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Types of Honey Bees

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.

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 beekeepers consider for their location. Beyond that, there are even local strains coming from different regions of the US and the world every year as bees continually cross breed with drones from other hives.

Italian Honey Bee – image from Don Farrall/Getty Images
Italian Honey Bee – image from Don Farrall/Getty Images

The Italian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera ligustica)

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.

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

Russian Honey Bee – image from 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.

Africanized Honey Bee – image from
Africanized Honey Bee – image from

The Africanized Bee

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.

Carniolan Honey Bee – image from Rural King
Carniolan Honey Bee – image from Rural King

The Carniolan Bee (Apis mellifera carnica)

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.

Buckfast Honey Bee – image from Max Pixel
Buckfast Honey Bee – image from Max Pixel

The Buckfast Bee (The mutt of honey bee stock)

The Buckfast Bee stock is named for the location of its hybridization and origin, Buckfast Abbey, in Devon, 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.

Caucasian Honey Bee – image from
Caucasian Honey Bee – image from

The Caucasian Bee (Apis mellifera caucasica)

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.

Here at Sycamore Creek we tend to work mostly with the Italian Honey Bee for the production of honey. As we expand our Queen rearing capabilities we are looking to cross other breeds to incorporate more hardy strains with some additional parasite resistance.

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