If you’re a new beekeeper or just learning about the world of bees, it might be surprising to discover just how many kinds of honey bees there are.
Now, you may be thinking—which bee breeds should I start with? How do I know which one I need?
These are tough questions to answer because there are several other questions you must ask yourself first before you can choose which honey bee breeds you should get.
What do you want to get out of having bees? Where are you located? What bees will work best in the climate you are in? The list can go on and on. Read our guide to help choose the best honey bee breeds for you.
What Are Honey Bee Breeds?
To a beginner beekeeper, all bees look the same. But over time, you will realize the subtle differences that separate one bee breed from another.
These subtle differences produce the different characteristics that distinguish each bee breed from another.
The most popular species of honey bees is the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera). All honey bees in this species exhibit similar traits and characteristics.
However, every species of honey bee is influenced by its environment. Natural barriers like oceans, mountains, and deserts can produce slight differences in their characteristics, producing different honey bee breeds or races.
What Characteristics Distinguish Different Breeds of Bees?
Think of bee breeds as dog breeds.
While all dogs belong to the same species (Canis lupus familiaris), each breed exhibits unique characteristics. For example, golden retrievers are known to be even-tempered, intelligent, and affectionate, with long cream to dark golden coats. Meanwhile, rottweilers are confident and courageous but can be notorious barkers and diggers, and they have medium-length black coats with brown markings.
The same can be applied to honey bees. They may belong to the same species, but you can select the right breed for you according to certain characteristics, such as the following:
- Tendency to swarm
- Timing of brooding
- Suitability to the local climate
- Disease resistance
- Honey production
- Propolis production
- Winter-coping abilities
Knowing these tendencies beforehand will help you increase your chances of success if you’re new to beekeeping.
What Is Bee Stock?
A bee stock is another term for honey bee breeds or races. However, some may refer to it as a loose combination of species, breed, the location where it was bred, and its entire hereditary line, which gives you a very clear idea of the quality of bees you’re getting.
How Many Breeds of Honey Bees Are There?
Currently, there are five common types of western honey bees.
- Italian bees
- Caucasian bees
- German bees
- Carnolian bees
- African bees
There are also common hybrid bees, such as the following:
- Buckfast bees
- Africanized bees
- Russian bees
- Cordovan bees
- Saskatraz bees
This article will discuss the most common honey bee breeds to help you get acquainted with their defining traits and whether or not they are the best for your beginner apiary.
Common Honey Bee Breeds
Italian Bees (Apis mellifera ligustica)
The Italian honey bee is the most common type of honey bee. The Italian bee subspecies is popular as starter bees because of its docile nature and ability to produce copious amounts of honey.
Being non-aggressive, Italian bees are preferred as gateway bees to those just starting their beekeeping journey. But there are also a few things to remember when raising these honey bees.
Italian honey bees love to eat and tend to quickly eat their stores of honey during winter. If you’re considering Italian bees as your starter, it’s best to have extra honey at hand.
When there is a food shortage, the Italian bee tends to rob other hives more than other breeds, so you should be extra vigilant. Consider using robbing screens to keep these guilty thieves at bay.
Italian bees originated in moderate to semi-tropical conditions on the Italian peninsula, known for its long summers and mild winters.
The Italian honey bee has adapted by delaying their brood rearing until late winter, and they continue to produce brood until the beginning of the winter.
If you want to keep as busy as your bees, Italian bees are the bees for you!
Given that these bees are accustomed to moderate to semi-tropical conditions, it is no surprise that they thrive in the United States. Southern states offer fewer management issues for the Italian bees because they have a longer growing season, typically with an abundance of nectar and pollen-producing plants.
That said, the northern US can raise Italian bees as well.
However, note that there might be more management issues when growing a colony of Italian bees in the northern states. That’s because the growing season in these areas is shorter, and there is less time for the bees to store food for the long winters.
The most notable characteristics of the Italian honey bee are the following:
- They do not swarm excessively.
- The Italian bees are not as defensive of their hives.
- They are generally calm when their frames are examined.
- Italian honey bee queens can be easily identified by their orange-gold abdomens.
Carniolan Bees (Apis mellifera carnica)
Carniolan bees are beloved for being gentle bees. They start foraging as soon as spring comes rolling around, resulting in abundant produce of honey and plenty of food come wintertime.
Unfortunately, this also means they can run out of storage quickly, so make sure you can give them more space.
Carniolan bees were originally from the Carniolan Alps, located in parts of Austria and Slovenia. Thriving in this unpredictable environment, Carniolan bees can withstand cold winters and quickly adapt to change.
Adapting quickly to change makes Carniolan bees the perfect fit for the short summers in the northern US.
These bees know to gather a lot of food when the warm weather arrives and learn how to cut back and maintain their hive when the season winds down.
The most notable characteristics of Carniolan honey bees include the following:
- They are dark in color.
- Carniolans swarm early.
- They are the gentlest of all honey bees.
- They are calm when their frames are being examined.
- They tolerate typical beekeeping management tasks.
- Carniolan bees can rapidly increase their population.
Russian bees are a mix of Carniolans and Italians, among others.
Russian bees are preferred for their Varroa Sensitive Hygiene trait, which makes them resistant to varroa mite infestations.
The only downside of keeping Russian bees is always having a queen cell in the hive. While it’s good for bees to be prepared in case something happens to their queen, it can be hard for a beekeeper to tell if there is a swarm.
This variety of honey bees can adapt to moderate and subtropical climates, making them most appealing in warmer states with longer seasons. They would also fare well in the northern states but would be impacted by a shorter season.
The most notable characteristics of these bees include the following:
- They are gentle.
- They are more likely to swarm.
- They take time to build up their hives.
- They are more hygienic, which may result in fewer mites.
- Russian bees stop brood rearing earlier due to their sensitivity to the environment.
The Buckfast honey bee is a hybrid bee species developed to be resistant to mite infestations. They are also strong foragers. Buckfast honey bees can be aggressive, although the European strains are known for being gentle.
Buckfast bees originated from Buckfast Abbey in England and are hard to come by in the United States.
Due to this defensive behavior, Buckfast bees are not considered beginner-friendly.
The main characteristics of Buckfast honey bees include the following:
- They are disease-resistant.
- They are very good at overwintering.
- Buckfast bees are great honey producers.
Caucasian Bees (Apis mellifera caucasia)
Caucasian bees are excellent pollinators. Still, because they don’t produce as much honey as other breeds of honey bees, they’ve dwindled in popularity in the United States.
Caucasian bees share many similar characteristics with Carniolan bees. They are gentler bees than the Italians but are less prone to robbing other colonies.
The notable attributes of Caucasian honey bees are as follows:
- They are great at overwintering.
- Caucasians are not prone to swarming.
- They can forage even in colder climates.
- Caucasian bees are known for their high propolis production.
Photo by Mann Lake
Saskatraz honey bees are the newest hybrid variety of honey bees, created at an apiary in Saskatchewan, Canada. The main purpose of making this hybrid was to create a “Super Bee,” or at least a bee that had the beneficial traits of several other honey bees.
Being that they have the positive characteristics of all the common honey bees, it is believed by many that Saskatraz bees would fare well in any location and could be raised by beekeepers of all levels.
The most notable characteristics of these bees include the following:
- They have fast spring build-up.
- They are good honey producers
- They have good over-wintering ability.
- Saskatraz bees are naturally resistant to varroa mites and tracheal mites.
Which Breeds Are Best For Beginners?
Italian and Carniolan honey bees are the best starter bees for beginners due to their gentle nature. They are easy to handle and tolerant of their keepers.
Bee Breeding for Special Characteristics
There are many breeds of honey bees other than the ones mentioned. Shop Mann Lake for quality bees and start or add to your apiary!
If you’re still curious and want to learn more about honey bees and the different types, check out The Backyard Beekeeper: 4th Editionby Kim Flottum!