Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Types of Honey Bees & Their Traits
The western honey bee or European honey bee otherwise known as Apis mellifera, is the most common species of honey bees worldwide. The genus name Apis is Latin for "bee", and mellifera is the Latin for "honey-bearing", referring to the insects ability to produce honey. There are several breeds or types of honey bees and each of them have their own traits. Bees in general have ~20,000 known types of bees and have existed for over 65 Million years.
The Western Honey Bee
The western honey bee is one of the first insects “domesticated” by humans. As you can imagine the insect was marveled for its sweet honey and was one of the first natural sweeteners. Honey was valued highly and often used as a form of currency, tribute, or offering. In the 11th century A.D., German peasants paid their feudal lords in honey and beeswax.
Apis mellifera occupies every continent except Antarctica and has the ability to adapt to almost any climate earth has to throw at the honey bee. And what all of the honey bee species have in common is their colony hierarchy.
The Queen Honey Bee
All hail the queen. Without a queen a colony is likely doomed, as the queen is responsible for laying all the worker bee eggs, as they are the only eggs that are fertilized. Each hive has only one queen bee and she is responsible for providing the hives biological diversity.
Queen Bee Lifespan
The queen bee is the longest living bee within the honey bee colony. On average she lives 2-4 years and can lay around 1500-2000 eggs per day. The queen bee starts off as any fertilized worker egg would, when she is laid by her mother. The worker bees then decide, for what ever reason, to re-queen the hive and takes a worker egg and places it a larger wax cell called a queen cup. This egg which turns into a larvae is fed a very specific diet which allows the larvae to develop into a queen honey bee. She is then sealed off into a queen cell which is much larger than a worker or drone cell within the hive.
Once born the queen bees first order of duty is, if there is an existing queen, to attempt to go kill her. Once she has superseded the existing queen, she will than take a mating flight where she will mate with one or several drones providing all the fertilization of eggs she will need for her 2-4 year life. She will then return to the hive where she will likely spend the rest of her life laying hundreds if not thousands of eggs a day.
The Worker Honey Bee
The worker bees make up the majority of the population within the beehive. They are all female and are the makeup of the genes from the queen and one of the drones that fertilized the queen. The moment the worker bee emerges from her cell, 21 days after being laid, she gets to work. With a lifespan of only 6 weeks her first job is to clean up her own cell so the queen can lay another egg if she sees fit. Workers make up approximately 97% of the hives population.
A worker bees life is broken up into 3 stages-
They spend the first part of their 6-week life as nurse bees. They help take care of the eggs and larvae the queen bee has laid.
The second part of their life they spend as house keepers, cleaning up the hive and dragging out the dead bees and other debris that has accumulated within the hive. They will also defend the hive if any uninvited guests arrive.
Foraging is the final act of a worker bess life. They spend their days flying up to 5 miles in search of nectar and pollen. They bring this back to the hive and hand it off to the other worker bees within the hive and then fly right back out to bring in more resources.
The Drone Honey Bee
Well, drones have one job and one job only. They freeload off of the hive so they can help spread the genes of the hive. They fly off each day in search of other virgin queens with the hopes of mating with one. Nearly none of the drones will be successful, but if they are, they die in the process of mating with a queen.
Upon the approach of winter and because drones have no function within the hive they are removed from the beehive by the worker bees, to help save on the winter resources. Drones normally only make up around 3% of the bee hive population, but that could be the difference between the hive starving during winter or not, so they must go.
Honey Bee Types & Traits
Each honey bee species has its own traits and personalities and many beekeepers have tried to exploit certain traits in many of the species through selective breeding. Their goal, produce a bee that amplifies certain traits to conform to the needs of a region and/or the beekeepers needs, like increased honey production, increased hygienic behavior among others.
Caucasian Honey Bee
Scientific Name: Apis Mellifera Caucasica
A subspecies of Apis Mellifera (Western Honey Bee), the Caucasian honey bee originated from the valleys of the Central Caucasus in Georgia.
Behavior of Caucasian Honey Bees
The Caucasian honey bee is a good bee for beginner beekeepers as they raise strong colonies and are very gentle with the beekeeper. They are bees that are best suited for warmer winter regions.
Advantages of Caucasian Honey Bees
Great use of propolis, some describe their propolis behavior as prolific.
They are moderate to good honey producers.
Brood production is strong but can take time.
Gentle and Calm honey bee.
Potentially the Caucasian honey bee’s best quality is there long proboscis. This allows them to extract nectar from the deepest nectar sources, where other species would be otherwise unable.
Colony doesn’t peak until mid to late Summer which is good in areas that have later nectar sources.
Disadvantages of the Caucasian Honey Bee
Later colony growth is a disadvantage in areas with strong early nectar flows.
Colder Climates may be not to this bees strengths as they can be susceptible to nosema.
Because they are known as prolific propolis users, may make hive management more difficult. A well sealed manufactured hive with gaskets will help prevent this.
Have a tendency to drift to other beehives as well as rob from other hives.
Carniolan Honey Bee
Scientific Name: Apis Mellifera Carnica
Another subspecies of Apis Mellifera (Western Honey Bee), the Carniolan honey bee also know as Apis M. Carnica is closely related to Apis M. Lingustica or the Italian. They are also from a very similar region, the Carniolan honey bee originated from the temperate Central European climate region, that ranged from the Alps to the Carpaths.
Behavior of Carniolan Honey Bees
Carniolan bees are a favored bee among beekeepers in commercial apiaries as well as backyard bee hives for several reasons, as they are quick to expand colony numbers in the Spring. But for this reason they can also have swarming tendencies. They are great at defending their bee hive from pests and robbers, but are also known for their extremely gentle behavior towards beekeepers. This sub species of honey bees is also resistant to some diseases and parasites that can debilitate some hives of other subspecies.
The appearance of a Carniolan bee is similar in size to that of an Italian bee but has a distinguished dusky brown-grey color with stripes of a lighter brown color. Because of this the Carniolan can also be know as the “grey bee”. Like the Caucasian bee, the Carniolan has a very long tongue (proboscis) which allows them to have excellent foraging habits.
Advantages of Carniolan Honey Bees
Known as a very gentle bee species and non-aggressive honey bee.
Do well in populated areas or in neighborhoods.
Low drifting between other hives.
Medium to low robbing tendencies.
Good bee in cold climates as they can overwinter with smaller colonies than others such as the Caucasian bee.
The amount of honey stores the bees go through is low, helping in their robustness in longer winters.
The Carniolan has a fast “rhythm” with nectar flow, so they ramp up brood production quick with high nectar flows and shut down brood production quickly when nectar flow is low.
They do not use much propolis and spend that time foraging.
Higher resistance to brood diseases that some other bee species do not.
Tendency to forage earlier and later in the day, as well as on wet cool days.
Some studies have shown up to a 12% higher worker life than some other honey bee sub species.
Disadvantages of the Carniolan Honey Bee
Queen is difficult to locate as she is closer in size and color to the worker bees.
Does not do as well in hot summer weather, making it a better colder climate bee.
Because the Carniolan has strong early season brood production, this sub species has a higher tendency to swarm do too quick overcrowding.
Spanish Honey Bee
Scientific Name: Apis Mellifera Iberiensis
The Spanish honey bee is also know as the Iberian or Gibraltar bee. It is named after the region in which it comes from, the Iberian Peninsula where the country of Spain is located.
Spanish Honey Bee Behavior
The Spanish honey bee do not typically generate multiple queens in any given hive at swarming time. Their movements are fast and rather nervous. They exhibit quick defensive reaction, nervousness, and a propensity to swarm.
The Spanish honey bee is also active in cooler temperatures when other sub species are not yet active. They are also good in cold winter locations. They do make abundant use of propolis. One or two sentry bees are always present at the entrance of the hive. If the colony is disturbed, the sentries raise a persistent alarm. The hive attack anything that seems threatening for at least 24 hours.
Advantages of Spanish Honey Bees
This sub species has aggressive defensive behavior and will vigorously defend their hive.
They are good at surviving colder winters.
The queens are prolific layers helping quickly increase colony size.
Disadvantages of the Spanish Honey Bee
Due to their vigor on defending their hive they are not a good choice for beginner beekeepers.
Once alarmed the bees raise persistent alarm pheromones and will continue to attack once disturbed.
Brood cells are known to be on the watery side, and this can increase their disease proneness.
Italian Honey Bee
Scientific Name: Apis Mellifera Liguistica
Named after its location of origin, the Italian honey be or Apis M. Liguistica is thought to originate from a region South of the Alps, and North of Sicily in Italy.
Italian Honey Bee Behavior
The Italian bee is the most popular and widely used for commercial and backyard beekeeping. This sub species of Apis Mellifera is popular due to its adaptability and general workability.
In the book Breeding the HoneyBee- it states
“From the commercial and breeding point of view the value of the Liguistica lies in a happy synthesis of a great number of good characteristics. Among these we must mention industry, gentleness, fertility, reluctance to swarm, zeal for building comb, white honey-capping, a willingness to enter supers, cleanliness, resistance to disease, and the tendency to collect flower honey rather than honey dew.”
The Italian honey bee is also very selective in its nectar sources when able and are good at ripening nectar into honey over some of the other sub species.
Advantages of Italian Honey Bees
The bees are good at ripening nectar into honey and demonstrate high sucrose responsiveness.
They typically do not use much propolis when compared to sub species such as the Caucasian honey bee sub species.
Honey capping is white, which is preferred among beekeepers that sell raw honey comb.
Because beekeepers have a higher preference for the Italian, availability of queens and bees are good, with lower costs than some of the other sub species.
Do not have as high of a swarming tendency as other sub species.
Good wintering ability.
Will build up fast in the Spring.
Known as a fairly gentle honey bee breed and good for moderate to new beekeepers.
Has a fairly good disease resistant or known to demonstrate fairly good hygienic behaviors.
Range of foraging distance is smaller vs. Carnica (better for single sourcing raw honey).
Disadvantages of the Italian Honey Bee
Will go through a lot of winter stores.
Has a tendency to have a looser winter cluster. They perform better in insulated bee hives.
The Italian honey bee is more prone to drifting and robbing.
Does not demonstrate good synchronous brood patterning to nectar flow.
Takes longer to build up Spring colony population vs. other sub species. Could be a disadvantage over sub species like Carneolan.
Range of foraging distance is smaller vs. Carnica (worse for local nectar dearths).
European Dark Honey Bee
Scientific Name: Apis Mellifera Mellifera
The European Dark honey bee is also known as the German honey bee and had an original range from the Iberian Peninsula to West central Russia. They have large bodies as it relates to other honey bees but short tongues.
European Dark Honey Bee Behavior
The name of the German honey bee or European Dark honey bee was derived from their brown-black color. Because they have a fairly stocky body, they are more easily distinguishable over some of the other sub species of honey bees.
European Black honey bees have a tendency to be more aggressive and nervous due to the lineage being tied to the British Black bee and the Italian Bee. The lineage is thought to have tightened aggression because of the Black and Italian cross breeding. This is not a very common bee sub specie due to their aggressive behavior, lack of hygienic activity, and tendency to swarm.
Advantages of German Honey Bees
They are good defenders of their hives.
Apis Mellifera Mellifera species perform overall well in cold climates.
Disadvantages of the German Honey Bee
Not common and is endangered in Germany.
Can be aggressive.
Lower resistance to varroa mites.
Due to their short tongue, they are not very good at foraging a variety of nectar.
East African Honey Bee
Scientific Name: Apis Mellifera Scutellata
As a sub specie of the western honey bee it is native to South Central and Eastern Africa. It is not the direct bee species also known as “Killer Bees” (Apis Mellifera Scutellata Lepeletier). But, it is determined to constitute one part of the ancestry of the Africanized bees also known as “Killer Bees”.
East African Honey Bee Behavior
East African honey bees is no more venomous than a bee sting from a European honey bee. Though, the East African honey bee respond far quicker to threats and will send out 3-5 times as many bees to a threat and will pursue a threat for distances far greater than other sub species of the honey bee.
This sub species of honey bees is also known to produce far less honey than European sub species and have absconding tendencies, which make it less desirable from a beekeeping standpoint.
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How to Choose a Bee Sub Species
The most common subspecies for backyard beekeeping is the Italian and Carniolan honey bee. There are several other off-shoots of these bees and are breed for specific purposes. Sign up to learn more about bee species as well as how our modern insulated beehive with integrated monitoring can help keep your bees alive and thriving in your apiary.