Honey Bee Breeds and Their Features

The primary goal of every beekeeper is to ensure that they have selected the ideal type of honey bees for the hives. Although it seems that every bee looks the same, there are a number of unique characteristics of each honey bee which sets them apart from the rest of their breeds.
Various dog breeds.

Just like with dogs, there are various breeds of honey bees, each with specific attributes.

In the United States there are 6 main stocks of honey bees. Each strain has been studied and observed to have a variety of attributes that may be helpful to know in making your choice. It is always good practice to do research beyond these main strains to see if there is something that might be better suited for your area.

It is important to understand that although most of the honey bees for purchase come from these so-called 'races' of honey bees. From what we know about honey bee reproduction and queen mating, the “purity” of the stock is not always easy to control.

Table of Honey Bee Breeds

Trait Italian * Carniolan * Buckfast * Russian German Caucasian
Gentleness Moderate High Low Mod Low Mod Low High
Honeycomb Spring Buildup Good Very Good Low Low Low Very Low
Overwintering Good Good Good Very Good Very Good Moderate
Swarming Moderate High Low Moderate Moderate Low
Pollination Moderate High Moderate Moderate Low High
Honey Production Very Good Good Good Moderate Moderate Low
Wax & Propolis Low Low Low Moderate Moderate High
* Breeds easily available in Wisconsin

 Italian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera ligustica)

Italian Honey Bee Italian Honey Bees are some of the most widely used races of honey bee stock. They originated in Italy, hence the name, and were brought to the United States in 1859. They are known for their prolific brood cycles and production, gentle nature and reluctance to swarm. As excellent producers, most commercial beekeepers will use Italians as their main source of production. They are very light colored, almost completely yellow in some colonies, making them aesthetically pleasing to the eye and fairly easy to identify.

The Italian honey bee is thought to originate from the continental part of Italy, south of the Alps, and north of Sicily. The subspecies may have survived the last Ice Age in Italy. It is genetically a different subspecies than that from the Iberian Peninsula and from Sicily. It is the most widely distributed of all honey bees, and has proven adaptable to most climates from subtropical to cool temperate, but it is less successful in humid tropical regions. It is sometimes called the Ligurian bee.

Italian bees, having been conditioned to the warmer climate of the central Mediterranean, are less able to cope with the "hard" winters and cool, wet springs of more northern latitudes. They do not form such tight winter clusters. More food has to be consumed to compensate for the greater heat loss from the loose cluster. The tendency to raise broods late in autumn also increases food consumption

From the commercial and breeding point of view the value of the Ligustica lies in a happy synthesis of a great number of good characteristics. Among these we must mention industry, gentleness, fertility, reluctance to swarm, zeal for building comb, white honey-cappings, a willingness to enter supers, cleanliness, resistance to disease, and the tendency to collect flower honey rather than honey dew. The last-named trait is of value only in countries where the color of the honey determines the price. The Ligustica has shown that she is able to produce good crops from the red clover. In one other characteristic has the Ligustica proved exceptional and that is in her resistance to Acarine. This is especially true of the dark, leather-colored variety, whereas the golden strains are highly susceptible to Acarine.

Despite their advantages, there are some drawbacks:

  They consume resources at a rapid pace due to their long brood cycles that can last deep into the fall.
  They are notorious for robbing stores in weaker or neighboring hives.
  Italian Bees tend to have more difficulty with natural pests and tend to have higher collapse rates because of this. The rationale as to why this happens is yet to be determined, but research is moving quickly due to their popularity.

 Russian Honey Bee (from Primorsky Krai region)

Russian Honey Bee Russian bees were brought to the United States in 1997 by the USDA in response to the increase in colony collapse due to parasites. They have been noted to have natural capabilities and colony tolerance to handle varroa and tracheal mites.

Russian queens from certified members of the Russian Honey Bee Breeders’ Association (RHBA) members are not hybrids. Rather, they are pure bred from a broadly based closed breeding population selected for resistance to varroa and increased honey production.

One characteristic of Russians is they require both nectar and pollen to build up hive population. Russians, like other races, store a pollen reserve. However, the Russians will not use this reserve for colony buildup. They will use it to maintain hive population in times of dearth but only sparingly. Since they are not rearing a large amount of brood, these bees are very frugal. They will winter with a much smaller population but will actually pass up Italians in hive population in the spring when both pollen and nectar become available. The buildup can be so rapid they will become overcrowded and swarm if enough room is not provided. The beekeeper must provide ample room for the queen to lay eggs and for honey storage to prevent swarming

Beyond these traits, Russian bees exhibit some unusual behaviors in comparison to other strains. For example, Russian honey bee colonies tend to contain a queen cell almost all the time, in comparison to most stocks, where a queen cell is only present during times of swarming or queen-replacement. Russian honey bees are unique in that colonies will often have active queen cells but do not swarm. Another interesting trait is that although Russian colonies tend to be more aggressive, research shows that when in the presence of other strains, there is significant cross-contamination of stock and an increased susceptibility to natural pests.

Finally there is a common misconception that the Russian honeybee is a race of bees such as Italian, Carniolan, etc. Russian honeybees imported from Russian are not a race but they are actually a hybrid between Italian, Carniolan, Caucasian, a little German black and whatever bee was in that area. That is why the Russian bee varies in color from yellow (the Italian component) to black (Carniolan, Caucasian, and German black). After introduction into the US, Russian honeybees are maintained from generation to generation using line breeding of a closed population.

 Carniolan Honey Bee (Apis mellifera carnica)

Carniolan Honey Bee The Carniolan Bee is one of the top 2 most popular bee stocks in the United States. This strain is favored for a variety of reasons including:

  Their explosive spring buildup makes it ideal for beekeepers looking to build up quickly before the summer
  Carniolan Bees are extremely docile and take a lot of irritation to be agitated enough to sting.
  Most notably, the Carniolan Bee has one of the longest tongues at 6.5 to 6.7 mm, which helps it pollinate crops like clover, meaning more sources of nutrition for the colony than other strains of honey bee stock.

These bees are particularly adept at adjusting worker population to nectar availability. It relies on these rapid adjustments of population levels to rapidly expand worker bee populations after nectar becomes available in the spring, and, again, to rapidly cut off brood production when nectar ceases to be available in quantity. It meets periods of high nectar with high worker populations and consequently stores large quantities of honey and pollen during those periods.

They are resistant to some diseases and parasites that can debilitate hives of other subspecies.

Beyond these basic traits, due to the origin of this stock from central and Eastern Europe, these bees have been bred to be more tolerant of colder climates and rank among the best stocks for overwintering. These bees spend their winters in a tight cluster with a modest food supply and have proven to be a favorite for beekeepers in Slovenia, where beekeeping is of cultural significance.

Yet, there are some drawbacks with this strain, most notably, this bee stock tends to swarm more often than most other subspecies of bee. Some researchers attribute this to their explosive growth and comb production early in the year and even into times of dearth, as they do not require much food to survive in comparison to other bee strains.

There are some disadvantages with this breed:

  More prone to swarming if overcrowded.
  Low ability to produce wax and build comb (not uniformly accepted as fact).
  Low ability to thrive in hot summer weather.
  Strength of brood nest more dependent on availability of pollen.
  Dark queen is difficult to find.

 Buckfast Honey Bee (The mutt of honey bee stock)

Buckfast Honey Bee The Buckfast Bee stock is named for the location of its hybridization and origin, Buckfast Abbey, in Devon in the United Kingdom. During the early 20th century, populations were being decimated by tracheal mites. Brother Adam (Karl Kehrle) who was in charge of beekeeping at the abbey, started to cross the strongest colonies who had survived in the area. The new stock of bees has become a favorite for those in similar environments to those of the British Isles.

The Buckfast bee shows strong resistance to some natural parasites. It has a strong knack for foraging and is not a strain that tends to swarm, making it more difficult to find these bees in the United States. Beyond this, there is often inbreeding with this strain over time. This decreases the characteristics such as resilient behavior against pests and other elements that make this a quality strain of honey bee.

The color of the Buckfast bee is described by its creator, Brother Adam, as being similar to the old Italian Honey Bee, whose color was darker than nowadays. However, the selection was never carried out in order to obtain color uniformity, as this would have had a negative impact on other more important traits. This is the reason for the lack of uniformity in color of the Buckfast bee. When it comes to characteristics that directly impact the performance and economical value of the race, the uniformity is excellent.

Among these qualities we can name the very prolific queens, the very low swarm instinct, gentleness and a high resistance to diseases. It also produces less propolis than other races, overwinters extremely well, using less honey stores, great honey producers, builds up rapidly in the spring while maintaining a strong colony during the entire summer. It’s probably the gentlest bee of all the races, allowing the beekeeper to work with minimal use of smoke and in bad weather.

 Caucasian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera caucasica)

Caucasian Honey Bee Caucasian Honey Bees originated in the mountain range and valleys of the Caucasus. The climate varies considerably and the local strains have adapted to suit.

This bee stock was once very popular in the United States, but its lack of honey production overall has lessened its use among honey producers in the United States. Yet, there are still some commercial pollinators who use this strain due to its very long tongue; longer than Carniolan bee stock most of the time. Similar to the Carniolan bee, the Caucasian bee shares similar traits in temperament.

They are a silver gray to dark brown color. They use propolis excessively which is a sticky propolis rather than a hard propolis. They build up a little slower in the spring than the Italians. They are reputed to be gentler than the Italians and they are less prone to robbing. In theory they are less productive than Italians. On average they are about the same productivity as the Italians, but since they rob less you get less of the really booming hives that have robbed out all their neighbors. They are fond of propolis and often coat everything in a sticky kind of propolis, like fly paper.

The disadvantages of this breed include:

  Colonies do not reach full strength until mid-summer, which is an undesirable trait for areas with the highest nectar flow in the spring.
  The great use of propolis may be seen as undesirable as it makes hive management more difficult. Frames and hive boxes are glued together more substantially.
  Over-wintering in northern climates is not good due to susceptibility to nosema.
  Inclined to drifting and robbing.

  German Dark Honey Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera)

German Honey Bee The European Dark Bee, or German Dark Bee, was brought from Northern Eurasia in the colonial era. This subspecies has since then been segmented further into sub races of German Bees due to its hardiness. It is able to survive long, cold winters more often than other strains of honey bees. However, due to their defensive nature and susceptibility to brood diseases like American and European foulbrood, this stock has lost significant favor with beekeepers all over the world.

The German Honey Bee can be distinguished from other subspecies by their stocky body, abundant thorax and sparse abdominal hair which is brown, and overall dark coloration. There is also heavy dark pigmentation of the wings. Overall, when viewed from a distance, they should appear blackish, or in mellifera, rich dark brown. The aggressive feral hybrids with other subspecies can be distinguished by the lighter, yellowish banding on the sides of the abdomen, but this is often difficult. For breeding pure dark bees according to the standard, details of the wing veins are nowadays considered to be the only reliable distinguishing character.

Hybrids have a defensive character and have the reputation of stinging people (and other creatures) for no apparent reason. Some colonies are very "runny" on the comb and so excitable that beekeepers consider them difficult to work with. This characteristic is not, however, one that has been traditionally associated with the dark bee breeds, which were previously known for their rather easy handling (though they have never been considered as placid as the Carniolan honey bee).

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