What Kind of Bee?
By Kim Flottum
If you get one of the beekeeping magazines, and you should get one of the beekeeping magazines, and casually flip through the pages you see all kinds of bees for sale when reading the ads. You’ll see Italians, 3-banded Italians, Buckfast, Carniolans, New World Carniolans, Russians, Hygienic, gentle, VSH, All American, Survivors, Cordovans, Russian hybrids…good grief, isn’t a honeybee a honeybee? Nope.
Think of them like this. Think of the differences in dogs. There’s sporting dogs, hounds, working animals, terriers, toys, non-sporting dogs, and herding dogs. Yes, all dogs. Nope, not at all alike. They have been seriously bred and selected to perform certain tasks efficiently and with ease. You won’t see a peke jumping out of a boat to retrieve a downed goose, and you won’t see a blood hound sitting at the feet of a king, being waited on hand and foot.
Bees are the same. Last time we explored what kind of beekeeper you were, where you lived and what you wanted from your bees. If you’ve forgotten then go back and reread it, it’s still in your inbox somewhere; search for firstname.lastname@example.org, it’ll come up. (Or, go to www.kelleybees.com and look at the back issues under the Education tab.)
Let me tell you a bit about some of these bees. There are basically three varieties. Think hounds, working, and herding dogs. These varieties of bees are significantly different from each other. Of course there are sub-categories within each of those that are more alike than different, but they are different. And then there are traits that all have…think short hair.
Let’s start with Italians. They are the most commonly produced, which is unfortunate, but we are at the mercy of those who produce the bees we can buy. You’ll see why in a moment. Italians developed on the southern portion of the Italian peninsula, essentially a subtropical location similar to Georgia, northern Florida. Workers and drones have yellow stripes on their abdomens, and the queen has a long, fat golden abdomen; she’s easy to spot. The only other bees that have yellow are Africans. Remember that.
Their genetics say no winter, forage all year round, brood production all year round, eat all year round. Good if you live in Georgia or Florida, not so good if you live in, say Ohio. But they are programmed to do one thing; make honey. That, and to make honey they make bees. And it takes food to make bees. If you know that going in you’ll be OK, because you’ll be feeding a lot but at least they won’t starve. But when there’s honey to be made get your supers on early, and keep adding them.
They wake up early, early in the spring and begin raising brood. Commercial beekeepers love them for making packages, raising queens and pollination, so, that’s what most everybody gets. They have some other traits you should be aware of. They tend to be short distance foragers, they rob like mad, they focus more on the color of their hives rather than the location so drifting is an issue. If you’re not careful, they’ll build on the flow with population peaking after it…so they’ll eat it all. They make moderated amount of burr comb and collect small amounts of propolis, they have a temper, and unless programmed artificially, they aren’t resistant to anything.
Italians, they’ll make you honey, but they are pretty high maintenance. Be careful.
Next, Carniolans. No yellow. Black. Queens are small, black and look somewhat like workers. Drones have large, black abdomens. Workers are gray/black. If there’s yellow, that queen mated with an Italian somewhere. You can bet on that.
Carniolans evolved in the Austria, Yugoslavia area, north and east of Italy, so they know winter. Because of that they have to build fast in the spring to take advantage of all of the forage they can. If you’re a day late, they’ve already left; swarm management starts early, fast, and hard. But this fast buildup has a good side because they’ll shut down if there’s a dearth in the summer. No honey, no brood. And they eat a lot less food. They are the calmest, gentlest bee we have, and tend to drift hardly at all so less robbing. Good bees to have, especially if you are in a populated area, and can get going in the spring.
Russians. NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH RUSSIAN HYBRIDS. The pure Russians you see advertised in the journals aren’t a pure breed; they are a hybrid of several varieties, selected over time in eastern Russian. They have significant resistance to Varroa, mostly because of hygienic behavior but other traits as well. The Russian Hybrids you see advertised in the journals are pure Russians, open mated with local stock. You end up with a mean, non-resistant, unproductive, poor wintering, mad, swarming bee. Don’t get them. But pure Russians, that’s a different story. But they are mixed colors so you can expect various markings…black, yellow, mixed. They have traits unlike anything you’ve seen before though.
Pure Russians are incredibly good at wintering, consume very little food, and have slow, slow build-up in the spring. They wait and wait until spring is here and then absolutely explode. You have time to get ready, but you better be ready when they go. Then they need lots of room, more than you’d think. They have no tracheal mites, at all, and if left to themselves, do OK with Varroa. Mixed in an apiary with other varieties they’ll have trouble, but not as much as the others. But they produce queen cells. They spend a lot of time on them, and swarming is an issue, but not as much as you’ve heard. But enough room is an issue. They are gentle, easy on the comb, and productive because they very carefully use their resources; no food, no brood.
If they give us room next month, we’ll talk about how these bees deal with Varroa. Actually all of them are getting some of these valuable traits. But for now, what kind of beekeeper are you, where do you live, what do you want from your bees? Know all this; you can get the bee that’s best for your operation.