Honey bees are sold as one of several major race classifications (Italian, Carniolan, Caucasian, or Russian) or some hybrid. The characteristics of each race carry some pros and cons. We recommend that beginners buy locally sourced bees, if possible, regardless of race as they will be adapted to your environment.
The race names derive from where the bees originated. Other types of bees are available but in our experience, these are the ones you will see most often.
When deciding which type of bees to buy it helps to understand some of the differences between them. While individual colonies differ, there are some general traits you can expect to find.
Italian Honey Bees (Apis mellifera ligustica)
Italians are the most common race of honey bee in North America, being adaptable to a wide range of climates. They have brown and yellow bands that may vary in color depending on the strain.
- Widely available
- Tend to be relatively gentle
- Breed well and are fairly prolific
- Less use of propolis so equipment is easier to separate
- Excellent foragers
- Less likely to swarm
- Great comb builders with white cappings for honey
- More likely to engage in robbing behavior
- Poor orientation skills may lead to drifting
- May raise excessive brood resulting in food shortages particularly going into winter
- Shorter foraging distances may limit access to food sources adding to robbing behavior
- Susceptible to pests and disease
While all honey bees may sting, the gentle nature of Italians makes them an excellent choice for beginning beekeepers.
To date, our bees have all been Italians because that’s what our local beekeeper had when we started out. Unfortunately for us, they have not exhibited a low swarming tendency.
Carniolan Honey Bees (Apis mellifera carnica)
Carniolans are very popular in the northern United States. They are dark in color which can make the queen difficult to locate. Carniolans and Italians are the 2 races offered by a distributor in our area where they are both in demand.
- Fast brood production in the early spring
- Gentle and not aggressive or prone to sting making them desirable in more populated areas
- Control brood to conserve food stores
- Overwinter well
- Less disease prone
- Low propolis production
- Tend to forage earlier and later in the day than others and on wet days
- Travel long distances to forage and are less prone to robbing
- More prone to swarm particularly if overcrowded
- May not do well in hot summer weather
- Need strong supplies of pollen
Caucasian Honeybees (Apis mellifera caucasia)
Caucasian bees are dark with brown spots and gray hairs.
- Strong populations
- Long tongue for extracting nectar from hard-to-reach spots
- Relatively gentle and calm
- Decreases brood production in the fall so they overwinter well
- Low swarming tendency
- Forage earlier in the day and in cooler temperatures
- Despite strong populations, they tend to build up slowly in the spring so not good for early honey production
- Large propolis production
- Later brood rearing is not helpful in spring pollination
- May rob and drift
- Not easy to locate supplies from breeders
Russian Honey Bees (Apis millifera)
Russians were bred primarily to be resistant to Varroa mite infestations. There are various hybrid lines of Russians making their traits less consistent than other races. In addition to resistance to Varroa and tracheal mites, Hygenic lines may be more disease-resistant.
Russians may not breed as well as others. Regular requeening may be necessary to ensure you have a varroa-hygienic queen.
Africanized Honey Bees (AHB)
Africanized honey bees were not mentioned in the introduction because they are not bees you should be looking to buy.
Africanized bees resulted from a cross-breeding experiment conducted in South America intended to increase honey production. Some of the bees escaped and they have since spread up into the southern United States.
They are very defensive and aggressive and are sometimes referred to as “killer bees”.
AHB are not killer bees in the sense they are roaming around looking to attack unsuspecting prey. Their defensive behavior is a significant magnitude greater than other honey bees.
For example, if your honey bees get a bit aggressive you can walk away for a break. A couple of bees may follow you a short distance before they break off. Africanized honey bees are more likely to attack in a large swarm and over a much longer distance.
AHBs can cross-breed with local honey bees causing a rise in the aggressive behavior of a colony. If your hive becomes “hot” and you think it’s a result of AHB you should requeen the hive.
What are VSH bees?
VSH stands for Varroa Sensitive Hygiene. The Varroa destructor mite is a significant problem in honey bee colonies. Varroa mites attach themselves to larvae in the brood cells and to bees throughout the hive.
The mites weaken the bees and spread viruses such as the deformed wing virus. Left unchecked, Varroa mites will destroy your colony. They are probably the number one threat to your hive’s survival.
Bees bred with VSH will seek out and remove infested pupae making the hive significantly resistant to Varroa. As a result, VSH bees are less likely to need other forms of treatment to diminish the Varroa population.
For more information on varroa mites and VSH bees, see Varroa Mites: A Complete Treatment Guide
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What are Saskatraz bees?
Saskatraz bees are a hybrid race bred and developed by The Saskatraz Project.
The project was established in 2004 in collaboration with Saskatchewan and Manitoba queen breeders. Bees were bred for increased honey production, wintering ability, tolerance to mites, and resistance to diseases and viruses.
We are getting a package of Saskatraz bees this year. We’ll post information on our website about how they perform.
So What Kind of Bees Should You Buy?
We think the answer is simple.
The kind of bees you should buy is the kind available from a reputable local beekeeper. Finding bees locally makes this an easy decision for you. You have enough other stuff to figure out as a beginner.
If you cannot find bees locally, check with major online suppliers as we discuss in our article on where to get bees.
As I mentioned, in our area Italians and Carniolans are most common and very popular. Your first colony will likely be one of these. (Since we’ve worked only with Italians so far we are planning to try some Carniolans next time around.)
As you learn more and expand your bee yard you may find yourself experimenting with different races to see if you have a preference. If you can’t find a local beekeeper, ask local beekeepers where they got their bees and who they recommend.
This article is part of a series on how to start beekeeping, a step-by-step guide to help you through your first year of beekeeping.