Honey Bee Breeds and Their Attributes

Italian Honey Bee - image from Don Farrall Getty Images

Italian Honey Bee - image from Don Farrall Getty Images

Introduction

Honey bees, like all living things, vary in their traits across the species. Genetic differences across these breeds can lead to differences in attributes like temperament, disease resistance, productivity, color and much more. The environment has a huge impact on differences among bee colonies due to stimuli and response, but the genetic makeup of a colony is the basis for many of the characteristics that define a particular subspecies of honey bee. For as long as honey bees have been domesticated, beekeepers have known that different genetic stocks have distinctive differences that can be used to their advantage or ignored to their disadvantage.  Whether it be pollination, a honey crop, bee reproduction, resiliency or otherwise, it is important to have a general grasp on what this means for you and your Beekeeping Goals.

What is Bee Stock? A Subspecies of Apis mellifera?

“Stock,” as defined by David Tarpy at North Carolina State University, is a term to define a loose combination of traits that characterize a particular group of bees. Such groups can be divided by the species, race, region, population, or breeding line in a commercial operation. In many ways, the easiest way to understand Bee Stock is to compare it to the way we have followed and tracked the pedigree of racing horses throughout the ages. Often there are lines of heredity that go back hundreds of years in quality stock.

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. Beyond that, these races are still defined from the Old World. Dr. Al Dietz defined the terms “bee stock” and “races” as “The geographic races of bees are the results of natural selection in their homeland. That is, the bees became adjusted to their original environment, but not always to the economic requirements of beekeepers. Therefore, they are not the result, but the raw material for breeding.” His statement (1992. Honey bees of the world. The Hive and the Honey Bee) helps us to understand that although these genetic strains are rooted in history, they are still just a way to help us classify basic differences and are not impervious to flaws.

Things to Consider When Deciding on a Bee Stock

There are 5 main points to consider when searching for and choosing a bee stock according to the American Bee Journal. Others take it to a a level of detail that may be beyond a new beekeeper or even a practiced beekeeper of 5 years. These types of selection criteria include:

  1. Production
  2. Location
  3. Temperament
  4. Disease resistance
  5. Quality of products
  6. Age of line
  7. Reproduction Rates
  8. Swarming Rates
  9. Noted Range
  10. Environmental Resilience
  11. Much more

More importantly, there are different criteria for different styles and types of beekeepers.  It all goes back to why you are a beekeeper and your goals behind keeping bees.  

The Main Subspecies of Honey Bees (Apis Mellifera)

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. Beyond that, there are local strains coming from different regions of the US and the world every year. 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. This information comes from a variety of research institutions who have focused on making this a useful tool.



The Italian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera ligustica)

Italian Honey Bee - Don Farrall Getty Images

Italian Honey Bee – image from Don Farrall/Getty Images

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.

Despite the well-rounded advantages of the Italian Bee, there are some drawbacks.

  1. They consume resources at a rapid pace due to their long brood cycles that can last deep into the fall.
  2. They are notorious for robbing stores in weaker or neighboring hives.
  3. 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.

Italian Honey Bees are  great for almost any beekeeper due to their well-rounded nature and availability in packages and nucs.

The Russian Bee (from Primorsky Krai region of Russia)

Russian Honey Bee - Sweet Mountain Farm

Russian Honey Bee – image from Sweet Mountain Farm

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. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture’s Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology lab in Baton Rouge, Louisiana has shown results that many stocks of this breed contain half the mite load of standard commercial stocks.

Russian bees tend to rear brood only during times of nectar and pollen flows, making this subspecies heavily reliant on the surrounding environment. Also, less availability due to constraints on breeding make this bee significantly more difficult to obtain for hobbyists or “newbees.”

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. 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.

Overall, this strain of bees is still being understood and is most likely not available to most beekeepers.

The Carniolan Bee (Apis mellifera carnica)

Carniolan Honey Bee - image from Rural King

Carniolan Honey Bee – image from Rural King

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.

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.

Overall, this strain of honey bee is a great option for beekeepers who are concerned about shifting weather from warm to cold and damp or rougher winter seasons.

The Buckfast Bee (The mutt of honey bee stock)

Buckfast Honey Bee - image from Max Pixel

Buckfast Honey Bee – image from Max Pixel

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 have become a favorite for those in similar environments as that 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.

Yet, if a beekeeper can tolerate the increased aggressive behavior and monitor the colony, this bee stock can last years without replacement.

The Caucasian Bee (Apis mellifera caucasica)

Caucasian Honey Bee - image from EcoFilms.ge

Caucasian Honey Bee – image from EcoFilms.ge

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.

The lessened use of this strain in the US has increased its value among traditionalists because most stock is imported from Europe and then cross-bred with Carniolans. Even though the gradual build-up rate of the colony is slower than many largely used stocks, it allows for honey to be stored more efficiently near the brood. In other words, it doesn’t proceed to a new comb until the previous one is completely filled.

For beekeepers who understand the importance of winter stores and the “heating blanket” in colder climates, this single trait could help your bees increase the chance of overwintering this year.

The German Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera)

German Dark Honey Bee - image from The Belfast Telegraph

German Dark Honey Bee – image from The Belfast Telegraph

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.

Although this strain of bee stock has lost significant value in the commercial sector, there are still researchers and hobbyists working hard to isolate the hardiness of this subspecies through tracking breeding values and data religiously.

For beekeepers in the US, this strain is most likely not available, and would not be a good choice unless you are familiar with natural diseases and parasites in the hive. The current state of things makes this a difficult race to maintain a healthy colony.

The Africanized Bee (The Misunderstood Bee)

Africanized Honey Bee - image from BBC.com

Africanized Honey Bee – image from BBC.com

The Africanized, or Killer Bee as most know it, is not even from Africa – it originated in Brazil. This honey bee strain was a hybrid designed in a lab with the goal of increasing pest and parasite resistance, while at the same time increasing production.  This bee stock showed great promise until 26 experimental swarms escaped quarantine and took over South America.

This highly aggressive strain of honey bee has some advantages, if one learns to work with them. They begin foraging at a younger age, typically produce more honey, and have a significantly smaller colony size, even though they reproduce at a faster pace.  There are many stories of beekeepers working well with these bees for these positive traits.

Overall, these bees are misunderstood and the threat of being stung to death is not worth the risk for most beekeepers, especially new beekeepers who are learning. As further research arises about feral colonies of hybridized bees with these traits arise, this stock plays a relatively insignificant role in the beekeeping world, unless you have encountered them in person. This is why we have not added them to our table of honey bee stock, but we think it is important for beekeepers to know about them.

At the End of the Day

It really doesn’t matter what type of subspecies or race of honey bee you choose. It is up to you, the beekeeper, to be the best steward of your colony or colonies. In many cases, you will not even get a choice as to the type of bees you get, especially if you are in the early stages of your beekeeping journey. I recommend, though, to never follow blindly. Ask questions of the mentor you are following. If your philosophy does not align with his or hers, choose something different and test. Find the best group of people to discuss beekeeping with. At Beepods, we have set up a variety of groups for top bar beekeepers and our Beepods Beekeepers.

 

Brad James
Brad James
Brad James is Beepods CEO. He covers the business of beekeeping and implementation of beekeeping systems from every angle -- as well as occasional other topics. Before joining Beepods, Brad has helped many startups get off the ground through implementing organizational strategy that leverages current personnel and implementing tried and true business processes that promote business growth and leadership development. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @BJJames23.

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