Types of Bees for Backyard Honey

Find your favorite types of honeybees for your backyard hive.

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by Flickr/Giorgia Amendola

If you’re like me, when it comes to adding livestock – or any animal for that matter – to your home, you relish the research. It’s fun to flip through literature and find the breed, species, or whatever the subspecies (also called ecotypes) may be called that jumps out at you and finds its way into your heart and onto your land.

With bees, it’s no different; there are choices. In the case of the honeybee, there are four main European ecotypes (called bee races) of the Western Honeybee that were introduced to the New World.

The important thing to consider, as always, is for what purpose do you want this creature? The most profitable use is most often contracting with agriculture producers for pollination purposes. And some honey production is usually important to the backyard beekeeper. With the different races of the Western Honeybee, you can have both. For the rural or urban apiarist, a good mix of honey production and pollination probably is the most desirable use, but you also want to find a gentle bee. If you get a hive that is “hot” or “sparky,” you’ll most likely have to remove the hive or requeen; and it will take several months to restore production.

It’s also worth noting that with bees there is a large amount of interbreeding between races. Simply put, bees don’t do well with inbreeding, and it’s far more difficult to isolate and control breeding among them than it is with dogs, cattle or chickens. So, while there’s no guarantee of characteristics, research can’t hurt. One tip for finding a gentle hive is to scour the websites, take note of those that tout gentle hives, and keep an eye out for images of sellers working their hives with minimal equipment and no veil.

The first four races listed were brought to the New World. Finding them in pure form is virtually impossible, since hybridization is rampant (which is a good thing). Moving down the list we see more hybrids like the Russian and Buckfast, and when you buy Italian Honeybees to start your hive, you, too, are more than likely getting a hybrid whose seller has hopefully selected for desirable characteristics. It’s a melting pot, but your bees are still descendants of the following subspecies. Understanding the races no doubt gives you a better understanding of the creatures you’re bringing to your property.

Italian Honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica) – This is the standard in the United States, the most commonly available, and the honeybee most often recommended for beginners. It was imported to the New World in 1859. The bee is adapted to a Mediterranean climate, so this is the variety best suited to the warmer climates common to much of the United States. The color of workers and drones is bright yellow, so queens are easy to identify because they are darker in color. The Italian has a moderately low tendency to swarm, and they are good producers of honey. Drawbacks are that they can be difficult to keep alive in cooler climates, and they are susceptible to the tracheal mite and the varroa mite.

Carniolan Honeybee (A. mellifera carnica) – Otherwise known as the Gray Bee, the “Carni” comes from Slovenia as well as neighboring Carinthia and countries east to Romania and Bulgaria. Its chitinous abdominal rings are dark with light gray-yellowish hairs. This honeybee is second to the Italian in terms of worldwide economic impact. It’s cold hardy, adapted well to the mountains. Some say this bee is gentler than the Italian.

German or Black Bee (A. mellifera mellifera) – This race is extremely hard to find today. It was probably one of the first to be introduced into the Americas, but lost favor due to defensiveness, and because beekeepers usually prefer lighter-colored honeybees. The short-tongued German Bee is often susceptible to disease.

Caucasian Honeybee (A. mellifera caucasica) – The Caucasian is known to be cold hardy and gentle, but produces a lot of propolis, gumming up the hive and making it a little more difficult to work. The Caucasian is similar in shape and size to the Carni. Chitin appears dark with brown spots at different times of year, and hair color is lead-gray. The Caucasian has a longer tongue than most races, so it can take advantage of more nectar sources.

Russian Honeybee – This honeybee is not a subspecies per say, but rather a hybrid created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Honey Bee Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for the purpose of showing resiliency to varroa and tracheal mites. The bee comes from stock located in the Primorski region of the Sea of Japan where it had been exposed to the mites for about 150 years. Russians are twice as resistant to varroa mites as other honeybees, and highly resistant to tracheal mites, but they can be a little on the aggressive side. They are moderate honey producers, and produce a fair amount of propolis.

Buckfast Honeybee – Another hybrid, this honeybee exhibits good hygienic behavior and strong resistance to tracheal mites. It was created by Brother Adam of the Buckfast Abbey, who spent a large portion of his life crossing races in hopes of creating a superior subspecies. These bees can be defensive, so make sure you find a gentle hive. It’s popular in the Northeast, and does well in cool, damp temperatures.

Caleb Regan and his wife, Gwen, live in rural Douglas County, Kansas, where they enjoy hunting, fishing, and raising and growing as much of their own food as they can. Caleb can’t imagine a better scenario than getting to work on a rural lifestyle magazine as a profession, and then living that same lifestyle right in the heartland of America.