One of the first questions a beekeeper asks is, “What kind of bees should I keep?” There are many bees to choose from: Carniolan, German, Italian, Russian and Buckfast bees, to name a few. Which is the right one to keep? The answer is “It depends.”
Let’s chat about the pros and cons of different varieties so you can make the best decision for your situation as you are learning how to raise bees.
Buckfast bees were developed by Brother Adam who was a monk at Buckfast Abby in England in the early 1900s. He was in charge of the bees in the Abby during the time when the acarine parasite mite (a tracheal mite) invaded and killed thousands of bee colonies across England. He took the hives that survived and started a breeding program which eventually produced the Buckfast bees.
High honey producers
Low inclination to swarm
Low inclination to sting
Cold hardy and seem to overwinter well
High tracheal mite tolerance
The biggest con to Buckfast bees is that if you let them naturally requeen, the second generation likely to be aggressive. So you will need to continue to purchase Buckfast queens in order to keep the aggressiveness low.
Carniolan bees are a subspecies of the western honeybee and originated in what is now Slovenia. They can also be found in Hungary, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Serbia.
Defend their hive well from pests
Not aggressive toward beekeepers
Able to quickly adjust hive size based on environmental issues
Able to conserve honey stores
Can overwinter with fewer bees
Less susceptible to brood disease
Forages in cooler, overcast weather
Prone to swarm
More likely to need supplemental feeding — especially in the early spring
Has a hard time in hot summers
The Italian bee is the most popular bee for beekeepers in North American. They were brought to the United States in the mid-1800s and are considered the best bee for beginning beekeepers.
Adaptable to various climates
Good honey producers
Gentle and non-aggressive
Darker queen – making her easier to identify
Prone to rob and drift
Raises brood late in fall which means more mouths to feed in winter
They do not cluster tightly in the winter so they consume more honey to stay warm
Russian bees are relatively new to North America, coming to the United States in 1997 from the Primorsky region in Russia. They were brought in by the Agricultural Research Service because they have a natural resistance to Varroa and Tracheal mites. These bees became available for purchase in 2000.
Resistant to Varroa and Tracheal mites
Tends to rear brood only during times of nectar and pollen flow
Frugal in their honey consumption
Maintains queen cells all season long
Tends to swarm
Caucasian bees originated in the Caucasus mountains between the Caspian and Black Seas. They were once very popular among North American beekeepers but that is no longer the case.
Do not tend to swarm
Not prone to rob
Forage on cooler days
Long tongue and can get nectar that most bees cannot
Use an excessive amount of propolis in the hives
Build up slowly in the spring
German and Feral Bees
Honey bees are not native to North America. Early explorers brought them over in the 1700s and subspecies of German bees are what was brought. These dark (almost black) bees were once a favorite of beekeepers but because of their aggression and susceptibility to many brood diseases, they lost favor many years ago. However, most wild honeybees are subspecies of German bees.
Which brings us to wild or feral bees. There is a lot of disagreement among beekeepers about the wisdom of keeping feral bees. And honestly, both sides have some good arguments.
Inexpensive – usually free
Adapted for your region
Usually very hardy
Can be very, very aggressive
Can’t be purchased, you need to catch them
When starting beekeeping it’s best to pick the species you think will do best but be open to change. All of these species are good choices, but beekeeping is an art as much as it is a science. As a beekeeper, you will want to keep an eye on your bee hives and be observant of them.
If you see a lot of activity, it might mean that you need to add more space lest they decide to swarm. If you see very little activity it might mean that they have already swarmed and you’ll need to decide how to best help the remaining bees.
If you notice that the hives are robbing other hives or being aggressive toward you, it might mean that the hive needs to be requeened, especially if the hive is several years old. The second generation from a queen is usually not as genetically pure as the first.
Being observant and having bee hive plans will help your hives stay healthy and productive.
What is your favorite honey bee species? Let’s chat about them in the comments.