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 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 worker 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 the 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.
Cordovan bees are technically a subset of Italian bees with more yellow coloring. They’re also 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 are 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.
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.
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.
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 dearths 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.
Buckfast bees are yellow to brown in color and resemble what many people consider when picturing a honey bee.
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.
Buckfast bees are resistant to Tracheal mites and do well in cool climates. They are very gentle, easy to work with and are 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.