Before I started keeping honeybees, I had no idea there were different genetic strains or types of bees. In my mind, honeybees were honeybees. After a little research, I now understand that just as cattle farmers choose their breed of cattle for a specific purpose, honeybees can also be chosen for particular characteristics.
For example, Angus cattle are bred specifically for beef production. Jerseys are geared for milk production. So it is with bees. Some breeds are more docile, others more likely to produce quantities of honey, and yet another tend to make more wax.
Beginning beekeepers can start with any breed of bees, but it can be helpful to have a basic understanding of the traits, good and bad. This knowledge will help you make a decision about how to meet your goals. Below is an overview of traits in the most popular breeds.
Italian. The most popular breed of honeybees in the U.S. are the Italians. These bees are relatively docile and build brood for a long time through the season. They excel at honey production which is part of their popularity. On the downside is the propensity of this breed to rob weaker hives and potentially spread disease. These traits can be managed and if you are in the market for a mild mannered bee who makes a lot of honey, Italians are a good choice.
Carnolian. The Carnolians are the second most popular breed. They are a less defensive breed with a strong brood buildup in the spring. Carnolians make a lot of wax which is a good trait if your goal is to produce wax based products. However, wax production requires a lot of honey so honey available for harvest will be reduced. The strong brood build also increases the possibility of swarming behaviors.
Russian, Caucasian, German and Buckfast breeds of honeybees are others you may read about in literature or on line. Each of these breeds has their own traits and characteristics that make them more or less desirable. If you want one of these less popular types, an internet search will turn up sources; however most beekeepers in the U.S. seem to be focusing on the Italians or Carnolians.
And then there are the crossbreeds that do their own thing in the real world. The result is what one of our bee club members refer to as “mutts”. There is no pure lineage, but a survival-of-the-fittest or opportunistic mentality. These crossbreeds tend to adapt to their locale, raising queens and brood with traits that are adapted to the weather and forage conditions.
Honeybees are an interesting class of livestock. Colonies can be managed, but they are still a wild species. By their very nature, honeybees roam and forage. They are not contained in fenced areas or confined like other domestic livestock. As a result, crossbreeding can and does occur for the majority of average beekeepers. And by average, I mean everyone from the small hobby level beekeeper with one or two hives to someone managing 100 hives.
I wonder if these “mutts” are actually the most suited to survival in the sometimes harsh environment of Central Illinois.
There is a lot to being a beekeeper, including choosing how to start your apiary. Now that you have been introduced to some basic concepts about the breeds of honeybees, you can research further at your leisure.
Julia Miller is a co-founder of Five Feline Farm, a Central Illinois hobby farm. In addition to beekeeping and writing, you’ll find her catering to the every whim of the resident cats. To read more about Julia Miller’s activities at Five Feline Farm, check out the website or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and now Instagram. Read all of Julia's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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