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The Different Types of Honey Bees

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 bee strains. To learn more about these categories and characteristics, read our guide to the different types of honey bees.

The Italian Bee (apis mellifera ligustica)

The Italian honey bee is a popular bee stock. They 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. Italian honey bees have a very light, visually pleasing color, making them easy to identify. Of course, like any creature, the Italian honey bee has its downsides. Their extended brood cycles mean these bees consume their resources quickly. They’re 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)

The German honey bee, originally found in Germany, the UK, and Scandinavia, is a hardy subspecies. They’re known for their ability to survive colder climates and harsh winters. They also have smaller and stockier bodies than other types of bees, and they boast a black or dark brown color—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 susceptibility to disease, damaged German bee populations, making them one of the rarer subspecies today.

The Caucasian Bee (apis mellifera caucasica)

The Caucasian bee is another gentle-natured subspecies. You can identify them by their large, hairy bodies, dark or gray color, and long tongues. These longer tongues help them forage nectar from—and in turn, pollinate—flowers that other bees can’t access. Despite this, it takes them longer to build up their hive in the spring. They also create and use a high amount of propolis, otherwise known as bee glue, which makes it harder to work within the hive. This causes Caucasian bees to have a lower honey production compared to 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. Carniolan bees come from middle and Eastern Europe, making them better at surviving the winter in colder climates. Much like the Caucasian honey bee, Carniolan bees also have an extremely docile nature. All these reasons explain why the Carniolan bee is extremely popular among beekeepers. The Carniolan bee is small compared to other European-native subspecies, 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.

Hybrid Stock

Some of the different types of honey bees are hybrids of multiple species. Scientists bred these bees in an attempt 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 stock:

The Buckfast Bee

Named after Buckfast Abbey in Devon, UK—where this bee stock comes from—Buckfast bees result from cross-breeding the strongest bee colonies in the area. As a result, these bees thrive in cold, wet climates, which means 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 they 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 Russian bees to the United States in 1997. An increasing amount of honey bee colonies collapsed due to damage from parasites, so the USDA brought in Russian bees in response. They 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 bees cross with other stock. Russian bees 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 actually 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 they 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.

Like all creatures, every type of honey bee comes with both 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.

The Different Types of Honey Bees infographic

3 comments on “The Different Types of Honey Bees
  1. Christina says:

    Pictures would be worth thousands of words!

  2. Laureen Hess says:

    We have honey bees swarming our hummingbird feeders. Lived here 6 years, never had a problem. My new made in USA feeders have oval holes, large so the bees can fit their whole body in to get the nectar. Found out several nearby neighbors have hives. Had to remove my feeders. Put dish out of 2:1 ratio nectar for the bees, they were staving despite tons of wild flowers in my area. Poor hummers aren’t able to feed except night and early AM.

  3. Sharon Wolfe says:

    Are there visual differences between the different types of honey bees? Do you have pics?

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