What kind of honey bees should I get?

Types of Honeybees

There are over twenty thousand different types of bee, and yet only seven of those are honeybees. From time to time, when you discuss the decline in bees that we are currently witnessing, someone will tell you that bee loss is overdramatized and that there are plenty of other pollinators that can fill any gap that may be made by a decline in their numbers.

He may even quote the figure above and tell you that honeybees make up just a fraction of the overall bee population. These people don’t really grasp just how much of the pollination process is carried out by the humble honeybee and how difficult it would be to replace them.

This is not to suggest that people are not looking at exactly this solution to our looming pollination problem. In the US, scientists have long recognized the threat from CCD and begun trials with other bees. One bee called the blue orchard (Osmia lignaria) had shown some potential.

Just 200 hundred of them can do the same amount of work as 100 000 honeybees, but here is the catch; they are solitary bees that lay their eggs in holes bored into trees by other insects. On an annual basis, even under pristine controlled conditions, the blue orchard can only increase its numbers by a factor of three to eight. A single queen honeybee with a few workers can develop a colony of 20 000 bees in a matter of months.


That colony system in which the queen plays the role of a very well attended egg-producing machine is difficult to compete with. What is more, the blue orchard produces no honey.

Honeybees are far from the only pollinator, which is why only about one-third of crops are pollinated by them. Many other insects perform a similar role including, flies, wasps, butterflies, and bumblebees. In fact, with its large hairy body, the bumblebee is a more effective pollinator. There are two problems that come into play here.

One is that the honeybee is the one insect we have been able to farm on a large scale, and thus, we can place them where they are needed, and the other is that for honey production, no other insect even comes close to that of the honeybee’s production capacity.

We could probably learn to live without honey and just let other insects fill the gap if the honeybee numbers declined to such an extent that they were no longer viable to farm. There is another hitch in this thinking, however. Nearly all insects have seen dramatic declines in recent years. Again, reasons vary wildly, and with many of these insects, there has been far less research than with the honeybee.

Habit loss is certainly a large part of the problem, and if insecticides are killing honeybees, it will definitely be killing many other insects as well. A recent study published in Germany revealed that within the last thirty years, there had been a seventy-five percent drop in the number of flying insects.

The study was performed in three areas under natural protection, where it was assumed insects would be at their most abundant. All of this just goes to drive home the point that the need for careful protection of the honeybee is crucial.

This is where you come back into the picture. Hopefully, by now, you have become convinced of the importance of beekeeping and are still considering pressing forward with expanding your understanding and knowledge of the subject.

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Earlier in the book, we mentioned that there was only one species of honeybee compared to twenty-odd thousand other bee species. What we are going to look at now are the different subspecies of the honeybee in order to decide which one is most appropriate to your situation.

There are twenty-six strains of the honeybee, but only seven that should really concern your choice when creating your beekeeping stock. Each has different characteristics that will influence your decision. You should also speak to local beekeepers in your area as they will know of factors that come into effect, such as the bee’s ability to tolerate local conditions and which of the subspecies thrive best on local flora.

The honeybee was first brought to the US from Europe in 1622. There is fossil evidence of a local honeybee having existed millions of years before that, but it subsequently went extinct. Native Americans are said to have referred to honeybees as ‘white man’s flies.’

The Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica) is a very popular bee for honey production. They originated in the south of Italy but have been widely spread through the activities of human beekeepers. They are a great general purpose bee and are highly favored by commercial beekeepers. There predominantly yellow coloring makes them quite easy to identify.

They are prolific honey producers, but at the same time, they consume a lot, so they need to be well-stocked before the winter. There is also some evidence that they are more prone to disease than some of the other subspecies. They are not inclined to swarm terribly easily, which is a useful trait as you don’t want to lose your stock. They are also renowned as thieves and will readily steal from hives of weaker subspecies.

The Carniolan bee (Apis mellifera carnolia) is believed to have originated in Slovenia and the Austrian Alps. They are the second most popular bee to farm, and as the Italian bee, they are ideal for the first time beekeeper as well as the larger producer. They are favored for their good nature and the fact they will not sting unless really provoked. They are a duskier brown color than their Italian cousins.

They also have a long tongue, which is an advantage when foraging. Because they originated under fairly adverse conditions, they are good at overwintering, and they form tight clusters in the hive during the colder months and use little resources. Another of their attributes is their ability to cope with insect invasion.

The main downside of this subspecies is that they swarm quite readily. It is thought that because they don’t like to be overcrowded, so the beekeeper needs to ensure that they have plenty of space in the hive.


Caucasian bee (Apis mellifera caucasica)

This bee, once very popular, has fallen out of fashion, especially with commercial producers, because it does not produce vast amounts of honey. Other than that, it bears many of the same attributes as the Carniolan bee. One additional attribute is that they are very neat producers and almost insist on filling a frame before moving onto the next one.

This means that they are well-stocked in winter, and their overwintering food source is both closes at hand, and they are kept warm. If you live in an area where harsh winters are the norm, then this is a bee you might want to consider. Amongst traditionalists, they are going through a bit of a revival, and they are often crossed with carnelians to increase honey yield.

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The Russian bee

-Imported as recently as 1997, this bee hails from the east of Russia. One hundred queens were brought into the US by the Department of Agriculture in order to test them as a method of overcoming Verroa and other mites. The bees are certainly much more resistant to these pests, but other problems have emerged. They are quite aggressive and cross breed readily with some of the varieties that have been here much longer.

It has been noted that when they do that, their resistance levels go down dramatically, thus reducing the primary reason for having them. Much is still to be learned about them. For example, most colonies will produce a new queen cell when they are ready to swarm. Russian bees seem to always have a queen cell on standby. There are still controls on who can breed them, and this is not a variety that should be considered by the debutant beekeeper.

The German bee (Apis mellifera mellifera)

This bee originated in Russia and Northern Europe. It is actually endangered in Germany but still used widely for honey production in many European countries. It was one of the early imports to the US, and its genes are thought to be found in many of the colonies there. It is easily recognized for its dark, almost black coloring. They are very winter tolerant but have not fared at all well in the US due to their exaggerated intolerance of certain diseases such as both the American and European foulbrood. There are still a few real enthusiasts who are experimenting with disease tolerance in this bee, but it is not recommended for the beginner.

The Buckfast Bee

This bee was bred at the Buckfast Abbey in the United Kingdom in the 20th century to try to overcome the threat posed by tracheal mites. The monk, Brother Adam, who was head of beekeeping at the Abbey in 1919, noticed that these mites were causing widespread losses, and so he set about crossbreeding with any hives he could find than seemed free from of the mites. He crisscrossed Europe to develop his stocks, and the bee that eventually resulted from his efforts was named after the Abbey. These bees are hugely popular in Europe, where they have a reputation for being both gentle and reliable honey producers. In the US, these bees are slightly harder to come by, in part because they do not swarm regularly, and so stock does not increase. They are known to crossbreed easily, and that often results in loss of the traits for which they were originally bred.

The Africanized bee

This bee is mentioned more because of the importance of understanding them rather than suggesting them as a potential breed for stock. In fact, they are not African bees at all. They originated in South America, where they were part of a scientific program. As is usual, these bees were being bred primarily to look for resistance to mites and other parasites and also for increased yields. In 1956 twenty-six of the hives managed to escape, and they gradually made their way up from South America to the US amidst much hype and scared mongering, which included the production of several killer bee films. The bees are aggressive but pose nowhere near the threat their reputation would suggest. Some beekeepers are trying to work with them, but to date, their results are not very promising.

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In South America, these bees are one of the most widely farmed bees, but that is because they have crossbred so widely with other domestic stock. They have more guard bees per hive and are more inclined to act defensively

Now that you understand a little about what options are available to you, here are some of the factors you need to bear in mind when making your decision. Firstly, what experience are you bringing to the table? I am guessing that you are pretty new to this; otherwise, you would probably have already worked out which bees are best for you.

beekeepers EquipmentFor those thinking of dipping their toe in the water, it is always best to start off with more gentle bees. Production is not that much lower, and they make things so much easier. We’ve discussed kids and neighbors, and the last thing you want is someone getting stung. As your experience develops, you will become so accustomed to managing your hives that you will get good at predicting what will alarm your bees or trigger defensive behavior. To begin with, just work with stock that is easy to handle. Most beekeepers never really bother to move onto more difficult to manage bees because they just don’t see any reason to. If you are a commercial beekeeper and need to maximize production, or you decide to delve deeply into breeding for specific conditions, then things are different. These people almost always get to that stage after years of experience.

The experience of other local beekeepers really cannot be overstated here. They will know more about local bees and local conditions than you will be able to learn from any book. They will be able to advise you about the prevalence of both disease and parasites and will have already worked out what bees are best suited to those adversities. They will also know if there are farmers in the area who have a predilection for spraying and at what periods they are most likely to spray. That is valuable knowledge because you should try to keep your bees housed on those days.

Much of what you have just read about types of bee will guide your thinking, but it is likely that nobody knows for sure exactly what variety of local bee they are farming. The bees are likely to have crossbred to a certain extent, and the beekeepers will just be happy that their stock is thriving rather than carrying with it a high degree of pedigree.

One factor to bear in mind when taking advice is that you should find out what motivates the person you are listening to. Mainly, smaller beekeepers will have a similar ethos to your own, and their priority will be stewardship first, profit second. With some commercial operations, this ethos is reversed, and the advice you get will differ. First of all, you need to examine your own goals and motivations closely, and then you need to see if your mentor’s correspond to those. I am happy to say that I have met very few beekeepers, both professional and otherwise, who did not put a great deal of emphasis on the well being of their stock.