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A Guide to the Different Types of Honey Bees

Different honey bee races have different pros and cons. Learn more about which may be best for you as you learn how to keep bees. 

March 2013

By Alethea Morrison

Homegrown Honey Bees (Storey Publishing, 2012) is a beginner's guide that clearly explains everything you need to know on how to keep bees successfully, from getting your first bees to harvesting your first crop of honey. Spectacular macro photography by Mars Vilaubi brings the inner workings of the hive to life, while the playful text by Alethea Morrison gives you the information you need to make it through your first year. Everything is addressed here, from hive structure, colony hierarchy and bee behavior to allergies, permits and restrictions, and how to deal with the neighbors. The following excerpt addresses the pros and cons of different honey bee races to give you a guide for which you may want to buy for your first colony.

You can buy this book in the Mother Earth Living store: Homegrown Honey Bees.

Honey Bee Races: Differences within the Species

Though there is more than one species of honey bee, Apis mellifera is the only one cultivated for pollination and honey production. Within that species, there are no fewer than two dozen recognized honey bee races with unique characteristics. All domesticated races of bees have been bred for qualities that are convenient to the beekeeper, and at the top of the list is gentleness. Gentle bees are less defensive and less likely to sting. 

Worldwide, the most popular race is the Italian honey bee, but I started with Carniolans and I know beekeepers who love their Russians. Other beekeepers raise their own queens trying to breed a local stock that is uniquely suited to their region.

Here’s the scoop on some pros and cons, but, as always, talk to a local supplier or other local beekeepers about what they recommend for your area.

Two Carniolian bees

Even bees within the same race can look quite different. Both of these are Carniolans, but the one one the left is mostly black, and the one on the right has much more gold. 

Italian Bees

Pros Cons
Colonies consistently raise lots of bees, which make lots of honey. Strong brood rearing even during autumn can result in overpopulation and colony starvation in regions without winter forage.
Bees are gentle and easy to handle. Italians have a higher tendency to rob honey from weaker hives.
Bees have only a moderate tendency to swarm. Bees are easily confused about which hive is their home and may drift to other hives in your yard. Painting hives different colors can help Italians orient themselves.

Russian Bees

Pros Cons
Russians are dainty eaters and thus overwinter on relatively small honey and pollen stores. Colonies are subject to swarming, which requires different management strategies.
Bees are mite resistant. Colonies are slow to build population in the spring.


Pros Cons
Colonies strictly limit population growth in the fall so there will be fewer mouths to feed during the cold season, making them especially well suited to survive in regions with long winters. Colonies have a higher tendency to swarm during the spring baby boom. Carefully timed maintenance is required to give the bees enough room to suppress their swarming instinct.
Bees have first-rate gentleness. Carniolans are sensitive to drought and other nectar and pollen shortages, making population numbers less reliably strong.

Africanized Honey Bees

African honey bees are one race of Apis mellifera that is not domesticated. They were accidentally released in Brazil and have interbred with other races, resulting in the catastrophe known as the Africanized honey bee, which plagues parts of South America, Central America, and southern regions of the United States. Africanized honey bees exhibit several behaviors that distinguish them from the gentler European varieties:

Intensive brood rearing: Africanized bees devote a higher percentage of cells to raising brood.

Frequent swarming: They are also very successful at reproducing on a colony level, which accounts for their rapid spread.

Usurpation: Swarms of Africanized bees sometimes move into existing hives of European honey bees, killing the queen and taking over.

Defensiveness: Bees surge out of an open hive and defend their nest aggressively, pursuing intruders over long distances.

For more on starting beekeeping, read Buying Bees: Starter Colonies for Beekeeping Beginners

Excerpted from Homegrown Honey Bees © Alethea Morrison, photography © Mars Vilaubi, used with permission from Storey Publishing. Buy this book from our store: Homegrown Honey Bees.

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