Types of Bees for Backyard Honey

Find your favorite types of honeybees for your backyard hive.


| 2011 GRIT's Guide to Backyard Bees and Honey



Honeybee on Purple Flower

Italian honeybee gets its fill thanks to one of nature's beautiful flowers.

Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org

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.





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