Honeybee Breeds

Races of Honeybees

Dark German honeybees made their way to the North American continent in 1622, brought over by the early American colonists. In 1859 the first Italians were imported, and quickly became America’s most popular race of bees. The Carnolinian came in 1883, followed by the Caucasian in 1905. A ban on importing live bees was enacted in 1922 to try and prevent the spread of pests and diseases. With the exception of the Africanized honeybee, which migrated north from Brazil in the 1990’s, the Italian, Carnolinian, and the Caucasian are the main races of bees commercially available for purchase.

The Italian bee is by far the most common bee in America.

Advantages:

  • good brood pattern and maintains a strong workforce
  • excellent foragers
  • moderate tendency to swarm
  • moderate amount of propolis
  • gentle and calm
  • good wax builders

Disadvantages:

  • tend to drift from one hive to another
  • tendency to rob other hives
  • slow to build in spring
  • overwinter in larger clusters prone to starvation

Keeping a yard full of Italians means monitoring closely for robbing, keeping weaker hives’ entrances reduced longer, and ensuring adequate stores in fall.

Carnolinian honeybees originally came from Yugoslavia and Austria, which have long, cold winters. These bees are popular in colder areas of the country.

Advantages:

  • low levels of propolis and burr comb
  • low robbing
  • gentle
  • rapid spring buildup to catch early honey flow
  • smaller clusters overwinter on less stores

Disadvantages:

  • higher tendency to swarm
  • require lots of pollen for early spring buildup
  • queen is dark and may be difficult to find if unmarked

Carnolinians will need an effective strategy to prevent swarming. Colonies may benefit from a pollen substitute in early spring to support brood rearing. A marked queen will make requeening go more smoothly.

Caucasian bees originated in Russia and have been in America for a little over 100 years.

Advantages:

  • strong populations
  • gentle
  • larger tongues so have more opportunities to forage
  • forage on wetter, cooler days
  • overwinter in small, broodless clusters

Disadvantages:

  • high propolis, which can make inspection difficult
  • sting persistently when alarmed
  • high levels of drifting and robbing
  • may require more medication for disease
  • difficult to locate breeders

When shopping for bees you may come across names like Buckfast, All-American, Cordovan, or Russian bees. These are hybrids developed from specific strains of bees from one or more of the original races. The best place to get your bees is from as local of a breeder as possible, so that your bees will be acclimated to your regional climate. If you plan on mating your own queens for splits and requeening, be aware that the transmission of the desired genetics is unreliable in subsequent generations. You may be better off starting with a local queen from a breeder who can demonstrate good overwintering success and a reduced need for conventional treatments to maintain hive health.