New beekeepers face the sometimes difficult decision of which strain or race of bee to order, and from whom to order them, when obtaining packages and queens.
Honey bees in the United States are a heterogeneous blend of several races introduced from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Currently, there are three major races: Italians, Caucasians, and Carniolans. However, those now present in the United States are not the same as the original races they were named after. Many strains of the original races and a couple of hybrids have been developed through interbreeding and selection along with various geographic and climatic influences.
To determine which race or strain of bees would best suit your operation, first consider the advantages and disadvantages of each. Over time you may want to try queens and packages from different queen breeders and suppliers to learn more about the behavior and productivity of each strain under your local conditions.
Italian bees are the most popular race in the United States. First introduced in 1859, they basically replaced the original black or German bee brought over by early colonists. The Italian bee is light yellowish or brown with alternating stripes of brown and black on the abdomen. Those with three abdominal bands (workers) are sometimes called leather-colored Italians; those with five bands are sometimes called goldens or cordovan queens. Italian bees tend to start brood rearing early in the spring and continue until late fall, which results in a large population throughout the active season. Large colonies can collect a considerable amount of nectar in a relatively short period, but they also require more honey for maintenance during the fall/winter than do the dark races. Most strains of Italian bees are considered to be quiet and gentle on the combs. Disadvantages include weaker orientation compared to other races, which results in more bees drifting from one colony to another, and a strong inclination to robbing, which can aid in the spread of disease. The Italians are considered good housekeepers. Italians are comparatively resistant to European foulbrood (EFB)—the major reason why they replaced black bees. The lighter color of the Italian queen makes finding her in the hive easier compared to queens of the other two races. Italian bees produce brilliant white cappings, which are ideal for producing comb honey.
Caucasian bees are sometimes described as the gentlest of all honey bees. They are dark colored to black with grayish bands on the abdomen. They tend to construct burr comb and use large amounts of propolis to fasten combs and reduce the size of the entrance. Some of the newer strains, however, use less propolis. Because they propolize excessively, they are not considered suitable for producing comb honey. Caucasians are inclined to drifting and robbing but not excessive swarming. Colonies normally do not reach full strength before midsummer, and they conserve their honey stores somewhat better than the Italians do. They also forage at somewhat lower temperatures and under less favorable climatic conditions than do Italian bees and are reported to show some resistance to EFB. Caucasians are available but not common.
Carniolans are dark bees, similar to Caucasians in appearance, except they often have brown spots or bands on the abdomen. These bees overwinter as small clusters but increase rapidly in the spring after the first pollen becomes available. As a result, the major disadvantage is excessive swarming. Due to their small overwintering cluster size, they are very economical in their food consumption, even under unfavorable climatic conditions, and overwinter well. They are not inclined to robbing, have a good sense of orientation, and are quiet on the combs. They are available but not common. Some of the stock is listed as new world Carniolan and are considered the better Carniolan strain by some beekeepers.
Hybrid bees have been produced by crossing several lines or races of honey bees. Initially, planned crosses frequently resulted in a line of very prolific bees that exhibit what is called hybrid vigor. With controlled matings, this vigor can be maintained. Commercial hybrids (Midnite and Starline) are produced by crossing inbred lines that have been developed and maintained for specific characteristics such sgentleness, productivity, or wintering.
Buckfast bees are a hybrid selected over a long period of time from many strains of bees from southwestern England. They have been shown to be more resistant to tracheal mites and better suited to the cool climate of that region. The stock has been imported into this country (eggs, semen, and adult queens via Canada) and they are easily available here in the United States.
The destructive presence of parasitic mites and drug-resistant diseases has led researchers and queen breeders to search for mite- and disease-resistant bees. Some of these stocks can now be purchased as queens. Interest in stock selected for more northern regions has also increased in popularity. One selection is the Buckeye strain from Ohio. Another is the West Virginia selection. The State of West Virginia, in an effort to improve the plight of beekeepers by reducing tracheal mite losses, has arranged for a queen breeder in an isolated area of Canada to supply a U.S. queen breeder with breeder queens obtained from Buckfast Abbey in England. These bees have demonstrated excellent resistance to tracheal mites and display all the traits of truly superior bees under West Virginia conditions.
Other groups of stock such as Russian, SMR, or Hybrid (sometimes Minnesota hybrid) are bees selected for greater mite resistance and/or improved hygienic behavior (hive cleaning—specifically, dead/dying brood removal), a trait that results in bees ridding their colony more quickly of potential harmful pathogens. As with any stock, querying your potential supplier is best if you are uncertain about the claims made concerning the characteristics of the stock. Checking on the experience of other beekeepers that have used the stock is not a bad idea.
If you use hybrid bees or bees of a selected stock in your operation, be sure to requeen regularly. Allowing natural queen replacement usually leads to loss of hybrid vigor and sometimes causes colonies to be quite defensive and thus more difficult to manage.