Every beekeeper wants to have the very best types of honey bees for their hives. Due to genetic differences each type of bee has the possibility of unique traits. How do you know what to choose? This is especially confusing for beginner beekeepers who have no idea what to order. In truth, your choices will be somewhat limited due to availability. But, it is a good idea to understand a bit about the different traits common to bee breeds as you search for the best bees for your new hive.
Honey bees. Seriously, how different can they be? Honestly, they are all very similar because they belong to the same family tree. However, there are “tendencies” within those most closely related that often show special honey bee characteristics.
Races (Breeds) of Honey Bees
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 different races and bee hybrid genetics that are present in your area.
Yet, any bee can have a concentration of genetic material and qualities from one specific type of honey bee – so this is where must 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.
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 bee color for identification. Yet, we do enjoy looking at bee images and color may give 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 bees originated in Italy (no surprise) and were brought to the US in the mid 1800’s. They are very adaptable to various climates but do not do best in extreme 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 new bee brood.
They are also prone to being robber bees (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 mite resistance.
Good robbing prevention practices and equalizing colony strength are useful management techniques. As well as, regular testing for varroa mites in all colonies.
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.
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 in a effort to have the best of several worlds (genetically speaking).
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 hive a better chance of surviving Winter as a strong colony.
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 in early Spring.
However, this can be a problem. Will the colony build up to a large work force in time for the honey flow?
Carniolan 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.
If you do receive an unmarked queen – that’s okay. It is rather easy to mark your own queen with a little practice.
Caucasian- (Apis mellifera caucasica)
Caucasian bees are grey to brown in color. They originate from the Caucus region near the Caspian Sea. They are not as readily available as the other types of honey bees. You may not find a lot of this breed for sale.
Caucasians have a longer tongue than the other honey bees. This makes it possible for them to extract nectar from deeper blossoms-trumpet shaped flowers.
Caucasians are generally not as productive as Italians. But coming from a cold region, their forager bees will work on colder days than Italians.
They are considered by many to be the gentlest race. This is an important traits for many new beekeepers to consider.
Like the others, you could face some challenges with Caucasian. 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 really sticky inside the hive.
Finding true Caucasians is difficult unless you are lucky enough to live in a region with Caucasian breeders.
Russian Honey Bees
Russian bees were imported into the United States from the Primorsky region of Russia. They are a strain of Apis mellifera – and not a separate race of honey bee.
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. Some success was achieved but not to the extent hoped for.
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.
Even though they show some resistance, most of the Russians are not able to handle varroa mite infestations without beekeeper intervention.
Some beekeepers report that Russian colonies also tend to be a bit fussy and defensive. As with other hybrids, this characteristic becomes more likely when the colony is allowed to requeen the hive itself.
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.)
They are good honey producers and their population builds moderately in the Spring. However, they are less prone to swarming that other types of honey bees.
Buckfast Bees show a resistance to tracheal mites. But, this type of mite is not as threatening as it has been in past years.
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 as easy to find them for sale as it once was.
Desirable Traits of Honey Bee Breeds
Once you look at what is available in the market, it is time to decide which bees to buy. In making this important beekeeping decision, there are several factors to consider.
You want hives that are productive and easy to care for that’s a certainty. Seriously, who would want to invest time and money in a bee that was known as a poor producer. But, production is only one factor to consider.
These are the most desirable traits beekeepers want when choosing bees:
- hardy – healthy
Not every race or breed of bee is equally able to withstand certain diseases. While any hive may succumb to disease some will be hardier than others.
We say these breeds show some resistance – but is it enough of sway your decision?
Your climate may play a role in your decision as well. Honey bees can live in a wide range of environmental conditions but some are better suited for very cold regions.
Does this mean a bee from a hot climate will die in your cold region? Not at all. But, some breeds have genetics that make them better fit for cold temperatures.
What about productivity? All bees are known to be industrious little insects. Yet, a beekeeper hoping to produce honey wants hives of bees known to produce enough honey to share.
Does temperament in a bee colony matter? You – betcha. 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. You must think about the factors that are most important to you as a beekeeper.
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 a hive.
But, the types of honey bees found worldwide is a much bigger number. Rather than referring to those individuals found in every hive, we must consider species and bee races and mixes.
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-honey bees 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.
You may find different information for this figure as researchers often argue about which ones are which.
“Honey bees are not native to the United States. They were originally brought over by colonists coming to the new country.”
But, we only have 1 honey bee species in the United States. Apis mellifera (or the European Honey bee – also called the Western Honey Bee) is the only species that lives here.
Bee Races Can Interbreed For Genetic Diversity
Researchers often cross-breed two or more different races of honey bees intentionally. In fact, that is how some of the most popular varieties came into existence.
Breeders are always trying to develop a better bee. Perhaps, they hope to combine the gentle temperament of one with the productivity of another.
They also breed for varroa mite resistance, disease resistance and ability to survive in severe weather conditions.
Commonly, Italian honey bees are mixed with Carniolans giving us an Italian-Carni mix. I have had these in my hives several times and they are a good mix of genetics.
Type of Honey Bee Most Beekeepers Buy
When preparing to order for your first hives, you will hear about different types of honey bees – all of them belong to the Apis mellifera species.
But, these different races of honey bees – also called breeds, hybrids or strains can interbreed with each other.
An easy way to understand this idea: 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.
Honestly, most of us beekeepers will not have pure bred bees. Our colonies have mixed the genetics of several races.
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, that gives a hardier colony, may be a blessing in your apiary.
Commercially Sold Bee Packages – a Genetic Mix
Usually, the producer floods the region with drones of a specific type. But, there are no guarantees that others won’t be at the drone congregation area when virgin queens come by.
While the offspring may be predominately one race, their genetics are mixed. This is unavoidable because of the way the honey bee reproduces.
Natural mating takes place in flight. The queen mates with many different drones from other hives.
The first colonies were brought to American by settlers. This was a breed called the german black honey bees.
For a new beekeeper, a calm non-defensive hive is desirable. Any type of honey bee will sting when they feel threatened. But, some breeds have a tendency to be more docile than others. The most commonly suggested-best bee for beginners are Italians.
All bees have some good characteristics. Some beekeepers have reported good varroa mite control with Africanized Honey bees.
However, having a hive of these highly defensive and dangerous bees (also called Killer Bees) in your backyard is not a good idea.
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.
Each race of bee has admirable characteristics and some that may not be as well suited to your backyard hive.
Perhaps there is no best honey bee for everyone. But, by comparing qualities of different breeds, you can choose the best type to try in your hive in the region where you live.
The types of honey bees 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 for every beekeeper. 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?