Education: The Common Varieties of Honey Bees

If you’re a new beekeeper or just learning about the world of bees, like me, it might be surprising to discover just how many kinds of honey bees there are. I had been naive and always thought that there weren’t different types of bees, but it turns out that there are more than twenty different subspecies!

Now, you may be thinking, “Over twenty different kinds? How do I know which one I need?”

This is a tough question to answer, because chances are there are several other questions you have to ask yourself first before you can choose which bees 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? You could go on and on.

Hopefully this post will help you answer a few of them.

The types of honey bees most commonly seen in the United States are Italians, Carniolans and Russians. Another variety of bees that has recently become available are Saskatraz.

Italians

The most common type of honey bees are Italians. These bees originated in moderate to semi-tropical conditions on the Italian peninsula, which is known for its long summers and mild winters. Italian honey bees adapted by delaying their brood rearing until late winter and continue to produce brood until the beginning of the winter.

If you want to keep as busy as your bees, Italians are the honey bees for you.

Being 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 less management issues for this variety of bees, because they have a longer growing season, typically with an abundance of nectar and pollen producing plants.

That being said, the northern U.S. can raise these bees, as well. Though, it should be noted that there might be more management issues, since the growing season in this area is shorter and there is less time for the bees to store food for the long winters.

Characteristics:

  • Not as defensive of their hives
  • Generally calm when their frames are examined
  • Do not swarm excessively
  • Queens can be easily identified by their orange-gold abdomen

 

Carniolans

Carniolan Honey Bee

Carniolan bees are another common type of honey bee. These bees were originally from the Carniolan Alps, which are located in parts of Austria and Slovenia. Thriving in this unpredictable environment, Carniolans are able to withstand cold winters and can quickly adapt to change.

Adapting quickly to change makes Carniolans the perfect fit for the short summers in the northern U.S. These bees know to gather a lot of food when the warm weather arrives and know how to cut back and maintain their hive when the season winds down.

Characteristics:

  • The gentlest of all honey bees
  • Calm when their frames are being examined
  • Tolerate typical beekeeping management tasks
  • Can rapidly increase their population
  • Swarm early
  • Dark in color

 

Russians

Russian honey bees are a mix of Carniolans and Italians, among others. This variety of honey bee is able to adapt to moderate and subtropical climates, making them most appealing in warmer states that have a longer season. They would also fare well in the northern states, but would be impacted by a shorter season.

Characteristics:

  • Gentle
  • More hygienic- may result in less mites
  • Take time to build up their hives
  • Stop brood rearing earlier due to their sensitivity to the environment
  • More likely to swarm

 

Saskatraz

Saskatraz Honey Bee

Saskatraz bees are the newest hybrid variety of honey bees, created at an apiary in Saskatchewan, Canada. The main purpose of creating 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 bees would fare well in any location and could be raised by beekeepers of all levels.

Characteristics:

  • Naturally resistant to varroa mites and tracheal mites
  • Fast spring build-up
  • Good honey producers
  • Good over-wintering ability

 

Check out the Olivarez Honey Bees, Inc. site or the Saskatraz Project for more information.

 

I have only discussed four out of the many varieties of honey bees. It may be overwhelming to choose the right ‘fit’ of honey bees for you, but hopefully now you have a better understanding of the most common honey bee breeds.

If you’re still curious and want to learn more about honey bees and the different types, check out The Backyard Beekeeper: 4th Edition by Kim Flottum!   

43 thoughts on “Education: The Common Varieties of Honey Bees

  1. Laura Hershey

    Do you ever have other species of bees available? I learned about Mayan bees from the radio. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/11/14/661814847/mexicos-endangered-stingless-bees-mysteriously-find-a-sweeter-home-in-cuba

    If you could ever get some of these bees, I would buy them from you!

    1. Kendra

      Hi Laura,
      The only species of bees that we currently sell are Carniolans, Italians and Saskatraz.

  2. MICHAEL LOUIS TURNER

    I can only believe that this information is just a pitch to sell Saskatraz bees….The only bees that have been legally brought to the United States for a very long time, and raised as a separate race, as far as I know, are the certified Russian bees raised by certified Russian Breeders in remote locations. All others are mutts, regardless of color. Color is not a reliable marker for the bees’ race as it can change despite their heritage with interbreeding,…..This info is very miss-leading and a disservice to novice beekeepers who don’t know what they are buying. I am surprised that Mann Lake would publish information like this.

    1. Dan Gilliam

      What is wrong with mutts? Like dogs, they carry a greater genetic diversity and are, in the long run, more likely to adapt to our rapidly changing climate. In cities that have feral dog populations, you would never see purebreds surviving alone. They tend to be more homogenous in size and shape and color instead of the uniformity imposed my humans. The same goes with bees. Sure Russians have good traits. But so do others. If the Saskatraz can incorporate the best traits of different breeds, then I will be willing to give them a go (haven’t yet). Nature is always changing. We can only try to keep up. I would never accept that any one breed is best because it always has. My new best may be waiting.

    2. Amy

      I Absolutely agree with you! Clearly the person writing this doesn’t know much about bees or bee races. This article is loaded with incomplete and incorrect information. I too am amazed that man Lakewood put their name on this!

  3. Mike Portier

    Thank you so much!

    1. Kendra

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Allan King

    I was wondering what the temperament of the saskatraz bees are.? Thanks

    1. Kendra

      Hi there! Saskatraz bees are gentle. They aren’t known for being aggressive.

  5. Jasper Stepp

    Are the saskatraz bee the as the mite malted or ankle biter.

  6. Janna

    We have what are called Minnesota hygenics. Would these be similar to the Russians due to their resistance to mites? We have been beekeepers for 3 years and love our time with our bees. We’ll never learn everything there is to learn about these cool little creatures .

    1. Kendra

      Hi Janna,
      I don’t know much about Minnesota Hygienics personally, but I did read an article that claims that they are similar to Russians in terms of their resistance to diseases. Here’s a link to that article if you wanted to check it out: http://www.glenn-apiaries.com/minn.html

  7. Dale

    What is a good bees to have

  8. Keith Dorney

    As a beginner beekeeper myself, I love reading Krista’s blog. What a great idea and super addition to your website.
    You know what I love even more? Reading the sometimes hundreds of comments from beekeepers all around the USA on what she has to say. What a great learning experience, even though sometimes there are differing opinions on how to do the same thing. As a lifelong teacher, I know this is a great way to learn. I’d like to see all of the comments (minus ones you feel are inappropriate) in the future, even for older blog posts. (I don’t always get to read them right away.)
    Thanks!
    Keith

  9. Troy Leibengood

    What I find interesting is they say Italians are not as suitable to our northern climate as some of these other new strains like Carniolans,Russians or Sakatraz. Yet back in the 70s and 80s before Verroa mites the majority of the bees we used in northern Ohio was Italians. The newest bee on the scene at that time was the buckfast bee from Brother Adam and the buckfast Abbey. The Weavers in Texas we’re supplying them here in the US. Back then our average winter loss was 10% nothing like the wild fluctuations you see today. We didn’t need a special strain of bee for our harsh Ohio winters which has not changed, we had lots of below 0 weather back then. I remember back then the bees did so well you couldn’t keep up with them they would be swarming right out from under you. So the question is what has changed? I realize with the mites coming onto the scene we needed a bee that could deal with them and inso doing we have changed the bees genetics otherwise we wouldn’t need a special bee to be able to handle our oh so harsh Ohio winters. Something has changed you tell me.
    Troy Leibengood

    1. A Person

      what has changed? well the mites make it harder for the bee’s to survive the winter. just like a tick ridden dog would have a hard time surviving the life force of your hive is in question and the harshest time is winter for them. so having a bee that is better adapted to cold might be something people would want to try when having weaker hives due to the mites. that said, you arnt forced to get the new strains or breeds of bees, you can keep using what has worked for you, eventually the Italians will survive the mites more easily and become reliable as they were before, it just will take a lot of breeding stock that shows resistance tendencies. as a bee keeper you should of known this and likely are thinking of how you all ready knew it. some times we just need some one to show us the path we ignored in a thought process. gl to you and your Italian bees.

  10. Hugh Smith

    Interesting . We have a black honey bee which is very agressive .

    1. Steven

      Hugh,
      Those aggressive black bees are hard to come by! If they’re the German black bees, as I’m suspecting, I’m told they draw comb better than many other races of the species. Is that true–and if so, is there any chance of you selling some queens?
      Steven

      1. Harold

        My Grandfather and my dad also had these German black bees . I know my grampa loved them for their productivity . They were heavy honey producers . They were however very aggressive and would attack you if you even got close to their hive . I have no idea where my grampa or dad got them other than picking swarms . I haven’t seen them for decades .

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  12. BernieBee

    This article does seem a bit lite on content, you say there are 20 varieties of honey bees but only mention four. A reference to complete lists or resources would be appreciated.

    Saskatraz has the traits described, and they have other traits. You need to watch them more closely because they build up so fast and will swarm if you aren’t watching them. I can’t wait for the line to merge with the local bees we have.

    I will be taking some through winter and hope they do well.

    Bernie

  13. איך לבנות מסת שריר

    Hi! Would you mind if I share your blog with my
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    1. Kendra

      Of course! Feel free to share it. Thank you for reading!

  14. העלאת מסת שריר והורדת אחוזי שומן

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  15. Greg King

    A couple years ago I lost 4 hives, 2 Italians and 2 Carniolans. The Winter was brutal with several sub zero weeks. The die outs, I’m sure were more a result of my poor Summer/Fall management than just the weather but that Winter was wicked. I decided to try a few colonies of Saskatraz bees. They local bees store guy proposed they would over Winter well. They have done well through 2 Winters and they been very gentle to work with. They are prolific producers of new bees and honey. I still have some Italians and Carniolans from prior years and I would not replacement them. They are great bees to work too. I enjoy working and learning about all these different bees.

  16. Glenn Craiger

    Reference comments above that your article’s soul purpose was to sell Saskatraz queens. In support of those queens I will provide this comment. I found my bees demonstrated an abnormal resistance accepting them, not sure why. This spring I purchased 5 Saskatraz queens and preformed normal re-queening procedures with three of them in full size hives. Neither was accepted, one my fault the other two?? I started the other two in five frame nucs on 27 May. The population exploded in both. In mid July one hive, the best, has a 4 deep nucs stack without room for another bee, all with brood, honey, and pollen. Why they haven’t swarmed?? This hive is going to produce many Saskatraz daughter queens for me.

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  20. William

    I have two hives of Saskatraz bees and they’ve been great so far. They established comb quickly, produced very well, and are of excellent temperament. It sounds like we’re in for another rough winter in Nebraska, so I’ll let you know about their wintering ability next spring. 😉

  21. Mossman the Bee wrangler

    This is my first year to try the Saskatraz bees. And I’m in love with silly girls. I’m a old Italian bee lover. But the new strain can not survive the cold winters. Plus they will steal there own mothers underwear. They will rob Even when they have a hive full of honey. Unlike the old school Italians. That were so mellow. And stayed to themselves.

  22. patricia turney

    I need buckfast bees. do you know where I can get them for next spring?

  23. william pierce

    Can you have 2 different variety of bees in separate hives close together,say like carnolians and italians.?

  24. Tom Yass

    “If you want to keep as busy as your bees, Italians are the honey bees for you.” – Seriously, what does this even mean? It’s deceptive, misleading, and mutually exclusive paradigm word play.
    “Russian honey bees are a mix of Carniolans and Italians, among others.” – This is simply not true. Deception and misinformation aimed at the ill-informed.

  25. Rhett Dilts

    Plan to raise bees in NW Ontario (Lake of the Woods). Looking for a variety like Saskatraz – gentle, good honey producers, winter hardy, mite resistant , etc.
    Info on this variety or similar ones would be appreciated.
    Thank you!

  26. Justin T Firth Sr

    Can you get the bee with a red Dot on its back?

    1. Kendra

      Hello Justin! These bees would be queens. The red dot indicates that the age of the queen is in the year ending 3 or 8.

  27. William Settles

    did know of this bees do you have the Saskiatraz bees? and do you know their temperament

  28. Charles M. Simpson

    What should I expect ferrel bees in SE Minnesota to be related to, Italian, Russian, Carniolan?

  29. michael mcelroy

    Hello where do you get your Italians from kohenen has you on their cordovan list for packages .
    mike

  30. Jeff Wrubel

    I’m looking to get in to bed keeping for a life style not a bussiness. I live in South Alabama. Lots of humidity many days of rain and not a lot cold winter days. What would be my best option of bees. Would love for them to be gentle also lol.

  31. Katherine Dentler

    I would love to learn more do you have books or YouTube videos?

    1. Kendra

      Hello Katherine! We have a variety of books available on our site! We also have a YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfBhr4PPX6Oi62T5RtX_eAQ. If you need any other educational material feel free to check out our education page on our website: https://www.mannlakeltd.com/beekeeping-education. Thank you!