Friday, September 30, 2011

Bee Informed, Part 7: Breeds

The Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) is one of four species of honeybees in the world, and the one that American beekeepers primarily work with. Like most other domesticated animals, the species has been tinkered with extensively, and many distinct breeds have been created by humans in order for their bees to possess certain desirable and predictable traits, regarding their behavior, swarming tendencies, honey production, etc. The following is an overview of the most common breeds found in American apiaries, beginning with the most common:


  • Italian (Apis mellifera ligustica):
Also called the "Golden Italian," this is by far the most popular breed. It is considered the best general-purpose honeybee, and as such is the "default" bee used by beekeepers. It is usually recommended to novices. These are what most people think of when they think of a honeybee: black head and legs, and black and orange/yellow bands on their abdomens.

Pros: Easy to work with and docile, Italians are a good "beginner" bee that builds comb quickly and are excellent foragers. The queens are a bit darker than the lightly-colored workers, which makes them easier to find in the hive. They have only moderate swarming tendencies and don't produce much propolis. They exhibit strong hive-cleaning behavior and are resistant to European foulbrood.

Cons: The Italians are a bit slow in their spring buildup, and brood rearing continues during the fall, after the honey flow has stopped. They also tend to build a lot of burr comb, which is a nuisance to beekeepers. Because their foraging area is quite small, they have a tendency to rob other hives, and to leave their own hive to join another (known as "drifting"). They are also susceptible to disease.


  • Carniolan (A. mellifera carnica):
The Carniolan originated in Slovenia, and is often used in eastern Europe and the Balkans. They are light brown to black in color.

Pros: They tolerate cold better than most breeds, foraging earlier in the morning and in cooler, wetter weather. Since they also overwinter well with less honey stores, because the queen stops laying eggs during the fall, they are ideal for higher latitudes. Brood production is also dependent on the availability of food. These have a rapid spring buildup and are excellent foragers. Like the Italians, they are resistant to brood disease and are very calm and easy to work with, but they build less burr comb.

Cons: Because brood rearing relies on food supply, their populations will fluctuate. Carniolans also tend to swarm quite readily.


  • Caucasian (A. mellifera caucasica):
As the name implies, these bees originated in the high valleys of the central Caucasus. They are a silvery-gray to dark brown.

Pros: With a longer tongue than most, these bees can take advantage of food sources inaccessible to other breeds. They create strong, populous colonies and overwinter well by stopping brood production in the fall. They also forage earlier and on cooler days, and are generally fairly calm.

Cons: Caucasians have a slow spring buildup and have a tendency to rob. They produce an abundance of propolis, making it difficult for beekeepers to work the hives. They also produce wet capped comb, which is undesirable for the sale of honeycomb. They are susceptible to disease, especially nosema, and if alarmed, they are difficult to calm again. They are quick to sting.


  • Russian (A. mellifera sp.):
Russian honeybees have only been available to the general public since 2000, and are a relatively new breed. Originating in the Primorsky region, they showed a strong resistance to mites, and have been bred for that purpose.

Pros: Resistant to Varroa and tracheal mites, with a good winter tolerance and good spring buildup. Fairly calm in the hive, and easy to work with.

Cons: They are expensive, and are a bit defensive. They tend to headbutt as a defense, as well as sting. Their productivity can be unpredictable, and they are prone to swarm annually.


  • Buckfast (A. mellifera, hybrid):
This breed was created by "Brother Adam" of Buckfast Abbey, by breeding Italians with native English bees in an attempt to produce a bee that was more resistant to parasitic mites, which were causing a lot of trouble for English apiaries during the early 20th century.

Pros: Highly resistant to tracheal mites, and resistant to chalkbrood. This is a very docile breed and unlikely to sting in England, but more defensive in the U.S. (The reason for this is that U.S. import regulations prohibit the importation of the pure Buckfast strain, forcing American apiaries to impregnate non-Buckfast queens with frozen Buckfast drone sperm.) They overwinter well, and are not prone to swarming.

Cons: They have a slow spring buildup and are not very productive foragers in the spring.


  • German Black or European Dark Bee (A. mellifera mellifera):
This was the first honeybee imported to the Americas by the earliest colonists (according to some sources, this breed was brought over on the Mayflower), but now are almost impossible to buy in the United States. It is a distinctive brown or black.
Pros: Native to England and Germany, this breed overwinters very well, and tolerates cold and wet climates.

Cons: These bees tend to be excitable and defensive, making them difficult to work with. Moreover, they have a slow spring buildup.


  • Africanized Honey Bees or "AHB" (A. mellifera, hybrid):
I include these on the list, not because they are "popular" (in fact, these are about the least desirable for any apiary), but because we tend to hear so much about them. AHBs are also known as "killer bees" for their high aggressiveness and sometimes lethal defensive tendencies. The Africanized bees are essentially a hybrid cross between Italians and an African species, A. mellifera scutelata, and are sometimes simply (and erroneously) referred to by that name. They were bred, successfully, by the USDA and in Brazil in an attempt to create a very productive, disease-resistant breed, but with the unpleasant side effect of being very easily alarmed and prone to stinging en masse, often for no discernible reason.

Pros: Extremely productive, producing large honey yields. Disease resistant.

Cons: Mean as hell, but indistinguishable from Italians.


There are many more breeds of honeybees, mainly hybrids, that are not included on this list, but these are the most common in use in the United States today. Both of my hives, incidentally, are non-Africanized Italians. I promise.

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