Honey bees may all look similar, but each breed has a unique set of character traits. Beekeepers have a much greater chance of success if they choose a strain of bees suitable for their hive. This guide will look at some common types of bee breeds along with their characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages.
1. Italian Honey Bee
Italian bees are the most popular race of honey bee worldwide. Their stock are highly adaptable and can survive a range of conditions. They are found in all types of climates, from temperate to tropical.
Italian bees are gentle and easy to manage. They’re excellent for beginner beekeepers who don’t want the stress of aggressive, stinging bees. Keep in mind a beekeeping suit and smoker are still recommended, even if they are a docile race.
The Italian bee is excellent at gathering nectar and pollen and will build large hives with lots of honey. Italians are also very good at keeping their hives clean and tidy. However, they need a lot of pollen and honey to survive the cold winter months and are prone to drifting and swarming.
Read more about Italian bees.
2. Carniolan Honey Bee
Carniolans are a subspecies native to the Carniola region of Slovenia. These bees are the second most popular bee strain in the United States, used by commercial apiaries and hobbyists.
Carniolan bees are an excellent choice for a strong hive that makes a lot of honey. They display explosive early spring buildup and have good parasite resistance. Carnies are very gentle and docile, making them easy to handle.
Read more about Carniolan bees.
3. Russian Honey Bee
Russian honey bees are native to Russia’s Primorsky Krai region. Since their arrival to the United States in 1997, they have become more prevalent among American beekeepers. Their ability to overwinter in cold climates makes them a good choice for beekeepers in the northern states of the U.S.
The Russian bee pays close attention to its available foraging resources. Brood production gets massively scaled back during times of dearth and food shortage. This adaptability is valuable if your hives are in a climate where forage is heavily dependent on the season.
Russian bees sometimes build queen cells and raise new queens without swarming. Scientists think this is because they anticipate something happening to the current queen.
Read more about Russian bees.
4. Buckfast Honey Bee
Buckfast honey bees are a hybrid breed of several different bee races. Brother Adam developed them in the 1900s in response to tracheal mites wiping out local beehives.
Buck fast bees have some excellent traits which will appeal to some beekeepers. They’re easy to care for, tolerant of cold weather, and produce high-quality honey. This strain of bee is also gentle and has a very low tendency to swarm. They’re also resistant to parasitic tracheal mites.
Read more about Buckfast bees.
5. Caucasian Honey Bee
Caucasian honey bees originate from the mountains of the Caucasus region. These mountains experience extreme weather conditions, making the local bees more adaptable.
Caucasians are a calm and gentle species of honey bee and won’t usually attack unless provoked.
Unlike other breeds of honey bees, the Caucasian does not release apitoxin when it uses its sting. This means if you happen to get stung, other bees nearby won’t also attack.
Caucasians are a type of mountain bee so they store honey near their brood. This race will not start building out new comb unless the current one is full. This will help beekeepers because there won’t be partially filled comb at harvest time.
Read more about Caucasian bees.
6. Cordovan Honey Bee
Cordovans are one of the easiest types of honeybees to identify because of their beautiful golden color. They are not technically a race of their own but a subset of the Italian honeybee.
The Cordovan shares traits similar to the Italian honey bee although they are often more pronounced. They are an extremely gentle breed, comparable to the Buckfast race, which makes them an excellent option for hobbyists and beekeeping beginners.
The Cordovan queen bee is prolific in spring, laying many eggs fast. As summer arrives, the colony has often built a huge thriving colony. They are excellent pollinators, and beekeepers making bee packages early in the season will also appreciate this race.
Read more about Cordovan bees.
7. Africanized Honey Bee
Africanized bees are a hybrid of European honey bee races and the African honey bee. Also known as killer bees, they are aggressive and will attack even if unprovoked. Their stings are no more potent than those of other honeybees, but they respond in greater numbers when defending their hives.
In the United States, Africanized honey bees are not used by backyard or commercial beekeepers and are considered a significant threat to hives.
The Africanized bee doesn’t hoard honey or get attached to its home. Colonies live off sparse nectar resources and exploit new habitats as required.
Read more about Africanized bees.
What is a bee breed?
All bees have a similar anatomy that classifies them under the same taxonomic genus. They also have characteristics that set them apart, a lot like other animals such as dogs, cats, and cows. A bee breed is also known as a bee race.
While a large dog breed isn’t suitable for apartments, certain honey bee species won’t work for every beekeeper. The wrong dog may result in an unhappy pet, but the wrong choice of bee can make the difference between a hive’s success or failure.
A breed or race is any subspecies of the western honey bee. Bees that are the result of breeding different subspecies are called hybrids.
Can I rely on a breed of bee to have specific characteristics?
While it is easy to control breeds of most animals like sheep or cattle, maintaining the purity of bee races is much more difficult. After all, bees are free to roam at will, and the queen can mate with any drone she sees fit. Some breeding programs are certified and guarantee a particular type of bee. However, buying a package of purebred bees costs more, and sourcing a supplier isn’t always easy.
What bee characteristics should I consider?
While different species of bees have dozens of varying traits, some of the important questions include the following:
- Are they docile or aggressive?
- Will your bees swarm for any small reason?
- How well do they adapt to different climates?
- Do they produce lots of honey?
- How well do they fight disease and parasites?
- Do they overwinter well?
Are there other breeds of bees to consider?
Popular bee breeds any hybrids for beekeepers include Italian, Carniolan, Cordovan, Russian, Buckfast, and Caucasian. Other races you may want to consider are listed below.
German Dark Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera Mellifera): Also known as the European dark bee, the German Dark bee was introduced to the United States during the colonial era. While they are ideal for cold winters, this breed is susceptible to brood disease and tends to be overly defensive.
Himalayan Honey Bee (Apis Cerana): If you’re a beekeeper in Asia, then the Himalayan bee is a good option. These small bees are very resilient to disease as they often renew wax comb. They can also adapt well to different climates, whether hot or cold.
Gibraltar Honey Bee (Apis Mellifera Iberiensis): The Gibraltar honey bee may be worth considering. While they may exhibit super-defensive traits, they also have a pure bloodline and are useful honey producers.
Beekeepers should weigh the pros and cons of different bee breeds to decide which is best for their needs. While we’ve included some common options, the list isn’t exhaustive. For example, the Saskatraz is another hybrid that gets excellent reviews.
Bee traits are generalizations, and our advice is only a base reference. Not all breeds behave as you’d expect, and environmental factors like viruses and mite load can quickly change your colony’s normal hive behavior.
If you decide to buy a package of bees, try to find a trusted seller with a reputation for quality breeding. While it’s possible to inspect a horse or dog for quality traits, doing so with bees isn’t so easy. You’re at the mercy of the bee breeder to a certain extent.
Whatever bee breed you choose, always try to buy bees locally. They’ve successfully overwintered, dealing with local challenges like climate and pests. It gives beekeepers the best chance of keeping a thriving hive that pollinates effectively and provides a lot of honey.