What Are Italian Bees? Traits, Pros, And Cons

Italian honey bees building comb

Italian bee: Apis mellifera ligustica

The Italian honey bee is the most popular breed with beekeepers worldwide. Found in climates ranging from icy cold through to tropical, these bees are highly adaptable to their habitat. In this guide, we’ll look at the traits, pros, and cons of the Italian bees to help you decide if they’re right for you.

Be sure to also check out our complete guide to honey bee breeds. We look at a range of common races and how they compare.

Characteristics of Italian bees

The Italian honey bee has a gentle nature, making inspections relatively stress-free for beekeepers. They also keep a tidy hive and are excellent foragers, building large hives with lots of honey. On the downside, they require a lot of pollen and honey to get through winter and are prone to drifting and swarming.

Gentle nature

Like Buckfast bees, the Italian bee is a good option for beginner beekeepers. They’re easy to work with and gentle-natured, which is helpful when you’re getting started. Compared to some aggressive breeds, less smoke is needed.

Italian beehives are also relatively calm when it comes time to re-queen. The hive will typically accept the new queen quickly with less chance of her being killed. This characteristic leads to more efficient beekeeping as there is less wasted time waiting for the new queen to lay eggs.

Prolific producers

Most beekeepers place honey production high on their list of requirements. Italian bees are excellent foragers and build large hives that produce a lot of honey at harvest time.

Keep in mind that Italian bees don’t swiftly adjust their colony size like Carniolans. That means the hive will maintain a large colony over winter. This can be a problem if you live in a cooler climate as the hive needs a lot of pollen and honey to overwinter.  

Aerial shot of bees on a hive frame.
Italian honey bees build brood and honeycomb fast.

Good housekeeping

Italian bees are excellent housekeepers and do a good job of keeping European foulbrood (EFB) out of the hive. Their resistance to this disease was a big part of why they superseded black bees.

Beekeepers will need to inspect for parasites like tracheal and varroa mites. These pests are an ongoing problem for beekeepers throughout the world. Not only do they use the honey bee as a food source, but they also spread disease. Italian bees struggle to deal with mites and often require treatments to keep mite levels down.

If you’re looking for bees with excellent mite resistance, consider the Buckfast or Russian races. 

Tendency to swarm

Italian bees are prone to swarming which is a source of frustration for beekeepers. Each time, significant bees and honey are lost. This behavior often happens during spring buildup. The colony expands rapidly resulting in roughly half the bees moving to a new home.

Beekeepers who decide to use Italian bees will need to take an active, hands-on approach. Regular inspections are essential during nectar flow to ensure the hive doesn’t run out of space. Extra brood boxes or supers should be added early to reduce swarming.

Prone to drifting

Italian bees don’t have a strong sense of direction, relative to other breeds. This can lead to drifting, where some bees return to a different hive nearby. No beekeeper wants drifting bees as they contribute to the spread of varroa mites and foulbrood.     

A line of beehives with Italian bees flying through the air
Multiple hives can cause Italian bees tend to drift.

Strengths of Italian bees

  • Gentle, non-aggressive bees make inspections less stressful.
  • Hardworking and excellent at foraging.
  • A prolific queen that lays a lot of eggs fast.
  • Good housekeepers with good resistance to foulbrood.
  • Don’t usually build a lot of propolis on frames.
  • Excellent at building out comb.
  • Easy to spot the queen in the hive.

Weaknesses of Italian bees

  • High consumers of stored honey and pollen.
  • Maintain a larger colony through winter.
  • Tendency to drift and swarm.
  • Slow to begin developing in spring.
  • Susceptible to mites and some diseases.

Appearance

Italian worker bees have a brown abdomen with yellowish-brown bands. They are a lighter shade than the queen bee, which is sometimes orange or leathery brown. The difference in appearance makes it easier for beekeepers to locate the queen.

Origin

Researchers believe Italian bees originated from the southern region of Italy. They are an adaptable race that may have lived through the last ice age.

In 1859, Italian honey bees were introduced to America, where they soon replaced German bees (aka black bees). Over time, Italian bees have found their way onto every continent except Antarctica.

7 fast facts about Italian honey bees

  1. The scientific name for the Italian honey bee is the Apis mellifera ligustica.
  2. They were the first domesticated bee breed to be introduced to North America.
  3. Italian bees are the most commonly used race used by beekeepers; they are also the most widely distributed globally.
  4. They struggle in humid, tropical climates and areas that experience extreme cold.
  5. Cordovan honey bees are a subset of the Italian bee.
  6. The Italian bee is also known as the Lingurian honey bee.
  7. The last remaining genetically pure Lingurian bees are located on Kangaroo Island in Australia. 

Commonly asked questions

What’s the difference between Russian and Italian bees?

Russian and Italian honey bees are both excellent breeds for beekeeping. Italian bees are often less aggressive and rear brood continuously throughout the warmer seasons. Russian bees are more resistant to pests like tracheal or varroa mites and deal with cold winters better. They only rear their brood when pollen is available. 

What is the difference between Italian and Caucasian bees?

Italian bees are popular amongst beekeepers in the United States for their docile behavior and propensity to forage well. They build large colonies and produce a lot of honey. Caucasian bees are also non-aggressive and adapt well to cooler weather. They aren’t as productive as Italian bees and build messy hives which require more work from the beekeeper.  

Should I get Italian or Carniolan bees?

Italian and Carniolan bees are both excellent options for beekeepers, revered for their prolific foraging and high levels of honey production. If your main goal is harvesting honey then Carniolans are generally a better option. They overwinter with a smaller colony and require less honey to get through the colder months alive.

Summing up

Italian honey bees are the most popular honey bee for beekeeping, which means it’s easy to find a supplier. You’ll also have access to a lot of resources as so many beekeepers have experience with them.

They have some useful strengths like being strong foragers and building large colonies. But like any race, they’re not perfect. In colder climates, beekeepers will have to resist taking too much honey for themselves. Take too much and you’ll probably have to replace the colony in spring as they won’t have enough food to survive.

If you live in a temperate or warm climate then Italian bees are ideal. They thrive in areas where foraging is plentiful and shivering through winter isn’t required. Anyone outside this ideal climate may want to consider Buckfast bees.  

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