Honey Bee Varieties: What Beekeepers Need to Know

Honey Bee Varieties


Understanding the different varieties of honey bees is crucial for effective beekeeping. Honey bees, known scientifically as Apis mellifera, include numerous subspecies and hybrids, each with unique traits suited to specific environments. This knowledge helps beekeepers select the right bee variety for their region, manage bee behaviour, and optimise honey production. Key considerations include regional adaptation, temperament, disease resistance, and swarming tendencies. Choosing the appropriate bee variety can significantly impact the success and ease of beekeeping.

Major Honey Bee Varieties

Honey Bee Varieties
Italian Honey Bee e1719507128357
Credits: Wikipedia
Zoom Effect
Carniolan Honey Bee e1719507323722
Credits: Wikipedia
Caucasian Honey Bee e1719507386228
Credits: Wikipedia
German Black Honey Bees e1719507450227
Credits: Wikipedia
Africanized Honey Bee e1719507535954
Credits: Wikipedia
Buckfast Honey Bee 1 e1719508255792
Credits: beeprofessor.com
Russian Honey Bee e1719507802975
Credits: Wikipedia
Cordovan Honey Bee 1 e1719507968739
Credits: glenn-apiaries.com
Origin Italy Austrian Alps, Danube Valley regions, Eastern Europe Caucasus mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas Northern and Central Europe Hybrid of African and European bees, primarily in Brazil Developed by Brother Adam in England Far Eastern Primorsky region of Russia Subset of Italian bees
Appearance Light leather brown to lemon yellow with yellow bands on the abdomen Dark-brown to black with brown spots or bands Silver-gray to dark brown, long tongue Large, dark-colored (dark-brown to black) Brownish and fuzzy, similar to Italians Yellow to brown Dark-brown to black with a pale yellow abdomen Bright yellow bodies and lack of stripes
Characterisitcs ● Gentle and easy to manage
● Strong foragers and good honey producers
● Quick spring buildup and good overwintering
● Prone to robbing and higher swarming tendency
● Consumes more food in cold climates
● Extremely gentle and easy to work with
● Excellent overwintering on small stores
● Rapid spring buildup but prone to swarming
● Good honey gatherers with low robbing tendency
● Very gentle and swarm infrequently
● High propolis production, slow spring buildup
● Poor overwintering, susceptible to Nosema disease
● Well adapted to cold climates
● Efficient overwintering with moderate food needs
● Defensive behaviour, less productive in honey
● Slow colony buildup in spring
● Highly aggressive and defensive (known as the killer bee)
● Quick reproduction and high honey production
● Frequent swarming, poor overwintering in temperate climates
● Very gentle and productive
● Resistant to Tracheal mites and Chalkbrood
● Excellent overwintering with low swarm instinct
● Good honey producers and economical in winter food use
● Highly resistant to Varroa and Tracheal mites
● Adapted to cold climates with good housecleaning behaviour
● Prone to swarming and moderate propolis production
● Docile and easy to handle
● Excellent honeycomb builders
● High winter food consumption
Recommendations Ideal for beginners due to their gentle nature and productivity Excellent for new beekeepers, especially in cold and wet climates Suitable for experienced beekeepers, particularly in cold climates Not ideal for beginners due to their defensive behaviour Not suitable for new beekeepers due to their aggressive Great for hobbyists and commercial beekeeping, especially in cold, damp climates Suitable for beekeepers in cold climates; requires extra hive space to prevent swarming Suitable for warm climates; not commonly available commercially

Other Honey Bee Races

  • Egyptian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera lamarckii)
    • Origin: Egypt
    • Characteristics: Highly defensive, excellent at withstanding hot climates.
    • Recommendation: Suitable for experienced beekeepers in hot regions.
  • Cyprian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera cypria)
    • Origin: Cyprus
    • Characteristics: Very aggressive, strong honey producers, good at resisting pests.
    • Recommendation: Best for experienced beekeepers due to their aggressiveness.
  • Syrian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera syriaca)
    • Origin: Syria and surrounding areas
    • Characteristics: Aggressive, good honey producers, well adapted to hot, dry climates.
    • Recommendation: Not ideal for beginners; suited for hot, arid environments.
  • Saharan Honey Bee (Apis mellifera sahariensis)
    • Origin: Sahara Desert
    • Characteristics: Excellent heat tolerance, moderate honey production.
    • Recommendation: Suitable for hot, desert-like climates; not widely available.
  • Tunisian Honey Bee (Apis mellifera intermissa)
    • Origin: North Africa, including Tunisia
    • Characteristics: Good honey producers, moderately defensive, adaptable to various climates.
    • Recommendation: Suitable for beekeepers in Mediterranean climates; requires management for defensiveness.
  • Asiatic Honey Bee (Apis cerana)
    • Origin: Southeast and East Asia
    • Characteristics: Smaller and less productive than Apis mellifera, but highly resistant to pests and diseases.
    • Recommendation: Best for tropical/subtropical regions; not ideal for high honey yields or temperate climates.

Key Considerations for Beekeepers

Regional Adaptation: Selecting the appropriate honey bee variety is crucial for successful beekeeping. Different species, including Apis mellifera (the western honey bee or European honey bees), are adapted to various climates and environmental conditions which affect how the bees forage. For instance, the Egyptian honey bee thrives in hot climates, while the Carniolan bee (Apis mellifera carnica) is better suited to colder regions. Understanding the regional adaptation of your chosen honeybee race can significantly impact the health and productivity of your bee colony.

Temperament: The temperament of worker bees varies widely among different species. Beginners should opt for gentler varieties such as Italian bees (Apis mellifera ligustica), Carniolan bees, or Buckfast bees. These honey bees are less aggressive, making them easier to manage and reducing the risk of bee stings. On the other hand, varieties like the Cyprian honey bee are more aggressive and better suited for experienced beekeepers.

Disease Resistance: Disease resistance is a vital consideration when choosing honey bees. Some honey bee races have natural resistance to common bee diseases and pests, such as Varroa mites. For example, Russian bees are known for their resistance to Varroa mites and other pests. Choosing honey bees with strong disease resistance can reduce the need for chemical treatments and improve the overall health of your bee colony.

Swarming Tendency: Swarming is a natural behaviour in honey bees, but it can be challenging for beekeepers. Certain varieties, like Carniolan and Russian bees, have a higher tendency to swarm. Beekeepers need to be prepared to manage swarming through regular hive inspections and interventions such as splitting colonies or providing additional space for the bees. Managing swarming effectively can help maintain honey production and prevent the loss of bee populations.

Honey Bee Varieties: Understanding the characteristics of different bee varieties can help beekeepers make informed decisions. The western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is the most common species used in beekeeping, but there are other honey bee species and varieties to consider:

  • Giant Honey Bee: Known for its large size and aggressive nature, giant honey bees are not typically used in traditional beekeeping but are fascinating subjects of study.
  • Red Dwarf Honey Bee: These small bees are less aggressive and can be an interesting addition to a diverse apiary.
  • Black Dwarf Honey Bee: Similar to the red dwarf honey bees, these bees are smaller and less aggressive.
  • Stingless bees: Important in tropical regions for honey production and pollination.


Choosing the right variety is essential for successful beekeeping. Key factors to consider include:

  • Regional Adaptation: Ensuring the bees are suited to your local climate.
  • Temperament: Selecting gentler bees, especially for beginners.
  • Disease Resistance: Opting for bees with natural resistance to pests and diseases.
  • Swarming Tendencies: Managing bees with a higher swarming propensity through proper hive management.

By researching and understanding the unique characteristics of different bee species and varieties, beekeepers can create a thriving and productive bee colony. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced beekeeper, selecting the appropriate honey bees can make all the difference in your beekeeping success.

Jonathan wearing beekeeping suit

Jonathan Gaze

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