Just like all of us, bees are influenced by both their genetics and their environment. There are many different types of honeybees, each with their own specific traits and characteristics. Some might be better suited for colder climates, while others show more resistance against certain diseases. This article explains the differences between between the most important honeybee races and why they matter.
There is no such a thing as the «best» honeybee as each type of bee has adapted to the conditions of a certain region or has been bred for a specific purpose. Selecting a honeybee race comes down to the local conditions as well as your own preferences. In this article, we will provide you with an overview of the most common bee races and discuss whether or not breeding matters.
Honeybee race, breed or subspecies?
The «Western honeybee» (Apis mellifera) is found on every continent (except from Antarctica) and is the honeybee specie primarily used by beekeepers. The Western Honeybee is one of the 11 honeybee species and has many different subspecies. Just to be clear, when someone talks about a honeybee «race» or «breed» they are referring to subspecies of the western honeybee. For the sake of clarity, we will stick to the term «race». To add some complexity to the matter, some types of bees are the result of breeding different subspecies with each other. These are called «hybrids». In this article we discuss the most common races and hybrids used by beekeepers.
Breeding the perfect honeybee
Traits and characteristics of honeybees can be enhanced through a breeding program. These programs aim to influence traits such as population dynamics, gentleness, swarming instinct, disease resistance and productivity.
In a controlled environment, breeders have been able to produce some truly special bees. Gentle, productive and most of all, resistant to pest such as varroa. However, these stunning results are achieved in areas where the mating process can be controlled, such as a lab or a remote location like an island or the end of a valley. When these bees leave the controlled environment, they mix with various bees and the carefully selected traits quickly disappear. The daughters of a «pure» queen will mate with sometimes 20 different drones and these drones can travel great distances, which leads to great diversification.
Do differences between honeybee races matter?
Only special breeding associations are able to keep their bees «pure» and have arranged special mating stations which aim to control the mating process. So most of the colonies are a mix of various races, which is fine. Understanding the different characteristics of the different races can however give you valuable insight in the behavior of a colony. For example, Carniolan bees quickly build up their colony in spring, a colony of Caucasian bees tends to peak in summer. As vegetation blossoms at different times, some honeybees are more suitable for a specific area than the other.
Most common honeybee races
The most common honeybee races are the Carniolan (also known as Carnica), Caucasian, German and the Italian honeybee. Popular hybrids are the Buckfast and Russians bees.
Carniolan (Apis mellifera carnica)
Carniolan bees originate from east and central Europe. Because of their somewhat dark abdomen and greyish hairs, they are sometimes also called the «grey bee». Due to the hilly terrain of their native land provides some isolation and many variations of this race exist. This being said, Carniolans are known as a very gentle and productive breed, while also capable of surviving cold winters. Other races usually prefer mild and dry weather, while these bees also forage on colder and wet days. During times of food scarcity they stop rearing brood, to limit the amount of food necessary to keep the colony running. This makes Carniolans well suited to deal with periods of food scarcity. On the downside, Carniolans have a strong tendency to swarm.
Caucasian (Apis mellifera caucasia)
Originating from the valleys in the central Caucasus, these bees are often compared with the Carniolan bees. They are similar in their gentleness and productivity. In contrast to other races, their population peaks in mid-summer which make them suitable for areas with vegetation that blossoms around this time. They also posses the longest proboscis (tongue), which enables them to reach nectar from deep flowers, making them excellent pollinators. Caucasian bees are prone to robbing and drifting which facilitates diseases to spread rapidly between colonies.
German bees (Apis mellifera mellifera)
This breed has many names, «German bees», «Black bees» or «Dark bees», because of their typical dark abdomen. Originally this breed is from northern Europe and they tend to be larger in size then most other honeybee breeds. This race has been out of favour by most beekeepers because of its susceptibility for diseases and defensive behaviour. Colonies of pure German bees are hard to find nowadays, however some breeding associations aim to preserve this race. They are used to cold climates and overwinter very well.
Italian bees (Apis mellifera ligustica)
As the name implies this race originated in the Italian peninsula. These bees can be recognized by their clear bright-yellow and brown stripes on their abdomen. Although they originate from Italy, they are quite popular among beekeepers around the world and are also the most common honeybee race in North America.
Italian bees build up their population quickly in spring, which make them excellent for pollinating areas with spring blossoms. They are known as excellent honey producers and show a high level of hygienic behaviour. This makes them more resistant against diseases as they quickly remove infested brood. On the other hand, they are notorious robbers and will visit other hives in times of scarcity. This interaction with other colonies is a major contributor to the spread of pests and diseases and has a negative effect on their disease resistance. These bees are used to warm climates and do not form a winter cluster as tight compared to other races, therefore they need more food to survive winter.
This hybrid originates in Primorsky, a region in far eastern Russia. Here, varroa and tracheal mites have been present for a long time, which means that these bees are naturally better adapted to cope with these pests. Although this sounds great, these bees have some drawbacks as well and they are used scarcely by beekeepers. They have a high swarm tendency and are more defensive. Breeding programs aim to reduce these negative effects, while at the same time preserve their excellent disease resistance qualities. This is no easy task and often the disease resistance decreases when Russian queens mate with drones of other races .
Buckfast bees are the result of a long breeding process by Brother Adam of the Buckfast Abbey in England. Brother Adam was a German monk and beekeeper. During his life at Buckfast Abbey a tracheal mite was wreaking havoc on honeybee colonies in Britain in the early 20th century. In order to breed a specie resistant against this pest, Brother Adam traveled the world and spoke to numerous beekeepers and collected lots of different species to breed a new resistant bee. The Buckfast bee is resistant to tracheal mites but has also many other positive traits. They are known to be very gentle and good honey producers and can cope with the sometimes cold climate typical to the British isles
Most colonies are a mix between various races and hybrids which means their traits and characteristics will differ (to various extent) from the races they originated from. Nevertheless, However, being aware of these differences can help understanding your bees behavior. Additionally it never hurt to talk with nearby beekeepers about the bees they are using as your queens are likely to mate with drones of nearby apiaries. For example, if many nearby beekeepers use Carniolan bees, it might very well be possible that your next generation will be more likely to swarm.
 Crane, E. (2009). Apis Species:(Honey Bees). In Encyclopedia of Insects (pp. 31-32). Academic Press.
 Tarpy, D., Lee, J. (2016). Comparison of Russian and Italian Honey Bees. North Carolina State University Apiculture Program. Retrieved from: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/comparison-of-russian-and-italian-honey-bees