Races of Honey Bees

Characteristics of Races of Honey Bees 

This page is for information only on the nature of the different races of honey bees, and is by no mean true of every hive, as most bees in the US are a mix of genetics. That being said, there are traits that are common to each type of bee and there are breeders who do keep very good lines of stock and even have their queens artificially inseminated.

An Italian honey bee photograph showing the brown and yellow bands on its abdomen
ITALIAN HONEY BEE

 Italian Bees
Probably the most common of the races of honey bees in this area. Yellow and brown with distinct bands on the abdomen.
Colonies are usually large and winter well. Queens lay all through the summer, so a large amount of stores are used for brood rearing. They go into the winter with a good size colony, leave enough honey for them to winter well.
Very good honey producers. Usually gentle and non-aggressive. They keep a clean hive and are quick to get rid of the wax moth. Minimum propolis. Swarming instinct is not especially strong but Italian bees have a strong tendency to rob.

A photograph of Caucasian honey bees on honey comb. The queen bee is circled.
CAUCASIAN HONEY BEES


Caucasian Honey Bees 
Very gentle, and calm on the comb. A darker colored bee with a lead-grey hair.
Good comb builders. Raises strong colony's. Among the different races of honey bees the Caucasians do not swarm excessively as their brood build up is later in the spring. This makes the Caucasian good for areas where the nectar flow is later in the spring or mid-summer. A good honey producer, not exceptional. Caucasians produce and use a good deal of propolis. The great use of propolis has been seen as undesirable as it makes hive management more difficult. Frames and supers are glued together heavily. But propolis production is now seen as another income source and is turning this negative into a plus.

 

A Carniolan honey bee with its dark, broad band colors on the back of its abdomen, sits on a yellow flower drinking nectar in this photograph.
CARNIOLAN HONEY BEE

Carniolan Honey Bees  A very gentle dark, broad band colored, and probably the best wintering bees of the races of honey bees.  Very quick to change brood laying rate if a dearth develops (nectar flow stops) Builds up very rapidly in the spring. These bees tend to swarm more. Probably due to rapid spring build up. Summer brood rearing depends on pollen and nectar flow. It is favored among beekeepers for several reasons, but mainly its ability to defend itself successfully against insect pests while at the same time being extremely gentle in its behavior toward beekeepers. They overwinter in smaller numbers so need less honey stores. Not as productive as Italians. Little use of propolis. Usually not inclined to rob.

 

This photograph shows a Buckfast honey bee. Its color being similar to the Italian bee.
BUCKFAST HONEY BEE

Buckfast Honey Bees
Of all the races of honey bees this was the first one that was breed into its own line. Developed by brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey, England. Brother Adam worked his whole life breeding bees that could build up very fast in the spring and that were excellent honey producers. In the early 20th century, bee populations were being decimated by tracheal mites. This condition,  was killing off thousands of colonies in the British Isles. In 1916, only 16 surviving colonies were left in the abbey. From these he began to develop what would come to be known as the Buckfast bee. Original stock was Italian, and the English black bee. He spent years and made many long journeys in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, searching for pure races and interesting local stocks to cross with his developing Buckfast bee.  Every crossing with a new race took about 10 years before the desired genes were fixed in the strain. Over 70 years, Brother Adam managed to develop a vigorous, healthy honey bee which he dubbed the Buckfast bee.


Very gentle bees if using the line breed in Canada. Some lines from the southern United States have a tendency to get a little mean after the first year. The Buckfast honey bee has a very low tendency to swarm. Low consumption of winter stores. Well adapted to areas with damp cold winters. Excellent honey producers. Inclined to rob.

In the 1986 BBC-affiliated documentary, The Monk and the Honey Bee, more than 400 pounds of honey are reported to have been produced by a single Buckfast colony.

 

The Russian honey bees in this photograph look like a dark Carniolan strain. The longer bee in the middle of the brood comb is the queen.
RUSSIAN HONEY BEES

Russian Bees

The Russian honeybees look like a dark Carniolan strain. The Russian honeybee refers to a very hardy bee that was actually sought out in the 90’s by the USDA in an effort to find a honeybee that was resistant to the varroa mite.  The Russian honeybees were indeed more resistant to the mite due to the fact that previous being brought to North America they have lived in an area with the mites for 150 years.

Very gentle, high over-wintering capability, usually less propolis used then Italian bees, less tendency towards stinging, high nectar haul per bee. More apt to building queen cells throughout the brood season making them have a higher tendency to swarm.

 

Africanized Honey Bees (AHB)

The Africanized bee, also known as the "killer bee", is a hybrid of the Western honey bee species (Apis mellifera), produced originally by cross-breeding of the African honey bee (A. m. scutellata), with various European honey bees such as the Italian bee. The Africanized honey bee was first introduced to Brazil in the 1950's, in an effort to increase honey production; but, in 1957, 26 swarms accidentally escaped quarantine. Since then, the species has spread throughout South America, and arrived in North America in 1985. Hives were found in south Texas of the United States in 1990. The bees are more aggressive, and react to disturbances faster than European honey bees. They can chase a person a three quarters of a mile; they have killed some 1,000 humans, with victims receiving one hundred times more stings than from European honey bees. They have also killed horses and other animals. There is no way of just looking at a bee and knowing if its Africanzed.  Samples have to be sent to a lab were they measure the wings and then follow up with genetic testing.

These Bees should not be raised, but should be re-queened by a professional beekeeper. Some people have tried to keep hives for the honey production, but this is not advised, as cross breeding can happen and make domestic honey bees harder to handle.  Check the web for maps of areas where Africanized honey bees have been found. (currently southern states)

 

As seen here the Cordovan honey bee, Unlike the Italian bees that have legs and heads that are black, the cordovan bees have legs that are reddish brown and heads that are reddish brown
CORDOVAN HONEY BEE

Cordovan Italian bee

The Cordovan bees are a subset of the Italian bees, but are distinguished based on their color. They are usually a little gentler than the Italian bee but in contrast to the Italian they tend to rob more. They are distinguished by their distinctive yellow color but they don’t have the color black. Unlike the Italian bees that have legs and heads that are black, the cordovan bees have legs that are reddish brown and heads that are reddish brown too. The queens abdomen shows up yellow to the very tip. And workers have light brown bands which would normally be black in other races of honey bees.

This eye catching color variation makes finding the queen much easier and faster for the beekeeper.


Midnight Bees
Hybrid cross / used to come from Dadant. I'm not sure if they are available anymore. But you will find them listed in older honey bee books.
Very gentle.
Developed for hobbyist beekeepers.
Not as productive as the Italian or Starline races.


Starline Bees
Hybrid cross bee based on Italian stock. Also a cross from Dadant. Not sure if you will find available anymore.
Rapid spring build up.
Gentle.
Winter well.
Good honey producers.