The Different Types of Honey Bees
Just as there are many types of bees, honey bees can also be subdivided into different categories. Characteristics such as temperament, disease resistance, productivity, location, and other unique traits or behaviors set each group apart.
Many groups, also known as bee stock, have traits in common with each other, so this is only a loose category. However, bee stocks offer a useful way to understand and classify the differences between honey bee strains. To learn more about these categories and characteristics, read our guide to the different types of honey bee species.
An Overview of the Honey Bee Species
Honey bees are described as any group of insects in the Apidae family that produces honey. They often refer to any one of the seven different members of the genus Apis, and the domesticated honey bee genus Apis mellifera.
All Apis species except A. mellifera are located in parts of southeastern or southern Asia.
Some examples include the dwarf honey bee (A. florea), which creates its hive in shrubs and trees. There is also the giant honey bee (A. dorsata), which builds its combs up to 9 ft in diameter in southeastern Asia. The black dwarf honeybee (A. andreniformis) is native to southeastern Asian forests. Meanwhile, the Eastern honey bee (A. cerana) has been domesticated in some areas in southern and southeastern Asia.
The Apis Mellifera Species
The A. mellifera breeds of honey bees measure about 1.2 cm long, depending on their specific specie strain. Different strains also feature various midsection, head, and thorax colors.
Generally, they are red or brown with black and orange-yellow rings on their abdomen. They are typically seen with hair on their thorax and little hair on their midsection. These bees also have a pollen basket on their hind legs, which are often brown or black.
On top of their heads are two large compound eyes and three simple eyes known as ocelli. These sets of eyes contribute to their keen eyesight. They also have two odor-detecting antennae that are extremely useful in carrying out their day-to-day tasks.
Currently, there are 26 recognized A. mellifera species, each having different molecular and morphological characteristics. Each of these subspecies also differs in their agricultural output, considering their current environmental conditions.
For instance, some honey bees can survive warmer climates while others adapt well to the cold. They also vary in their defensive behaviors, coloration, wingspan, and tongue length.
However, most honey bees are endothermic, which means they can warm their bodies and the hive temperature by putting their flight muscles to use.
The Italian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera ligustica)
Italian honey bees are a popular bee stock. The italian honey bee breed originated in Italy but were introduced to the United States in 1859. They’re popular among beekeepers for their longer brood-rearing periods, high honey production rates, and gentle temperament. They’re also less likely to swarm than other bee stock.
The Italian bee has a very light, visually pleasing color, making it easy to identify. Of course, like any creature, the Italian bee has its downsides. Its extended brood cycles mean this bee consumes its resources quickly.
Italian honey bees are also famous for robbing honey stores from nearby weaker hives, which makes it easy for diseases to spread from hive to hive.
The German Bee (Apis mellifera mellifera)
German honey bees, originally found in Germany, the United Kingdom, and Scandinavia, are a hardy honey bee species.
They’re known for their ability to survive colder climates and harsh winters. They also have smaller and stockier bodies than other honey bees, and they boast a black or dark brown coloring, so much so that they’re sometimes known as the German Dark Bee or “black” bee.
Because of their defensive nature, German bees aren’t as popular among beekeepers as they used to be. This, combined with a higher disease susceptibility, damaged German bee populations, making them one of the rarer subspecies of honey bees today.
The Caucasian Bee (Apis mellifera caucasia)
The Caucasian bee is another gentle-natured subspecies. You can identify Caucasian bees by their large, hairy bodies, dark or gray color, and long tongues. These longer tongues help them forage nectar from flowers other bees can’t access, helping the pollination process along the way.
Despite this, it takes them longer to build their hive in the spring. They also create and use a lot of propolis, otherwise known as bee glue, making it harder to work within the hive. This causes Caucasian bees to have a lower honey production than their brethren, and as such, they’ve fallen out of most beekeepers’ favor.
The Carniolan Bee (Apis mellifera carnica)
Carniolan bee hives boom in the springtime, giving beekeepers a productive and growing hive before summer begins. The Carniolan honey bee comes from middle and Eastern Europe, making it better at surviving the winter in colder climates.
Much like the Caucasian honey bee, Carniolan bees also have an extremely docile nature. That is why the Carniolan honey bee is extremely popular among beekeepers.
The Carniolan bee is small compared to other European honey bees, and the large amount of hair on its body gives it a dark or gray color. Unfortunately, the explosive productivity in spring makes this bee stock prone to swarming, which can result in a poor honey crop as the colony splits in half partway through the season.
The Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera Linnaeus)
One of the most common types of honey bees worldwide, the Western honey bee is also eusocial, having one queen, multiple workers, and a few drones in its colony.
Being one of the first domesticated insects, Western bees are a beekeeper’s favorite breed due to their excellent honey production and pollination capabilities.
While these honey bee species have occupied every continent except Antarctica, they are now listed as “Extinct” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. However, further research is required to determine whether this refers to wild or non-wild colonies across Europe.
Some of the different types of honey bees are hybrids of multiple species. Scientists bred these modern honey bees to achieve or combine desirable traits, such as higher disease resistance, lower aggression, and better productivity.
Here are some of the most notable hybrid bee stocks:
The Buckfast Bee
Named after Buckfast Abbey in Devon, UK (where this bee stock originates), Buckfast bees result from cross-breeding the strongest bee colonies in the area. As a result, these bees thrive in cold, wet climates, so they quickly grew in popularity across the British Isles.
Buckfast bees are great housekeepers, keeping the hive clean and exhibiting excellent grooming behaviors that allow them to reduce the risk of disease. They have a moderate temperament but can become fiercely defensive of their hive if left to their own devices for a couple of generations.
The Russian Bee
The Russian bee hails from the Primorsky Krai region of Russia. The United States Department of Agriculture introduced them to the country in 1997. An increasing amount of bee colonies collapsed due to damage from parasites, so the USDA brought in Russian honey bees in response.
These honey bees have a natural tolerance to varroa and tracheal mites—two of the honey bee’s most harmful parasites. Unfortunately, this tolerance quickly decreases once Russian honey bees cross with other stock.
They also have a few behaviors that set them apart from other bee strains. For example, Russian bees always have queen cells in their hive, unlike other types that only build queen cells when it’s time to raise a new queen. Scientists continue to learn about Russian bees and their unique behaviors, so most beekeepers don’t have access to them.
The Africanized Bee
Also known as the Killer Bee, the Africanized bee is a misunderstood strain. To begin with, this bee stock comes from Brazil, not Africa. Africanized bees were created to increase parasite resistance and honey production. However, several swarms of the hybrid stock escaped quarantine and have since spread across South America.
Many beekeepers don’t work with Africanized bees due to their extremely high aggression. On the other hand, these bees have many advantages once one learns how to work with them. They start foraging at a younger age and reproduce faster than other bee stock, which leads to high rates of honey production.
Minnesota Hygienic Bee
As the name suggests, the Minnesota Hygienic bee has extraordinary housecleaning skills. Their hygienic behavior gives them better resistance to diseases.
They’re also good honey producers, making them another popular choice among beekeepers. Unfortunately, they share many of the poor qualities of the Italian bees they were bred from.
All Bees are Beautiful
Like all creatures, every type of honey bee has positive and negative characteristics. However, if you learn how to work with the unique behaviors of a certain bee strain, you can make the most of the benefits they have to offer. Check out our package bees for sale and use this guide to find the best bee stock for your beekeeping needs.