What is a “race” of bees?

A race of bees is akin to a breed of dogs. They have names like Italians, Russian, Cordovan or Buckfast. As a beekeeper, you have a considerable number of choices and, over time, you will likely establish your own preferences.

But what exactly is a race of bees and what are the differences?

All honey bees have similar traits and are therefore classified in the same taxonomic genus and species. The differences that occur below that level are what lead to races or breeds of honey bees, just as the differences in K9s define the different breeds.

The characteristics that differ among the various races of honey bees are subtle, but can make a difference in the success or failure of your hive.

The factors at play include:

  • Whether they are docile
  • Likelihood to swarm
  • Tendency to raise brood late in the year, thus requiring more honey reserves for the winter
  • Suitability to the local environment
  • Resistance to diseases
  • Production of honey
  • Production of propolis
  • Ability to cope with cold weather

It isn't too difficult for someone with a trained eye to tell the identify the different kinds of bees based on their physical appearance. Let's look at some of the more common races.

Races of Bees

Italian

Photo Credit: Eran Finkle
Photo Credit: Eran Finkle

Description

Worker Italian bees are light in color while the queen is a bit darker, which makes her easy to locate. Workers bees also have alternating stripes on their abdomen.

History

Originally from the Apennine Peninsula in Italy, Italian bees were introduced to America in 1859 and quickly replaced the original black or German bees brought over by the first colonists.

Characteristics

Italian bees are the most popular bees to order in North America. They are known for being gentle and good honey producers. They are typically reared in the south and have difficulty in colder climates, as they need to consume extra food to compensate for not forming a tight cluster the way other honey bee types do. Italian bees are strong foragers and do a great job keeping their hive clean.

On the down side, Italian bees tend to swarm and their sense of direction isn’t as strong as other bees, so they may drift from one colony to another and frequently rob. This can contribute to the spread of diseases between hives.

New to beekeeping? Consider Italian.
When starting out, you can’t go too far wrong with Italian bees, their gentle nature and productivity provide a great way for new beekeepers to become comfortable around bees.

Russian

Description

_1028215Russian bees are dark brown to black in color and the yellow part of the abdomen is paler.

History

Russian bees originated in the Primorsky region, which is also home to Varroa and Tracheal mites. As such, they’ve developed a natural tolerance to these hive pests.

Due to this tolerance, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) brought them to the US in June 1997 to breed mite tolerance into US bee stock. They went on sale to the public in 2000.

Characteristics

Russian bees are highly resistant to mites and accustomed to cold climates. As such, they overwinter well. Unfortunately, they also tend to swarm, so it’s important for the beekeeper to provide extra space in the hive to prevent unwanted swarming.

Russian bees are highly sensitive to the amount of nearby foraging resources available. They will regulate the production of brood in times of dearth, which may be beneficial in climates where the amount of food available is heavily is dependent upon seasons.

Russian bees tend to be slightly more aggressive, although this doesn’t always mean stinging. They’ve been observed engaging in head butting rather than stinging potential threats and guard their hive vigilantly, making them less likely to be robbed.

Russians are a good bet for the new beekeeper...
…although they have one or two characteristics that should be carefully considered, such as the local foraging situation through the year. They do well in cold climates.

Cordovan

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Description

Cordovan bees are technically a subset of Italian bees with more yellow coloring. They’re also a gentler than their Italian cousins and slightly more likely to rob. They are quite striking to observe, with their bright yellow bodies and lack of stripes.

History

It is not clear what caused the Cordovan bees to veer off from Italian strains and become their own race of bees. In theory, this could happen with any of the different bee types, but thus far in America it’s only been observed with Italian bees.

Characteristics

Other than being somewhat gentler and more prone to robbing, these bees behave just like the Italians from which they evolved. They are rarely available in a package of bees, unlike Italians, so are often considered wilder.

Cordovan bees...
…are a close relative of Italians and do well in warm weather. In such environments, they are a fine choice for the new beekeeper, if available (they are not always available as a package and it may be necessary to catch a swarm).

Caucasian

albina-caucaziana
Description

Caucasian bees are silver-gray to dark brown in color. They have a longer tongue than many other bee types and are therefore able to take advantage of more nectar sources.

History

Caucasian bees are originally from the high valleys of the Central Caucus region. This region is between the Black and Caspian seas, making them highly cold tolerant.

Characteristics

Caucasian bees are known for high propolis production. The propolis they produce is soft and sticky, which can make it hard for beekeepers to inspect the hive. They stop producing brood in the fall and tend to overwinter quite well. In addition, because they’re from a cold region they can forage on colder days than other bee races.

Caucasian bees show some resistance to European Foul Brood and are not overly inclined to swarm. Due to their high propolis production, they are not known for being honey comb producers and tend to conserve their honey stores as a result.

Finally, they are susceptible to Nosema and tough to find in packages, though it is possible.

Caucasian bees are another reasonable choice...
… although their tendency to produce great volumes of propolis can create a few challenges. They are not generally considered the greatest producers of honey.

Carniolan

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Description

Carniolan bees are dark with brown spots or bands on their abdomen. They’re slightly smaller than other races of bees, but that doesn’t seem to correlate to their ability to forage and bring pollen and nectar stores back to the hive.

History

Carniolan bees come from the Austrian Alps, Yugoslavia, and Danube Valley regions. They can be found across much of Eastern Europe including Hungary, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Characteristics

Carniolan bees are incredibly gentle and easy to work with. Due to their region of origin, they are more likely to forage on cold, wet days than other types of bees and rank among the best for overwintering.

In addition, they create very little propolis and build up their numbers rapidly in the spring. Carniolan bees are also adept at handling dearth's and rapidly adjust brood production based on the availability of food. They are a little more likely to swarm than Italians, so it’s important to be sure they have plenty of room.

When it comes to hive diseases and pests, Carniolan bees tend to be quite capable of fending off parasites and show good resistance to some diseases.

Carniolan bees are an excellent choice for the new beekeeper...
… particularly those more interested in helping bees than harvesting honey or in cold climates.

Buckfast

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Description

Buckfast bees are yellow to brown in color and resemble what many people immediately consider when picturing a honey bee.

History

Buckfast bees are a hybrid. They were developed in the 20th century by Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey in southwest England. The stock was imported to the United States, by way of Canada, and is now readily available in the US.

Characteristics

Buckfast bees are resistant to Tracheal mites and do well in cool climates. They are very gentle and easy to work with and excellent honey producers. They have a low tendency to swarm and are economical in the use of winter stores.

Cold, wet winters are the norm for Buckfast bees, so they’re accustomed to building up the hive size quickly in the spring.

Consider Buckfast bees ...
… for cold, damp climates. Buckfast bees are a great choice for backyard hobbyists who’d like to get a little honey out of the deal.

Africanized

Photo Credit: Jeffrey W. Lotz
Photo Credit: Jeffrey W. Lotz

Description

Africanized honey bees are fuzzy and brownish in color. They look like their Italian counterparts, making it tough to know if a hive has been taken over by Africanized genetics.

History

Africanized honey bees are actually a hybrid. They were created in Brazil by crossing the African bee with Italian bees in the 1950s to increase honey production.

In 1957, 26 of these experimental swarms escaped quarantine and quickly took over South America. In 1985, they made their way to the US and have since spread through most of the south.

Characteristics

Africanized honey bees are known for being highly aggressive and, unlike their more docile cousins, will chase a person up to a quarter of a mile if they perceive a threat. There are more than 1,000 documented cases of Africanized bees killing humans and other large animals, such as horses.

They begin foraging younger than other honey bee types and frequently produce more honey. They also reproduce faster than other honey bees, meaning they require more food.

Africanized bees are a great choice for the new beekeeper...
… never! Just don’t!

Summary

With the many different types of bees available, it can be tough to know where to start. Based on the individual characteristics of each type of bee, some races of bees are better suited to new hobbyist beekeepers than others.

What are the best bees for beginners?
In general, Italian, Carniolan, or Buckfast bee stock are the great choices for beginning beekeepers, depending on climate. But there are many choices.

25 thoughts on “The Common Races of Honey Bees”

  1. I am a retired public school science teacher. Been keeping bees since 1976.
    I do not recommend getting Buckfast bees from Texas as the entire state is Africanized especially the area where Buckfast bees are produced.
    I tried Florida and the Buckfast queens I got from there in 2017 were extremely difficult to manage.
    I rear queens for sale on a very small scale and can not have aggressive drones near my queen mating yards. If I sell a queen that has mated with an African hybrid drone
    a new beekeeper could get stung and I would be to blame.
    Its the drones that carry the gene for defensive (aggressive) behavior!
    I do see Buckfast queens available in Ohio. See the bee journals, Bee Culture and American Bee Journal, for queen providers of most any stock.
    Remember you get what you pay for and getting “stung” from Florida queens is not acceptable.
    I’m going to do a presentation on the different classes of honeybees soon. The information in this article was excellent.
    Wil M

  2. I will get 2 packages of Italian Honey Bees in March 2018. These will be my first Bees. I’m looking forward to meeting them. Since they are coming from Georgia, I’m a bit concerned about their ability to handle a central Virginia winter. I have my fingers crossed too with regard to combating varroa mites, but I’m up for the challenge!

  3. I’m in my 3rd year of bee keeping. I had four hives, and unfortunately two weeks ago, I checked on my Italian Hive that I thought was fairly strong but doing alright. I was feeding them about every other week, not going in the brood box, just leaving jars of sugar water in an empty honey super. Turns out I probably introduced starving yellow jackets to their hive. 4 became 3 real quick. But I will say my carnolian/itlalian hybrids did not take any crap for the yellow jackets. I set up 3 yellow jacket traps in distant proximity. I must have caught thousands of yellow jackets. Moral of the story: Careful of yellow jackets in warm fall weather, my Italians did not fend them off.

  4. Good question Benjamin. You probably need to speak to a greater authority than myself, but here’s a couple thoughts. There is a lot of good research on the web you can dig into. Africanised bees are actually kept in certain parts of the world and its a matter of learning how to deal with them. Still, most of us would chose not to work with them. Some believe their gene pool that makes them so aggressive will eventually be watered down as they breed with other bee races. I’m not so sure but you will find that school of thought. Also, we will not likely find them moving into cold climates as africanised bees cannot thermoregulate the way honeybees do and therefore cannot winter in cold climates. This cold change as they move north and breed with bees wintering in cold climates, but its also possible this may dilute their aggressiveness.

    As you can see, this discussion can cover a lot of ground and I don’t believe there is one good answer to this question yet.

  5. Incorrect information on Africanised bees their sting isn’t more toxic and they are kept successfully in Brazil given some precautions.

    1. Sir, your are correct! We have removed the sentence about the toxicity of their sting. That said, while we are aware that they are kept in some parts of the world, we believe the tone we have taken is appropriate, especially for our target audience of new or inexperienced beekeepers. Thank you again for your comment, which is most appreciated.

  6. Gerald Wiley, PhD

    I live in southern Indiana and this year have observed a type of “bee” I have never seen before. Best description I can give is it looks like a cross between a bumble bee and a humming bird. It is longer and narrower than a bumblebee and has a tail appendage that looks like tail feathers on a bird and it hovers similar to a humming bird rather than like a “normal” bee. Any ideas what it is?

  7. I believe my honey bee mutts are Italian and Carniolan, but have no idea what they have matted with in the past 5 years. I caught a swarm of honey bees and they are not of the mutts I have bee keeping. They are dark and about 2/3 the size of the mutts I have. I believe they are Russian, but don’t know. They are very, very aggressive. Where can I send some pictures for Identification?

  8. I like the Italian and Buckfast races of bees the most probably because I remember as a child seeing tons of these honeybees in the clover around my house. I want to see that in my own backyard now and will likely go with one of these two races. The Russian variety does have the advantage of mite resistance but I’ve read that there are now Italian bees that have mite resistance. Just have to find such a queen.

  9. hello i am thinking of starting beekeeping in the northern greece, area of grevena, western macedonia region. which race between Italian, Carniolan and Buckfast bee do you recommend.
    i have no experience with bees, i am not really interested in high honey production and i wanat something easy to handle and gentle as a start. thanks for your assistance

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