Honey Bee Genetics: Which Honey Bee Is Right For Me?


From the novice beekeeper to the commercial beekeeper, a common thread of concern centers around the correct genetic traits of a specific type of honey bee that is best for that specific beekeeper.

That entails the matching of the beekeeper’s experience and goals with the specific attributes of available bee stock.

For some that might be “which type honeybee is most gentle?”.
Or maybe it is “which bee type produces the most honey?”.
And for the beekeeper selling bee packages, it might be “which bee type is most prolific and grow the largest colonies of bees?”.

Many seasoned beekeepers prefer to create their own bee’s genetics, by interbreeding the different honey bee types, in hopes of combining genetic traits that produce a honeybee type specific to that particular beekeeper’s goals.

So the question all beekeepers are constantly asking themselves is:

What Is The Best Honey Bee For Me?

Scored 0 to 10:DocileHoneyWintering
Italian785
Carniolan978
Russian789
German568
Caucasian865
Buckfast678

Thoroughbred bees, like thoroughbred anything, are rare.

Unlike livestock, the breeding process of a Queen bee in a controlled environment is still in its early infancy.

The normal breeding process of a Queen bee happens in the open environment welcoming any drone that is big enough and fast enough to catch and breed with the Queen.

Additionally, the Queen bee may mate with up to 40 different drones before she reaches her capacity for sperm retention.

This means that even if the Queen bee is pure of genetics, her offspring, the eggs she lays for the hive’s survival, will have only half of the Queen’s genes. The other half of the offspring’s genes will come from the drones with which the Queen mated.

Since it is highly likely that the Queen mated with multiple drones, the disposition of the Queen’s offspring can have very different traits, depending on the genetics of the drone.

While feral mating is not to the benefit of achieving the beekeeper’s goals, it is usually very good for the survival of the bees. Most thoroughbreds of anything have much more medical and physical deficiency than their counterparts, known in the dog world as “mutes”.

Don’t like what you have?
Re-Queen and everything changes in about six weeks!

Since 1922 the United States has banned the importation of honey bees from ALL countries.

Italian Honey Bee

Gentleness:

Although rated in general as “docile” by most beekeepers, they are not as docile as the Carnolia or the Caucasian honey bees.

Italian honey bees are considered by most seasoned beekeepers as a good “bee of choice” to start with, and most seasoned beekeepers continue to use Italian bees as their bee of choice.

Italian honey bees have a propensity to robbing other beehives when nectar and pollen are scarce during a Dearth.

Robbing activity will turn a docile hive into an aggressive hive immediately!
Read my post about Robber Bees…..

Pollination:

The Italian honey bee is the most popular type of honey bee among beekeepers, therefore the Italian honey bee is the pollinator that is responsible for much of America’s crops and orchards production.

They collect pollen as a necessary protein source to rear their young, but in the process of gathering pollen for the hive, a lot of pollen clings to their furry body and is unintentionally transferred to the pistil of the next flower they visit.

Honey Production:

Beekeepers consider the Italian honey bee as the standard against which all other types of bees are evaluated.

Italian honey bee honey production is considered very good, however, some research has shown the Russian honey bee to be equal to or even better at honey production that the revered Italian honey bee.

Brood Production:

Italian honey bees brood rearing tends to be less influenced by climate and Dearths than some other types of honey bees such as the Russian honey bee.

Italian bees tend to maintain a large brood population with less regard to environmental factors than other honey bees. This larger than normal brood size requires a lot of honey to rear these young larvae and pupae.

As a consequence, they are not as thrifty with their honey stores, and can literally eat themselves into “hive death” without some interventions by the beekeeper.

Propolis Production:

Italian honey bees are sub-standard at Propolis production compared to some other types of honey bees.

This is an unfortunate trait in the Italian honey bee as they are also the most susceptible of the types of honey bees to be plagued by pathogens, and Propolis acts as a pathogen suppressor within the hive.

Propolis production can be encouraged by roughing the interior of the hive’s boxes using something like a hive tool’s edge point, scraping about ¼ inch deep grooves into the box.

All bees tend to fill “crack” in the hive with Propolis and this technique can increase the Italian (or any honey bee’s) production of Propolis within the hive.
Read my post on the importance of Propolis to hive health…..

Disease Resistance:

Italian honey bees are highly susceptible to parasites such as Varroa mites, Tracheal mites, small hive beetles and some other pathogens.

Italian honey bees will require the frequent hive inspection by the beekeeper and chemical intervention to protect the viability of the hive.

Be prepared to spend extra time and money to keep Italian bee colonies healthy and free of these hive-killing pathogens.

Preferred Climate:

Italian honey bees are successfully farmed in all parts of the United States, but they do much better surviving winters in the more moderate climate of the southern states.

The Italian honey bee do well in climates with long periods of moderate temperatures.
They don’t fare well in wet cold climates or hot dry climates.

Swarming Tendency:

As with all honey bees, they will swarm if overcrowding is allowed to occur.

Italian honey bees are slower to build up brood and overcrowd the hive than some other types of honey bees, allowing the beekeeper to more easily identify early swarming behavior.
Read my post about Early Signs Of Swarming & Prevention…..

Over-Wintering:

Over-wintering is difficult for Italian bees, that is why they do better in warmer climates.

Italian honey bees from a much more “loose” and larger over-wintering hive ball than some other types of honey bees.

The size and “looseness” of the overwintering ball requires the wintering bees to work much harder to keep the Queen warm all winter long.

This additional work (bee calisthenics) too keep the Queen warm requires the worker bees to consume more of their honey stores to make it through the winter than some other types of honey bees.

As a result, the Italian honey bees are prone to eating all their honey stores before winter is gone. They simply starve to death, bees generally can survive the cold of winter if they have enough food to keep them active and warm.

Be prepared to intervene by feeding the Italian bee to help it survive the winter.

The general consensus is that a beekeeper can reasonably expect ½ of all Italian honey bee hives will not make it through the winter.

History:

The Italian honey bee was introduced to the United States of America the year that Abraham Lincoln was campaigning to become President Of The United States.

The dominance of the Italian honey bee in the United States is the result of beekeepers in the southern states beginning a Queen rearing project after the Federal Government made it illegal to import Queen bees from other countries in 1922.

The Italian honey bee’s reputation of gentleness and good honey production is the reason beekeepers in the northern states began to replace their more aggressive stock with this gentler Italian honey bee.

The Italian honey bee remains the most popular choice of modern beekeepers.

Carniolan Honey Bee

Gentleness:

Carniolan honey bees are probably the most docile of all honey bee types.

Additionally, Carniolan honey bees, unlike Italian bees, are not prone to robbing other hives causing bees of the hive being robbed to become quite aggressive.

Robbing behavior will cause a beehive to become pretty aggressive.
A beekeeper must be very cautious around a beehive that is being robbed, even gentle hive can become quite aggressive.
Read my post about Robber Bees…..

Pollination:

Carniolan honey bees are great pollinators at the beginning of the nectar flow because of their ability to rapidly increase hive population.

As a nectar flow approaches the end, before the dearth, Carniolan honey bees also rapidly decrease hive population.

Another drawback of Carniolan honey bees as pollinators is their comparatively very short hair. Pollen sticks to honey bee’s hair for serendipitous pollination, and the Carniolan honey bee falls “short” in the hair department.

If the beekeeper is interested in Carniolan bees for pollination, be aware the beekeeper will have to feed these bees, as the nectar flow declines, to keep them from shutting down too early.

Honey Production:

Carniolan honey bees rival any other type honey bee in honey production overall, however, because of their rapid population adaptation in response to nectar flows, they are one of the strongest honey producers at the beginning of nectar flow but lose momentum at the end of nectar flow because of their quick population decline towards the end of nectar flow.

They simply do not forage as much or for as long as other bee types at the end of nectar flow.

Brood Production:

Like the Russian honey bee, the Carniolan honey bee has a massive, rapid build-up of brood and hive population in the spring at first signs of nectar flow, but their start of this massive population growth comes slightly later than the Russian honey bee.

This quick build-up of hive population makes for a very strong hive early in the season but can cause the hive to become rapidly overcrowded.

The beekeeper will need to do hive inspections more often than other honey bee types to be sure the beekeeper does not miss the early swarming signs of swarming behavior.

Propolis Production:

Carniolan honey bees are noted for low Propolis production.

This could be the result of Carniolan honey bees being less prone to robbing behaviors than many other types of honey bees. This reduced robbing tendency means they do not have to be as diligent and obsessive about aggressively filling every crack in the hive.

Disease Resistance:

Carniolan honey bees are considered to be highly resistant to parasites and diseases.

This natural increased resistance to pathogens may account for the Carniolan honey bee to be a low producer of Propolis, the beehive’s substance of choice to combat hive infestations of pathogens.

While the Carniolan honey bee is good at defending against parasites and diseases, their non-aggressive (gentleness) nature makes them poor defenders of their hive making them more vulnerable to invaders such as ants, hornets, and wasps.
Read my post about the importance of Propolis to beehive health…..

Preferred Climate:

Beekeepers throughout the United States keep Carniolan honey bees.
They can withstand some of the longer winter climates of the northern states because of their ability to use less honey reserves during the longer winter months.

Carniolan honey bees do better in the northern states than the southern states.

Swarming Tendency:

Carniolan honey bees have a reputation of more readily swarming than other types of honey bees, but this may be a misconception of the Carniolan honey bee!

They have been branded as “easily swarms” by beekeepers because of their rapid, explosive population growth in the spring. This rapid huge build-up of hive population can cause the hive to swarm if the beekeeper is as lackadaisical about looking for early swarm signs as compared to the “slower to swarm” attribute assigned to say, the Italian honey bee.
Read my post about Swarming & Swarm Prevention…..

Over-Wintering:

Carniolan honey bees have the reputation of being able to survive longer winters than most other honey bees, and they consume less of their honey stores to accomplish this primary task of the beehive, survival!

History:

Carniolan honey bees are the second most popular honey bees being kept by beekeepers.
They were introduced to the United States in the 1880’s.

Brother Adam, the creator of the Buckfast honey bee, is reported to have said: “The Carniolan honey bee is the key that unlocks the hidden potential of other strains”.

The Carniolan honey bee originates from the cooler climates countries of middle Europe.

Russian Honey Bees

Gentleness:

Russian honey bees have the reputation of being more aggressive than Italian honey bees, but the Russian Honey Bee Breeders Association disputes that notion.
They state that Russian honey bees are just as gentle as Italian honey bees, especially if Russian Queens are mated with Russian drones.

The aggressive reputation appears to come from hives with Russian Queens that have mated with drones of a different type, and as always, hybrids are unpredictable in their aggressiveness.

Russian honey bees have been observed to frequently “head butt” the beekeeper as a warning that the beekeeper has become a target for potential stinging behavior.

Pollination:

Russian honey bees are more sensitive to changes in climate than the Italian honey bees.
Russian honey bees tend to “shut down” during Dearths making them less desirable for pollination of orchids that bloom during a Dearth.

This tendency to shut down during Dearths can be controlled by the beekeeper with feeding techniques.

Honey Production:

Russian honey bee honey production has also been studied by the United States Department of Agriculture as compared to the Italian honey bee.

Their findings were that the Russian honey bee produced as much, or more, honey than the Italian honey bee.

Brood Production:

Russian honey bees are quick to shut down brood production during a Dearth when pollen is scarce, however, they are much faster at building up a workforce than other types of honey bees. As a result, they will have a bigger workforce during the height of nectar flows than other types of honey bees.

Unlike other types of honey bees, the presence of a Queen cell on a brood frame does not signal emanate swarming activity.

Russian honey bees keep an active Queen cell going almost all the time, “just in case”. They will destroy the Queen cell and immediately start another active Queen cell if the hive has no need of a new Queen at the time the Queen cell is approaching birthing a new Queen bee.
Read my post on the Early Signs of Swarming Behavior…..

To keep some genetic diversity in Russian honey bees in the USA, some bee scientists travel to Europe regularly to collect Russian bee semen and return it to artificially inseminate virgin Russian Queen bees reared in the United States.

Propolis Production:

Russian honey bees are considered to be just middle-of-the-road for Propolis production., so if the beekeeper is interested in harvesting Propolis for profit, another type of honey bee would better serve the beekeeper’s goals.

Russian honey bees are a pathogen resistant type of honey bee, therefore Propolis production is not as critical to hive health as it is in other types of honey bees.
Read my post on Propolis and its importance to hive health…..

Disease Resistance:

Russian honey bees seem to have a genetic predisposition of aggression against parasitic mites such as Tracheal mites and Varroa mites.
Varroa mites are widely believed to be the cause of colony collapse disorder, the cause of great concern over the huge episodes of bees simply disappearing from an active hive.

Russian honey bees are also intolerant to small hive beetles, another hive invader that beekeepers of other types of honey bees need to intervene to maintain hive health.

The Russian honey bee breeders association mantra is:
“Manage your bees, not your mites”.

Preferred Climate:

Some say the Russian honey bee prefers the cooler climate of the northern states. The assumption here is Russian honey bees prefer the climate of their country/region of their origin.

While it is true that Russian bees come from a colder climate, they are being successfully farmed in the various climates of the United States. There is no evidence that they have a “preferred” climate, however, the colder climate origin may be the catalyst for their adaptation to over-winter more successfully than other types of honey bees.

Swarming Tendency:

The Russian honey bee has the reputation of swarming more than other types of honey bees.
All honey bees will swarm under the right conditions, that being overcrowding in the beehive.

The reason the Russian honey bee has the reputation of “swarming” is because of their ability to rapidly build a brood and workforce.

Russian honey bee beekeepers need to inspect their beehives more frequently than other honey bee types during swarming season, lest the Russian honey bees overcrowd the hive before the beekeeper recognizes the swarm potential.
Read my post on Swarming and Prevention…..

Over-Wintering:

Many beekeepers think the genetics of the Russian honey bee comes from their accommodation to the cold Russian climate and no doubt that does help the Russian honey bee to over-winter better than an Italian honey bee.

The truth is, honey bees of any type rarely if ever freeze to death.
They starve to death.

Russian honey bees over-wintering is a smaller, more compact over-wintering ball which just simply uses less honey stores to stay warm over the winter, so they over-winter better because they have enough food to produce the heat needed through “bee calisthenics” to keep the over-wintering hive ball warm.

When bees have enough food they almost always can keep the Queen warm all winter long.

History:

The Russian honey bee was imported to the United States by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1997 in an effort to reverse the decline of honeybees caused by Varroa mite infestation.

This dramatic decline in honey bees in the United States is the so-called Colony Collapse Disorder that has wiped out so many hives.

German Honey Bees

Gentleness:

German honey bees are not known for their gentleness.
They are easily excitable and during hive inspection and they are observed to run all over the frames being inspected, kind of like New York pedestrians as opposed to the more southern laid back attitude of the Italian or Carniolan honey bees.

Pollination:

Because of the German honey bee’s delay in spring brood build up they are not the early pollinators but they do pollinate longer and later into the nectar flow than some other bee types, such as Russian bees which shut down hive population at the first signs of nectar flow termination.

Honey Production:

German honey bees generally produce less honey than many other types of honey bees, however, they can produce large amounts of honey under ideal conditions.

Brood Production:

Slow to react with hive population growth at the beginning of spring nectar flow.

Propolis Production:

German honey bees are prolific Propolis producers which can make hive inspection more difficult simply because it takes more effort to break the seal between hive boxes.

This excessive Propolis production can make an already irritable hive by nature even more aggressive. Bees do not like vibrations of the beehive and the “cracking” of the Propolis will most certainly cause more hive vibration than with other less prolific Propolis producing types of honey bees.
Read my post on the importance of Propolis to hive health…..

Disease Resistance:

The increase Propolis production may be the result of the German honey bee’s susceptibility to diseases.

German honey bees are particularly vulnerable to European Foul Brood and Wax Moth infestations.

Preferred Climate:

While the German honey bee adapts to most climates, they adapt exceptionally well to the cold damp climates.

Swarming Tendency:

German honey bees are about the middle of the road when it comes to swarming.

Because of the slower spring population growth of a German honey bee hive, the beekeeper has more time to spot early warning signs of swarming and take action to prevent swarming from happening.

Over-Wintering:

Because the German honey bee adapts very well to cold damp climates, it over-winters better than a lot of honey bee types

History:

German honey bees were most likely type honey bee that accompanied the early settlers coming to America in the early 1600s.

There is evidence of the presence of the German honey bee in America as far back as the mid-1600s.

German honey bees fell out of favor with American beekeepers because they were cranky, prone to disease, and produced less honey than other honey bee types that were introduced to American beekeepers over the years.

Caucasian Honey Bee

Gentleness:

The Caucasian honey bee is considered to be very gentle.

The Caucasian is not as docile as the Carniolan honey bee, but more gentle than the Italian honey bee.

While the Caucasian honey bee is very gentle, once irritated they can be difficult to calm.

Like the Italian honey bee, the Caucasian honey bee has a propensity of robbing other hives of their honey. This is in part because of their slow shut down of population growth towards the end of nectar flow. Caucasian honey bees simply have large quantities of foraging bees when nectar is scarce and robbing becomes more attractive than foraging.

Even the gentlest honey bees will become aggressive if under attack from robbers!
Read my post on Robber Bees…..

Pollination:

Because of the Caucasian honey bee’s slowness to build an early workforce, they are not great pollinators at the beginning of the nectar flows.

Because of their slowness to shut down population growth at the end of nectar flow, they are good pollinators of the late-blooming flowers and flowers that bloom during the dearth.

Honey Production:

The Caucasian honey bee is even slower building a workforce in the spring than even the Italian honey bee (which is considered slow to build up workforce).

Don’t expect huge harvests of honey from the Caucasian honey bee.
Their greatest honey build up comes in cold and damp climates.

The Caucasian honey bee has a longer tongue than other types of honey bees.
This gives them the advantage of nectar gathering over other types of honey bees whose tongues are not long enough to reach the nectar of some deep nectar reservoirs of some flowers.

Brood Production:

The Caucasian honey bee, like the Italian honey bee, has a slower population build-up in the spring compared to the Russian and Carniolan honey bees.

With a smaller spring workforce build-up, they will not be able to replenish their expended winter honey energy resource as quickly, therefore the beekeeper’s first honey harvest may come later in the year than some other, more rapidly expanding type of honey bees.

Propolis Production:

Caucasian bees love to produce propolis, and their hives are notorious for being difficult to pry apart the hive when inspecting the hive.

Propolis production is healthy for the hive as it also acts as a pathogen inhibitor, making the hive a healthier area to rear the vulnerable pupae.
Read my post on Propolis as a beehive prophylactic…..

Disease Resistance:

Caucasian honey bees are susceptible to diseases with its nemesis being nosema.
Nosema infection is the primary reason for the Caucasian honey bee’s poor performance at successfully surviving the winter.

Preferred Climate:

The Caucasian honey bee does well in a large range of climates ranging from warm and humid to cold and damp climates.

They produce the most honey in a cold and wet climate, they are probably the best flyers in poor weather conditions of all honey bees.

Swarming Tendency:

The Caucasian honey bee is pretty tolerant of overcrowding conditions, the primary reason for bees to swarm.

This gives the beekeeper a larger window of time to spot early warning signs of swarming and to take steps to prevent the swarming.

Over-Wintering:

Although Caucasian honey bees come from a colder climate than other types of honey bees, their over-wintering capabilities are diminished because of their susceptibility to Nosema infection.

History:

The Caucasian honey bee was first identified in 1877 and was quickly introduced to the United States in about 1880.

The so-called Caucasian bee does not refer to coloration but rather refers to the region of origin, the Caucasus Mountains located in Persia.

Interestingly, their coloration ranges from dark in color to bright yellow, depending on which side of the mountain range is their home.

Buckfast Honey Bee

Gentleness:

Buckfast honey bees can be more defensive than other types of honey bees.

While most beekeepers rate the Buckfast honey bee as gentle, it has been noted that a colony left unattended for a couple of generations can become quite defensive.

Pollination:

Because of the Buckfast honey bee’s quick and early hive population build-up at the first sign of nectar flow through to the very end of the nectar flow, they may be the most prolific pollinators of all bee types.

Honey Production:

Current estimates of honey production by a Buckfast honey bee hive is on par with most other common honey bees at 66 pounds annually per hive.

However, early documentation by the creator of the Buckfast honey bee records honey harvests were yielding, on average, 192 pounds of harvestable honey annually with some hives hitting 400 pounds of honey harvested.

Brood Production:

Buckfast honey bees build up hive population quickly and early in the spring and maintain a high hive population all the way to the end of nectar flow.

The brood area size of Buckfast honey bees is larger than most types of honey bees.

Propolis Production:

The Buckfast honey bee is a low producer of Propolis.
This is good for prying the hive boxes apart when inspecting the hive.

If Propolis production and sales of Propolis is one of the beekeeper’s goals, the Buckfast honey bee is not for you.
Read my post on Propolis production and hive health…..

Disease Resistance:

Buckfast honey bees have the reputation of having superior hygiene behaviors.

Buckfast honey bees are especially good at preventing a tracheal mite infection within the hive.

Preferred Climate:

Buckfast honey bees have a wide tolerance of climates but often do best in cold, wet, overcast climates like their home of origin, the British Isles.

Swarming Tendency:

The Buckfast honey bee has the lowest instinct of ant honey bee to swarm, but under exceptional overcrowding conditions, even these unlikely to swarm honey bees will swarm.

Some Buckfast honey beekeepers claim the low tendency to swarm means a lot fewer inspections of the hive to look for early swarming behavior in the spring.

This low swarming trait helps offset the Buckfast honey bee’s tendency to be more defensive and aggressive. They are still as cranky, but the beekeeper does not need to bother them as often with their hive inspections.

Over-Wintering:

The Buckfast honey bee requires a fair amount of honey stores to survive the winter.

Most think the Buckfast requires less winter honey stores to survive the winter than Italian bees, but could well be the second most demanding of the honey bees on their winter honey storage reserves for winter survival.

Buckfast honey bees do well over-wintering in cold, wet climates.

History:

The Buckfast honey bee is a hybrid of many races of honey bee created by a Benedictine monk known as Brother Adam back in the early 1900s. He initially crossed an Italian honey bee with a honey bee found in England, referred to as the European honey bee.
He continued to cross-breed with other honey bee types in search of his perfect honey bee.

In his 98 years on earth, he continued to work on perfecting this hybrid of honey bee.

Buckfast honey is used in many burn clinics as the substance of choice to prevent burns from becoming infected.

Honey Bee Coloration:

It is quite difficult to identify a specific type of honey bee by the coloration of the worker bees.
Identification by coloration is easier by looking at the coloration of the Queen bee.

Happy Beekeeping

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