The Ultimate Guide to Choosing the Best Honey Bee Breeds

The primary goal of every beekeeper is to ensure that they have selected the ideal type of honey bees for the hives. Although it seems that every bee looks the same, there are a number of unique characteristics of each honey bee kind which sets them apart from the rest of their breeds.

Genetic differences lead to distinctive attributes amongst bee kind such as their color, productivity temperament, resistance to disease and so much more. Furthermore, environment plays a big role on impacting bee behavior and how they respond to their surroundings. Taking a look at the traits of several domestic bees and their special abilities provides a better insight into how they would behave under diverse environmental conditions.

Once beekeepers have a clear idea about the characteristics of these bee breeds, it makes it easier to select a specific kind of bee type that they believe would adapt well to their hive conditions. Some of the most common types of bee breeds that are selected for beekeeping include Italian bee, German bee, Caucasian bee and so many more.

Different kinds of honey bee races

Italian Bee (apis mellifera ligustica)

Italian Honeybee - Apis mellifera ligustica

Starting with one of the most popular species among beekeepers is the Italian honeybee- one of the first domesticated honeybees that were imported to North America during the eighteenth century.

The Italian bees have a small body and the over hairs all across their body are much shorter compared to the darker honeybee races. 

 

Their abdomen is commonly seen in yellow and brown bands which are very light colored- often completely yellow in several colonies.

These Italian honeybees have adapted well to the warm climate which is why they do not fly or survive under damp or cool weather conditions. Moreover, they tend to finish their honey stores in winter rather quickly so it is best to have extra honey on hand in case your bees come across a shortage. They are also vulnerable to disease as they do not carry a VSH trait- causing their colonies to eventually succumb to the Colony Collapse Disorder. The best way to counter these diseases is to treat them in the earlier stages before they become permanent.

Furthermore, they are often noted to have a docile and gentle nature, with a tendency to stay clean and an eagerness for building combs. And unlike other bee types, Italian bees produce more honey and less propolis due to their tendency to collect more flower honey rather than the flower dew.

Originating from the continental parts of Italy, some of their key features that makes them stand apart from the rest of their bee kind is their lack of swarming tendency and surprisingly gentle nature- making them an excellent choice for new honey beekeepers who have yet to pick out the perfect honey bee.

German Bee (apis mellifera mellifera)

German Honeybee (apis mellifera mellifera)

The German Dark Bee, or the European Dark Bee, is a subspecies of the Western honeybee that has further been segmented into several German bee sub-races due to its robustness.

Despite having short tongues, their bodies are surprisingly larger and stocky in size with black and brown color and a few small yellow spots on their abdomen. 

They are also highly adaptable to survive under various weather conditions so you can find their species flying almost all year around. However, due to their poor hygienic behavior, they carry a low resistance towards varroa mites and are vulnerable to brood diseases.

Some of their common characteristics involve showing high levels of aggression and nervousness- which can be overcome with a continual selective breeding process over the next few generations. Moreover, German bees tend to create less pollen due to their large body size and small tongues which makes it difficult for them to enter small flower spaces.

During the colonial era, these German bees were brought from Northern Eurasia and are most likely not available in most areas due to their hostile nature. Moreover, pure German bees are completely black in color and are considered to be a rare species among bee kind. It is advised that beekeepers who have a thorough knowledge regarding bee diseases and hive parasites should consider domesticating these German bees.

Caucasian Bee (apis mellifera caucasica)

Caucasian Honeybee - Caucasian Bee (apis mellifera caucasica)

When it comes to their abilities and tendencies, the Caucasian honeybees are very similar to the Italian honeybees.

Both of them have the same body size, with the Caucasian honeybee having a dark-colored body with visible brown or grey spots that can be seen certain times. 

These bees work ideally during the summer, but lack the zeal to perform just as well during cold climates. Moreover, they have shown to have a medium resistance to most diseases, specifically to EFB.

Caucasian bees are known to be the most gentle out of all honey bees and show zeal in brood production which results in raising strong colonies. They also create higher honey production compared to the bees in their native area. Since they have a long proboscis, they are able to easily extract the nectar from within the deepest nectar tissues that most bee species cannot reach.

Furthermore, most of their strain stock is imported from Europe to the United States and are occasionally cross-bred with Carniolans. They are also more inclined to robbing and their excessive use of propolis has been seen as difficult to deal with as hive boxes are strongly struck together.

Beekeepers who have a better understanding of winter stores and utilizing heating blanket during cold weathers can increase the chance of overwintering for their bees.

Click here to learn: How to winterize a beehive

Carniolan Bee (apis mellifera carnica)

Carniolan Bee - Carniolan Bee (apis mellifera carnica)

Carniolan bees are considered to be one of the top best choices for beekeepers to have in the United States.

Their bodies are about the same size as the European black bees with just the exception of their abdomens, which are much slimmer. 

They have a very distinguishable dusky grey and brown color, covered in stripes that are toned down by a light brown color. You can also find dots or colored rings on their bodies- hence their nickname ‘grey bee’.

Carniolan bees are the ideal bees for cold climate conditions as they are able to overwinter in small numbers of their kind and they also have a high resistance towards diverse bee related diseases. Usually considered to have docile nature, it can take a lot of irritation before they get triggered enough to start stinging.

As active foragers, these bees can develop a consistent honey flow so you need to give them a lot of space in case they collect too much honey. Originating from Central and Eastern Europe, beekeepers from Slovenia are extremely fond of Carniolan bees where beekeeping holds a cultural significance. Moreover, the Carniolan bee has the longest tongue at about 6.5-6.7 mm, which allows better and efficient pollination for their species during springtime.

Hence, their colossal spring buildup can put new beekeepers at peace as they can have their fair share of honey in plenty of stocks before summer.

Buckfast Bee

Buckfast Honeybee

As a hybrid bee, the Buckfast bee is named after the location, Buckfast Abbey in the United Kingdom, where it was originally transitioned into a hybrid species.

They have an averaged-sized body which consists of striking bands of yellow to brown color that closely resembles the image in our minds when we think of bees. 

Buckfast  bees are accustomed to the cold and damp winters so they can easily build up their hive size quickly during the spring. Moreover, they are fairly resistant to disease, making them an indispensable asset and essential for successful beekeeping.

They generally maintain a good temper and have a calm behavior- however, if you allow them to naturally requeen, the next generation will turn out to have aggressive tendencies. To ensure that their aggression is kept at its lowest level possible, you will need to continue purchasing Buckfast queens yourself. As good foragers combine with their ability to survive in the winter, they produce a lot of honey year around- a quality desired by all beekeepers.

Click here to read about requeening a hive

Buckfast bees are bred across Europe and exported to the United States, where their unique abilities are made to use at their highest potential. These bees are considered an excellent choice for backyard hobbyists and for beekeepers who practice occasional beehive maintenance to keep the bees behavior in check.

Russian Bee

Russian Honeybee

Russian bees are one of the few most unique bees who consist of multiple attractive traits that makes them highly desirable for beekeepers.

These bees have the average size of about 2 millimeters- with their bodies covered in dark brown to completely black in color and the yellow area around the abdomen that is slightly pale in comparison.

Surviving in cold climate is the norm for them so they are able to overwinter well. One of their most unique quality is their Varroa Sensitive Hygiene trait- an attribute which is highly sought after in bees. With this specific trait, Russian bees are able to fight off infestations such as varroa and tracheal mites on their own.

Russian bees tend to be slightly aggressive, although it does not necessarily mean that they will sting. They simple tend to guard their hive vigilantly, which makes them less likely to get robbed. Moreover, these bees can be pretty frugal when it comes to consuming honey. They are also most likely to tend to rear brood only during the times of pollen and nectar flow.

Moreover, coming from the regions of Primorsky, Russia in 1997, these bees are relatively new to their North American surroundings and were only made available to the market in the 2000s.

There is still a lot that needs to be learnt about Russian bees which is why their nature is considered unpredictable and can be difficult to manage for new beekeepers.

Cordovan Bee

Cordovan Honey bee

Cordovan bees are a subset of Italian bees with only a few characteristics that set them apart from the rest of their kind.

Unlike Italian bees, Cordovan bees have an average honey bee size and their yellow color also extends further throughout the body which stands out a lot. 

They can work well under the influence of warm weather conditions but have a difficult time adapting to cold and damp climates.

Moreover, these bees consist of traits that make them comparatively resistant to several bee related diseases- specifically the European foulbrood (EFB).

Cordovan bees also have a reputation for being one of the few docile bees and somewhat gentle. They are also very productive when it comes to making honey with their large hungry colonies that often delve in robbing.

It is still unclear why exactly did these bees veer off from their Italian strains and became their own race. But so far we have only witnessed their kind in America. Furthermore, despite being a common bee race, you can rarely find them available in packages and unlike Italian bees, these Cordovan bees are considered to be pretty wild in their nature.

Even so, they work well under the influence of new beekeepers or for backyard hobbyist residing in United States.

Midnite Bee

Midnite Honey Bee

Another hybrid type, the Midnite bee was made through the crossing of the Carniolan and Caucasian stocks.

They have a small body size and are darker in color from their hybrid bee sources. They are more productive during warm climates but show slower signs of productivity levels during the cool and damp winter seasons.

An interesting fact about the Midnite bee is that, due to its enhanced hybrid capabilities, many of its former traits passed down from Caucasian and Carniolan bees have been excessively improved.

It is now being discovered that Midnite bees have a high resistance to many diseases especially to the Tracheal mite and the Varroa mite as they have been empowered to identify and counter these mites much more efficiently than their other strains.

The first generation of Midnite bees is very gentle and can be easier to handle- whether as the second generation tends to be more aggressive in comparison. Another improvement that has been implemented in these bees is their enhanced honey producing abilities that is beginning to grab a lot of attention from beekeepers.

Since they are developed from Caucasian and Carniolan bee types, they are available in large quantities in America. Furthermore, their creation was made in hopes that they would maintain the gentleness of the two mixed pure breeds while removing their negative aspects to create the ideal bee hybrid.

Even though the Midnite bees tend to make more propolis, it is still considered one of the best choices for new bee keepers to consider domesticating for their hives.

Starline Bee

Starline Honey bee

Like Midnite bees, Starline is another hybrid strain developed from many Italian stocks combined by the Gladstone Cale from the Dadant Bee Company.

Similar to their Italian strains, their bodies are average bee sized, which are mostly dark in color with yellow and brown bands visible on their abdomens.

 

They also work quite well during warm climates- showing only a slight decrease in productivity under cold weather conditions- making them one of the ideal choices of hybrid bees that can work throughout the year.

Moreover, as a hybrid made to perform better than its combined Italian sources, Starline bees have also shown resistance towards bee pests that they are able to recognize and counter on site. They are typically very gentle bees but can become extremely defensive if you do not requeen them on time. So it is important for a beekeeper to take that responsibility and keep a vigilant eye on the behavior of these bees.

Furthermore, they exhibit high levels of honey production rapidly building up colonies in spring and producing only an average amount of propolis which has attracted the attention of many bee hobbyist and beekeepers. Since they work exceptionally well under warm climate, they are an ideal choice for Northern and Southern U.S. migrators. Moreover, it has also proven to be very productive in the clover area, hence the reason why most people refer to the Starline as ‘clover bee’.

Hybrids like the Starline is a great choice for many new beekeepers because not only do they yield desirable levels of honey production but they also offer extensive knowledge about hybrid behaviors in the evolving world of bees.

Minnesota Hygienic Bee

Minnesota Hygenic Honey Bee

The Minnesota Hygienic bees were created by a strain of Italian bees that were made based on the research of Dr. Marla Spivak from the University of Minnesota.

When it comes to their appearance, they are not very different from the Italian strains- average sized bodies with dark brown or black colors and bands of yellow and brown across the body.

However, they do not winter well under the influence of damp and cold climate conditions which slows down their productivity levels significantly.

These bees were bred with a purpose to consist of a high degree of hygienic behavior which serves as a primary defense against bee related diseases. Some of these include the American foul Brood and chalk brood. The Minnesota hygienic bees are able to quickly detect and remove the pathogens of the brood disease from the combs before the infection spreads. In addition to that, it also works effectively against the Varroa mites- limiting their reproduction process and population growth to a certain extend.

Moreover, it also does not compromise the efficiency of the other activities performed by the bee such as honey production. They also maintain a non-aggressive and gentle nature and are known to be very good honey producers who keep their hive clean at all times. They are usually found in the United States where their traits can be found in around 10 percent of managed colonies in any stock or race of bees- making it highly beneficial for the beekeeping industry to keep a hygienic line of bees that are commercially available.

Hence, making these Minnesota hygienic bees the perfect choice for beekeepers who prioritize hygiene and making honey as their main goal.

What Are Africanized Bees?

The Africanized bee, or also known as the Killer Bee, is a hybrid that developed in a lab with the intention to increase its resistance against parasites and pests- and at the same time also amplify its honey production abilities.

These Africanized bees look very similar to domestic honey bees- with the only thing setting them apart is the size of their bodies. The Africanized bees tend to be smaller in size and have golden yellow with brown bands across their body.

Unlike their name, these bees were originally identified in Brazil during the 1950s. Around that time their stock showed great promise to fulfill the purpose it was made for, until 26 of the experimental swarms had escaped from their quarantine and quickly spread to Central and South America.

Some of the excellent attributes of these Africanized bees are their foraging capabilities that are performed at a younger age and are constantly known to produce honey. Moreover, they tend to make honey faster than most types of bees, which also means that they require more food to function as well. 

As for their nature, they can be quite hostile when provoked. These Africanized honey bees are known to be highly aggressive and can chase anything up to about a quarter of a mile if they feel threatened. In fact, there have been more than about 1000 cases of these bees killing off humans and even large animals like horses and many more.

However, many beekeepers have worked well with them- only by taking several precautions and having an in-depth understanding of their behavior. Hence, we would not advise new beekeepers to pick these killer bees as their first choice until they are trained and have enough experience to handle them.

What's Next?

  • With such a large variety of bees at your disposal, it can be quite tough to find the ideal bee stock for your beekeeping journey. Since your goal is to be the perfect caretaker for your bees, always try all your options beforehand.

Seek guidance from your mentors or other professionals before you take a leap of faith and start investing your precious time and money on bee stocks that may end up being too much for you to handle. Once you find the perfect bee stock to start out with, you can grow from your experience and tackle on handling difficult bee species from thereon.

Before you buy your bees, be sure to get all of the required equipment:

Choosing the best honey bee for beekeeping

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