A Closer Look

Honey Bee Races
By: Clarence Collison

The native range of the honey bee includes the varied habitats of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, where they diverged into 25 morphologically distinguishable subspecies or geographic races. Eight of these subspecies were introduced to North America between the early 1600’s and 1922, at which time the U.S. Bee Act was implemented to restrict new importations that might introduce diseases or debilitating mites (Sheppard, 1989). The first race to be introduced, Apis mellifera mellifera L., the “dark bee” of northern Europe, was the only race present in North America for >200 years. Subsequently, at least seven additional subspecies were imported between 1859 and 1922. Three of these, Apis mellifera ligustica Spinola from Italy (Italians), Apis mellifera carnica Pollman (Carniolans) from “Carniolia” (Dadant [1877]: Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and former Yugoslavia), and Apis mellifera caucasica Gorbatschev (Caucasians) from the Caucasus Mountains region, formed the primary basis of present day commercial honey bee populations. Several additional subspecies from the Middle East and North Africa were tried briefly by beekeepers but lost favor (Sheppard, 1989). In the mid 1950’s a ninth subspecies Apis mellifera scutellata Lepeletier was introduced to Brazil to bolster honey production (Kerr, 1967). Their descendants commonly called Africanized honey bees thrived in Brazil and their range expanded both southward to Argentina and northward to the southern United States (Schiff et al., 1994).

Honey bees are Old World insects that were introduced into North and South America by European settlers. The most well-known races of honey bees in the New World are Italians, Carniolans, Caucasions, Africanized and Black German bees.

Italian Queen

Italian Bees – originally from Italy, this is by far the most popular honey bee. Italian bees are yellow in color, prolific, reasonably gentle and can handle most of the climatic diversity present in the U.S. Brood rearing begins slowly in the Spring, peaks in the Summer and lasts late into the Fall, regardless of nectar flow. Overall, brood rearing is relatively unaffected by a lack of nectar or pollen sources (dearths). Because of the extended brood rearing period, consumption of Winter stores may be increased and supplemental feeding may be necessary in late Winter or early Spring to prevent starvation if there is an extended period of confinement due to bad weather. They are easily provoked to rob weaker neighboring colonies and drifting can be a problem in apiaries where all the hives are the same color. Use of propolis is relatively modest and compared to other races their tendency to swarm is low.

Carniolan Bees – These bees originated in the Austrian Alps, northern Yugoslavia and the Danube valley. Gray/brown in color, they are extremely gentle, conserve Winter food stores well and build up quickly in Spring. Carniolan bees construct new comb slowly and swarm frequently. Carniolans have a somewhat prolonged broodless period, lasting from October to February or March. They Winter well, even in hard Winters. They Winter with a smaller cluster than Italians and consequently tend to use fewer Winter stores. This race tends to produce little in the way of propolis, burr comb or brace comb. They will forage under conditions that will keep other races confined to the hive, including earlier and later in the day, as well as in cool, rainy weather. Carniolans are particularly adept at matching the worker population to the availability of nectar and can rapidly expand or cut off brood production in response to nectar flows.

Caucasian Queen

Caucasian Bees – These bees originated in the Caucasus mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas. This is not a popular race in the United States. They are lead-gray in color, and very gentle. However, when agitated they have a reputation of being quick to sting and slow to settle back down again. They also have an increased tendency to drift and rob. Caucasian bees overwinter poorly, build up slowly in Spring, are susceptible to Nosema disease and gum up their hives with propolis (tree resins and beeswax). Caucasians have a low tendency to swarm, due at least in part to a slow early Spring build-up. The slow build-up minimizes space limitations within the hive that can serve to trigger the swarming impulse. Caucasians have the longest tongue of any of the bee races, allowing them to exploit floral sources other races bypass. They fly in cooler and wetter weather than other bees. Drones are large with dark hair on their thorax, a feature different from all other races.

German Black Bees – Originally from throughout northern Europe, this was the first honey bee brought to the New World. Escaped swarms readily adapted to the North American climate and spread quickly. German black bees are nervous on the comb, defensive and build up slowly in Spring. When disturbed, they would spill out of the hive in large numbers. They were extremely susceptible to European foulbrood. They are brown/black in color and overwinter well. They are judicious in their use of stores, and as a result can produce good surplus crops even in poor years. Despite these positive traits, beginning in the mid 1800’s this race was largely replaced in this country by Italian bees for two main reasons: temperament and disease susceptibility. Although it was the first race of honey bees in the New World, it no longer exists in its pure form in this country.

Africanized Honey Bee (Apis mellifera scutellata and its hybrids) – These honey bees originated throughout east Africa. In the 1950s, this race was imported to Brazil and began migrating northward. Compared to European races, this bee and its hybrids are extremely defensive, have smaller nests and swarm more frequently. Africanized honey bees colonized certain regions of the United States in the 1990s (Delaplane, 2010).

The honey bee, Apis mellifera, exists as distinct races occupying habitats as dissimilar as the temperate climates of North America and Europe and tropical Africa (Ruttner, 1988). Temperate and tropical subspecies exhibit numerous behavioral differences, many of which are associated with the duration and predictability of forage abundance in the contrasting environments (Winston et al., 1981, 1983; Schneider and Blyther, 1988). Temperate races experience a brief, predictable foraging season, during which large food stores must be amassed for Winter survival. In contrast, African subspecies do not experience a Winter and may forage virtually all the year round (Schneider and Blyther, 1988; Schneider and McNally, 1992). However, food availability in tropical Africa is often temporally and spatially unpredictable, owing to unpredictable rain patterns. As a result, African races frequently respond to unfavorable periods by undergoing “seasonal absconding” or migration, which consists of a colony abandoning a nest site, presumably to move into an area of greater resource abundance (Fletcher, 1978, 1991; Winston et al., 1979; Schneider, 1990; McNally and Schneider, 1992). Migration is unique to tropical honey bee races (Winston, 1987) (Schneider and McNally, 1992).

Absconding behavior of the Africanized honey bee in French Guiana, South America, is described. Two types of absconding were recognized: disturbance-induced (i.e., predation, manipulation, etc.) and resource-related or seasonal absconding, probably induced by a dearth of resources during the wet season or by overheating during the dry season. In pre-absconding colonies where disturbance was not involved, brood rearing decreased dramatically, with few or no larvae present in colonies about ten days before absconding. Egg-laying continued at a low level until nearly all of the sealed worker brood emerged; colonies absconded within a day of the end of the sealed brood emergence. Patterns of nectar and pollen storage prior to absconding were highly variable. Inspection of colonies immediately after absconding showed that there was little (<100 cm2) or no eggs, larvae, sealed brood or stored pollen, nectar or honey. Comparison of pre-absconding and persisting colonies prior to the absconding season revealed no characteristics useful for predicting absconding, although the distributions of the last swarming dates before the absconding season were different for the two groups of colonies. Colonies that had swarmed just prior to the absconding season and that had low numbers of workers, particularly young workers, had a relatively high probability (0.45) of absconding during the wet season (Winston et al., 1979).

The Caucasian honey bee is one of the important gene resources in Anatolia (also named as Asia Minor) and mountain type is the significant variant. This honey bee race is black colored and similar to the Carniolan bees regarding shape, size and hair cover. Body is moderate structured, slim and long as abdomen is thin. Chitin is dark. Hair cover is black and short (0.335 ± 0.031 mm). Hair color of worker bees is livid gray as chest hair color of drones is black. All abdominal rings are black colored. It also has the longest tongue (7.046 ± 0.189 mm) among all honey bee races. Caucasian bees form strong colonies but their colonial development is slow. They swarm only very little and are good tempered. They are good pollinators for alfalfa, clover and similar plants with deep tube flowers and can work under unfavorable conditions (Kara et al., 2012).

In Europe and North America, honey bees cannot be kept without chemical treatments against Varroa destructor (Varroa Mites). Nevertheless, in Brazil an isolated population of Italian honey bees has been kept on an island since 1984 without treatment against this mite. The infestation rates in these colonies have decreased over the years. The researchers looked for possible varroa-tolerance factors in six Italian honey bee colonies prepared with queens from this Brazilian island population, compared to six Carniolan colonies, both tested at the same site in Germany. One such factor was the percentage of damaged mites in the colony debris, which has been reported as an indicator of colony tolerance to varroa. A mean of 35.8% of the varroa mites collected from the bottoms of the Italian bee colonies were found damaged, among which 19.1% were still alive. A significantly greater proportion of damaged mites were found in the Carniolan bees (42.3%) and 22.5% were collected alive. The most frequent kind of damage found was damaged legs alone, affecting 47.4% of the mites collected from debris in Italian bees, which was similar to the amount found in Carniolan colonies (46%). The mean infestation rate by the varroa mite in the worker brood cells in the Italian bee colonies was 3.9% in June and 3.5% in July, and in drone brood cells it was 19.3% in June. In the Carniolan honey bee colonies the mean infestation rates in worker brood cells were 3.0 and 6.7%, respectively in the months of June and July and 19.7% in drone brood cells in June. In conclusion, the ‘Varroa-tolerant’ Italian honey bees introduced from Brazil produced lower percentages of damaged mites (Varroa destructor) in hive debris and had similar brood infestation rates when compared to ‘susceptible’ Carniolan bees in Germany. In spite of the apparent adaptation of this population of Italian bees in Brazil, they found no indication of superiority of these bees when they examined the proportions of damaged mites and the varroa-infestation rates, compared to Carniolan bees kept in the same apiary in Germany (Corrêa-Marques et al., 2002).

The Carniolan honey bee is an indigenous subspecies of the Western honey bee in Central Europe. Croatia represents a large part of its native range. Hybridization and introgression is a realistic possibility due to unmonitored imports by beekeepers. In this study, they focused on honey bee colonies managed by beekeepers from all over Croatia and Slovenia. The identification of the subspecies was based on wing geometric morphometrics. The similarity of all investigated colonies to A. mellifera carnica was substantial, which indicates that the native subspecies continues to be present in the study area. However, some of the colonies differed markedly from the currently available reference of this subspecies. The low similarity with reference samples can be related both to hybridization with non-native subspecies and to natural geographical variation within A. m. carnica (Puškadija et al., 2021).

Intra-colony demography and life history characteristics of neotropical Africanized and temperate European honey bee races were compared under simulated feral conditions. Major differences in colony demography were found which nevertheless resulted in some similar reproductive characteristics. European colonies were larger than Africanized colonies, had more rapid initial growth rates of worker populations, showed better survivorship of brood and adult workers and differed in patterns of worker age distribution. However, both races were similar in the brood and adult populations when colonies swarmed, the frequency and timing of swarming and the number of workers in prime swarms. The factors most important in determining these colony growth and reproductive patterns were likely worker mortality rates, climate and resource availability (Winston et al., 1981).

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Clarence Collison is an Emeritus Professor of Entomology and Department Head Emeritus of Entomology and Plant Pathology at Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, MS.