have one colony that must have some Caucasian genetics because it is “sticky inside there”.

Caucasians have some resistance to European Foul Brood. However, they show a higher susceptibility to Nosema.

Finding true Caucasians is difficult unless you are lucky enough to live in a region with Caucasian breeders.

image of free secrets of beekeeping book

Bee Breeding for Special Characteristics

Throughout the years, bee researchers have purposely crossed bred honey bees from different races or even different parts of the world. Though these are not distinct races – the beekeeping community often recognizes them as such.

Russian Honey Bees

Russian bees were imported into the US from the Primorsky region of Russia. They are a strain of Apis mellifera – and not a separate race of bee.

russian honey bees tending brood in an open hive

Usually black or dark brown in color, Russians are well suited for colder weather and show some mite resistance. (But not enough to forego monitoring and treatment!)

Imported into this county in 1997, researchers hoped to use them to breed more mite resistance bees. Bee breeders worked for several years on this program.

Russian Honey Bee Characteristics

Even though they show some resistance, most of the Russians are not able to handle varroa without beekeeper intervention.

Like the Carniolans, Russian colonies overwinter with a smaller population. They are slower to build up in the spring, waiting for good nectar availability.

Once natural nectar is available, they will explode in population. This tendency causes excessive swarming unless the beekeeper is observant.

Some beekeepers report that Russian colonies also tend to be a bit fussy and defensive. As with other bees, this characteristic becomes more likely when the colony is allowed to requeen itself.

different races of honey bees

Buckfast Honey Bees

Buckfast bees are a mix of several different races and strains of bee. They were very popular in the beekeeping community in the past. 

Today’s Buckfast Bees are descended from a line of bees developed by Brother Adam. He was a monk at Buckfast Abby in England. (Brother Adam wished to create a new bee with all the best characteristics.)

Buckfast Bee Characteristics

They are good honey producers and their population builds quickly in the Spring. However, they are less prone to swarming that other types of honey bees.

Buckfast Bees show a resistance to tracheal mites. While pure breed Buckfast tend to be gentle, if allowed to re-queen themselves-the offspring can be aggressive.

This trait has caused them to fall out of favor with some beekeepers so it is not easy to fine them for sale.

What Kind of Bees do I Have?

Unless you have purchased breeder queens from a special breeder – or you live in a secluded region – you most likely have “mutt bees”. 

Most of us do, even when we purchase queens (or a whole colony) from a certain bloodline, the colony will eventually replace the queen.  And once again we will have a mixed bloodline.

And maybe that’s okay.  Diversity in genetic material can be a good thing in most life forms – why would bees be different?

Final Thoughts on Finding the Best Honey Bees

The honey bee races mentioned in this article are the most common. And, all of these can be inter-bred to create hybrids.  Because most of the bees sold have queens that are open mated, chances are you will get a mix. 

We are still looking for the perfect type of honey bee. It produces a lot of honey, has a gentle temperament, is resistant to pest and disease and doesn’t swarm unless we want it to.

Let me know if you find some – you are willing to share, right?

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