Types or Races of Honey Bees for Beekeepers
All beekeepers are looking for the perfect type of honey bee. If we are going to spend our time and money on beekeeping, we want to buy the very best type of bee, right?
A bee that is healthy, productive and friendly maybe? Yes, that would be perfect. What is the best type of honey bee to purchase? Well, I have some information that might help you in your search.
In 2006 Colony Collapse Disorder became a buzz -word (pardon me.) in the beekeeping community. In this horrible phenomenon, the majority of workers in a colony disappeared.
Leaving only a queen and a handful of young brood. Reports came from all parts of the country regarding large numbers of bees dying.
To date, there is still no one accepted reason for the event. However, it has led to a search for breeding healthier bees and a concern for the environment that our bees live in.
And yes, different races of honey bees do tend to have different traits but this is sometimes magnified by bee suppliers who are not usually selling pure lines anyway.
Most of us will not be buying pure races of bees – unless you are handing over large sums of money. Most of the bees sold in packages and nucs will be a mix.
While the offspring may be predominately one race, their genetics are mixed. This is because of the way bees reproduce.
The only way to have completely pure lines is with artificial insemination and those bees are expensive.
Best Types of Bees for Beginners
And while, some breeds have a tendency to be more docile that others, you still need to be prepared for stinging situations.Ultra Breeze Large Beekeeping Jacket with Veil, 1-Unit, White
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How Many Types of Honey Bees are There?
Buying bees is much different than some of the types of livestock that we manage. First, lets talk -just a bit- about the honey bee family.
A normal colony has a queen bee, thousands of worker bees and drone bees during the warm months. Worker bees gather nectar to make honey.
They also collect pollen on their pollen baskets. And, they defend the hive by stinging predators.
When we talk about bee types, we are not referring to the types of bees found in a hive. Let’s look at the bigger picture.
While there are several “species” of honey bees found world-wide, the species that lives in the US is Apis mellifera (or the European Honey bee).
“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. But, we do have several different types of honey bees known as “races”. Races of bees can interbreed with each other – and they do.
An easy way to remember 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 interbreed.
We use the term race instead of breed. Italian bees can breed with Carniolans, giving us a Italian-Carni mix.
Most of us beekeepers will have a bee with mixed genetics. The label may say Italian, Carniolan, Russian etc, but the fact is that pure strains of bees are hard to come by.
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 bees.
What is the Best Type of Honey Bee for You?
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.
Some beekeepers have reported good mite control with Africanized Honeybees, but I sure don’t want a hive of them in my backyard.
As the colonies produce new queen bees, open mating takes place. The queens breed with drones of other genetic makeup and the diversity of genetic material grows.
Perhaps there is no best honey bee. But by comparing qualities of different races of bees, you can choose the best bees for your hive.
When you order bees, you will often have a chance to choose a line of bees identified as one type of another.
Availability and your location will play a role in the decision making process of buying bees.
And in time, unless you purchase artificially inseminated queens, you will end up with a mixed race of bee in your hives. How many kinds of bees are there? A lot.
Since most of us keep a mixed stock. We often call our local bees a wonderful mix of mutt bees. A little of this and a little of that is a good way to describe the genetic makeup.
Most package bees and nucs purchased fit in this category.
Major Races of Honey Bees in North America
All honey bees share certain characteristics. They gather nectar to make honey and pollen to feed their young.
They defend their hives by stinging but some are more defensive than others.
Honey production, propolis production and winter cluster sizes vary within the different races of bees. Beekeepers strive to choose a bee that fits their needs and climate.
Do you live in a cold climate or the hot humid south?
More importantly, do you want to produce honey or only want bees for pollination. Choosing bees for your hives will require some research. And, I’ll be honest – a bit of pure luck.
Purchasing bees from a local (successful) beekeeper is a good goal to have. However, most of us do not have that option and will order bees from a reputable company.
Even experienced beekeepers order new bees to increase their number of hives, replace dead colonies or to introduce some new genetics into the apiary.
Pictures of Honey Bees
While it is true that various races of honey bees “tend” to have characteristic colors, this is not a definitive indicator of bee race. Still, looking a pictures of bees can give us a hint of their genetic line.
Italian Honey Bee-(Apis mellifera ligustica)
The scientific name of a honey bee consists of the species name followed by the race.
For Italian bees the proper name is “Apis mellifera ligustica’ The last word – defines our bee as Italian.
The Italian honey bee is the most common race of bee 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 worker bees will be golden with various shades of black stripes. And, Italian Queen Bees are often a shade darker than the worker bees.
Italian Honey Bee Race 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, Italian bees 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.
Best Bee for New Beekeepers
Looking for the best bee for beginners and honey producers? Italian bees deserve strong consideration.
Italian bees are a good choice for beginners. No type or race of honey bee is perfect.
But, 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.
Because different races can inter-breed, I have used Carniolan Queens in my Italian hives in the past!
Carniolan Honey Bee Race Characteristics
The term Carniolan is often shortened to “carnis”. This sub species of bee developed in regions of Slovenia and the northern Balkans.
As a whole, carnis are 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 bees could be a problem.
In fact, the Carniolan Race of Honey Bees is the second most popular type of bee favored by beekeepers.
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.
Buckfast Honey Bees
This type of honey bee is not a race of bee. 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
Buckfast Bees are good honey producers. They were a favorite of older beekeepers in my area. Their population builds quickly in the Spring. However, they are less prone to swarming that other types of bees.
Buckfast Bees show a resistance to tracheal mites. They are good honey producers and over-winter well in colder climates.
While pure breed Buckfast bees 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.
Russian bees were imported into the US from the Primorsky region of Russia. They are 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 Race Characteristics
Even though they show some resistance, most of the Russian bees are not able to handle varroa without beekeeper intervention.
Like the Carniolans, Russian bees 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 bees also tend to be a bit fussy and defensive. As with other bees, this characteristic is likely more pronounce when the colony is allowed to requeen itself.
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 Race 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 of bee. However, they make a lot of propolis. Propolis (bee glue) is used by bees to seal cracks in the hive.
But, sticky propolis also makes bee 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. This concerns me with the increased problems with Nosema Apis and Nosema Cerana.
Finding true Caucasians is difficult unless you are lucky enough to live in a region with Caucasian breeders.
What Kind of Bee do I Have?
Unless you have purchased bees 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?
The Truth About Bees
While there are several varieties of honey bees, the races mentioned in this article are the most common terms used. All of these races of bees can be inter-bred to create hybrids.
It is easy to understand that we have many different kinds of bees. And, this makes it difficult if not impossible to have true bee identification in most cases.
And since, most of the bees sold have queens that are open mated, chances are you will get a mix.
That is unless you have several hundred dollars to pay for an artificially inseminated queen of a particular variety.
Breeder queens are created by taking female larvae and encouraging the colony to construct queen cells.
When these queens hatch, they are inseminated with sperm from a particular breed of bee.
The queens are not allow to fly to a drone congregation areas for natural breeding as normal virgin queen do.
This allows the breeder to have a much better idea of the genetics of any offspring from the breeder queen.
Given a choice, beekeepers should choose a type of bee that fits their goals and climate. Choose the race “type” of bees whose major characteristics appeal to you.
Those of you who desire a hive nearby for pollination of your fruit and vegetable gardens may not care as much as bee genetics.
You may not get a pure breed bee but hopefully the general characteristics will give you the attributes you desire.
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?
updated with bee awesomeness