Italian? Carniolan? Buckfast? Caucasian? Midnite? Starline?
What do you want or expect from your bees? Just as German people are known
for their blue eyes and blonde hair, the Negro is known for wide noses and thick
lips, and the Oriental is distinguished by "slanted" eyes and black hair.
Equally, a duck hunter uses a Labrador retriever to recover the fallen fowl
from Chesapeake Bay, because the dog's coat is warm and waterproof; whereas
the same hunter uses an Irish Setter to recover fallen fowl when he hunts over
So it is with our honey bees, in that each race (there are numerous) as well
as each "stock" (even more numerous) has certain differing characteristics from
each other, and it behooves you to select the race or stock that best suits
your desires of apis mellifera. Maybe we are lucky that all honey bees are not
the same, for if so, I would have nothing to write about.
Hence,let me mention some of the characteristics that may be important to
you to aid you in selecting a bee BEST SUITED to your desires:
1)Gentleness or excitability
2)Resistance to various diseases and the tracheal mite plus the Varroa mite
3)Early spring buildup in population
4)Not prone to excess swarming
5) Ripens honey rapidly
6)Honeycomb cappings are white
7) Minimal use of propolis
8)Availability and queen cost
9)COLOR (At least to me, it is UNFORTUNATE that many beekeepers emphasize this
characteristic as important. Sounds like buying a new car, a new evening gown,
repainting the living room walls. or dying your hair platinum blonde).
I will admit that a queen bee is easier to find among golden workers than among
black workers but you should have a MARKED queen anyhow which is Very visible
among gold or black. Ha Ha!
Look that list over and select the importance of each of these differing characteristics
are very important to you condidering the location of your bees, and which of
the characteristics are not very important.
For example, if your bees are located in an urban area, surely you want gentle
bees, bees not given to robbing, or bees that seem to want to swarm on a warm
Christmas Day making a new home in your neighbors old doghouse or worse, in
his bedroom wall siding. Perhaps, white honeycomb cappings are not important
if you do not produce or sell any comb honey.
Before I tell you the good points and the bad points of each race, let me "go
out on a limb" and say that to date there is no scientific evidence that substantiates
that a particular race has any more resistance to mites than any other race.
We all hoped the YC2 stock of Carniolan bees might prove resistant under the
conditions used in the U.S. to mite infestation, but the literature does not
support that hope. In 1998, science has not yet found an identifiable resistance
to mites by any race. To date, no ways have been found to transfer any apparent
resistance of a stock to the progeny of that stock. Unfortunately, until science
finds this "key" to mite resistance, killing and controlling (note I said both
killing and controlling) mites is our only alternative to beekeeping without
bee death from mites.
Let us talk about the good and bad characteristics of each race, and I will
devote a large part to the most popular bees in our country: Italian, Carniolan,
ITALIAN: apis mellifera ligustica was first brought to this country
in 1859, and gained immediate attention. Up until that time, all of our bees
were descended of the bees brought here by old English ships: the nasty, disease
prone, dark English bee, apis mellifera mellifera (I'd be nasty too with a double
name like that).
The "new" Italian bee was much more gentle, disease resistant to the diseases
prevalent at that time, and was GOLDEN IN COLOR which made this new "farm. bug"
In general, there are many different stocks of the Italian race primarily
due to selective breeding by queen breeders which of course magnifies or diminishes
the characteristics common to Italians; e. g. there are three distinct varieties
(1) the leather color (deemed the best by Brother Adam);
(2) the bright yellow (Golden) type (which captivated Americans, and still
does in 1998 to a few); and
(3) the very pale lemon-colored variety.
Forgetting that unimportant color,lets talk about the discerning factors of
the Italian's behavior! It is relatively gentle and rather calm. It has a strong
disposition to brood rearing, which, although providing a large population for
nectar collection, continues even during nectar dearths, resulting in high food
consumption, even including the long inactive winter months.
Often this strong brood rearing disposition and large food consumption in late
winter or early spring causes spring dwindling and hence slow or tardy spring
development. The Italian is known as an excellent housekeeper (which some scientists
think might be a factor in disease resistance), uses little propolis, are excellent
foragers, superb comb builders and cover the honey with brilliant white cappings.
Sure sounds like the BEST bee for all, but now let me tell you of the serious
defects of the Italian.
All apiculturilsts and researchers agree that of all honey bee races, the Italian
has earned the infamous title of "king of the robbers". Perhaps due to its shrewdness
in locating stores, if the beekeeper accidentally or carelessly leaves honey
or nectar exposed, particularly during a dearth, it is the Italian "girls" that
are first on the scene and in moments the area is not fit for man (particularly
neighbors) or beasts.
Similar to this detrimental characteristic, Italian bees are often very annoying
because they angrily fly about the head of the beekeeper as he is making colony
manipulations in the apiary. Maybe Italian bees dislike the odor of discharged
human breath more than other races - who knows? The Italian bee is the "child"
of the Mediterranean climate: short, mild, humid winters and dry summers with
long honey flows. That does NOT sound like our typical Maryland weather. The
biggest difference, of course, is our only honey flow is early in the spring
and SHORT. (it would be nice to have some nectar crop in June, July, and August
before the Goldenrod comes to life). Surely our winters are not like -2- Michioan
or New York, but neither are they .formally short, mild, and humid. Our normal
winters are just not like the normal Mediterranean winter, and perhaps the Italian
bee may not be the best bee for our climate and early spring short nectar flow.
Before all you Italian adherents, knowing of my use of Carniolans, descend
here armed with tar and feathers, I still think a GOOD well-bred Italian bee
is an excellent choice for many beekeepers, and (SURPRISE) I use some Italians
myself for special purposes, notably for drawing foundation and making late
crop comb honey - but then I requeen them with Carnies. That Tar and Feathers
Carniolan: apis mellifera carhica is the most popular race of bees in
all of Europe and perhaps the 2nd most popular in the world. Its original home
is the Carniolan Mountains at the eastern side of the Alps in Eastern Austria,
Croatia, Eastern Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania (the entire Danube
It is one of the black bees (as opposed to the yellow or golden Italian) and
its geographical heritage makes it better suited to normally cooler climates
than the Mediterranean area. Like the Italian race, due to geographic location
differences as well as selective queen breeding, there are many different "stocks"
of Carniolan bees resulting in slightly variable characteristics depending on
the stock; e. g. the Austrian stocks produce more propolis than any of the other
Carniolan stocks which produce very little propolis.
Although I switched from raising Italian bees to Carniolans 49 years ago (1949)
and feel that I know much about them, I will give you the statements and writings
about Carniolans from some of the renowned geneticists and apiculturists of
Two attributes of the Carniolan that are universally agreed are (I ) its exceptional
docility (Brother Adam (1966) said that Carnica was the quietest and most gentle
of all bee races), and (2) Carniolan are known for their "explosive" early spring
buildup at the first sign of pollen.
Brother Adam's book, "In Search of the Best Strains of Honey Bees", refers
to the Carniolan bee as "the spring flow bee per excellence" because of its
early spring buildup. A major difference between Carniolans and other races
is they seem to apportion their energies and their food stores with almost human
thought, in that during a slowdown of nectar,or particularly the dearth times
of hot dry summer, they materially reduce brood production thereby saving food.
This summertime trait of "taking it easy and rockin' in the porch swing
" enhances the bees longevity which is a benefit to add to natural foraging
ability, it's hardiness and wintering ability.
Hence, the Carniolan winters with a much smaller cluster than other bees and
hence uses much less winter stores. Honey bee geneticist Ruttner (75) and researcher
Deitz (68) wrote a great deal about this difference from other bees and pointed
out the Carniolan's heavy dependence on pollen availability which triggers an
explosive brood rearing cycle. (Needless to say, although Maryland is rich in
pollen availability, my bees have pollen substitute patties in place shortly
In contrast to Italians, The Carniolan has a great sense of orientation so
that it does not enter the wrong colony or deplete a weak colony by mistakenly
entering a strong colony. Perhaps this strong orientation sense is related to
the NON-ROBBING attribute of the Carniolan. (This does not mean that you can
pour honey all over the apiary ground in August and not have robbing, but it
does mean you can inspect or manipulate your colonies in August without the
fear of being chased into the next county.)
Like the Italians, Carnies produce brilliant white honeycomb cappings. What
Finally, brood diseases are almost unknown in the heartland of the Carniolan
bee, and somewhat disease resistant in the rest of the world. Oh my, now I have
to explain why the Carniolan is not considered the BEST bee for all beekeepers,
and it is not! I joke about its major fault when I tell people that the swarming
propensity is so strong that it would not surprise me to have a swarm on a warm
Christmas Day. Reminding you that swarm season is just before the major spring
nectar flow (swarming at the height of a nectar flow is the fault of the beekeeper,
not the bees), this major deficiency of the Carniolan is its strong disposition
to swarming caused by its great vitality and the rapid' development of its colonies.
However, this excessive swarming tendency can be reduced to tolerable limits
by the knowledge of bee behavior principles, good apiary management, always
available brood space for the queen, and no queen over one year old (Brother
adam, 1951: Ruttner, 1975; Imirie, 1994).
Further, compared to the Italian, the Carniolan is not a proficient comb builder
and hence may not be very good for comb honey productioln, or drawing foundation.
I mentioned above that I used Italian bees to draw foundation and make late
comb honey. Lastly, as much as I prefer Carnies to any other bee, I don't get
any phzass out of that black coloir, and silently wish she was GOLDEN.
Is the Buckfast a "race" or a good "hybrid"? I have listened to experts
argue the point to no real conclusion. I have wanted to be the fly on the wall
of a room holding Brother Adam, the developer of the Buckfast bee; Gladstone
Cale, the developer of the Starline bee; and Freidrich Runner, an exponent of
the Midnight Bee and listen to their debate whether the Buckfast is a race or
a hybrid. As only a novice of genetics, I would have to say the Buckfast is
a hybrid, and a good one, but not a race. However, who cares as long as one
is smart enough not to use daughter queens, but only,use queens ideally coming
from artificial insemination with so called "pure" drone stock.
After acarine disease (now we know it was tracheal mites) destroyed about 95%
of all English bees in 1920, Brother Adam of Buckfast Abbey in Devon, England
was charged with developing a successor to the old English dark bee, apis mellifera
mellifera. He spent the rest of his life traveling the entire world, notably
Europe and Africa, interviewing the apiculturists and breeders of that day plus
collecting thousands of various queens to -breed aw,-,y the bad p0ints cand
maintain the good points.. Although the resulting Buckfast bee has numerous
diverse lines of forebears including some of the african bees, the basic bee
is primarily Italian with certain changes to make it better suited for beekeeping
in the climate and environment of the British Isles. In 1922, our government
passed a law prohibiting the entrance of any bees from foreign countries into
the U. S., and hence, we could not have the Buckfast bee to try it out.
However, in the early 1980's, Weaver Apiaries of Navasota, Texas entered into
a contractual deal with Brother Adam to gain Buckfast bees in the U. S. Starting
with a small government approved colony, Brother Adam often ships frozen Buckfast
drone semen to Weavers, who artificially inseminates virgin queens produced
from Weaver's original colony of Buckfast bees. They are the only licensed suppliers
of Buckfast in this country.
Purely for a scientific test of what was the "best bee" for my Maryland area,
my bee partner, Master Beekeeper Ann Harman and I, bought 10 Buckfast queens
back in 1986 to seee what they were like compared to Ann's Italians and my Carniolans.
It was our plan to continue these tests for 5 consecutive years requeening
every colony each year; but the arrival of the Varroa mite redirected our attention
to mite control and we had to terminate our trial of Buckfast after just 3 years.
I can tell you of our conclusions about Buckfast. They are a nice bee having
most of the good points of Italians, but not as gentle as a good stock of Italians
(note I said "good stock") and surely not as gentle and calm as a Carniolan.
However, they don't have the swarming propensity of Carnies which is in their
Like Italians, or any other race, Buckfast are not up to full strength to do
a good job on an early crop like black locust or holly. They do not peak until
mid May when our normal nectar flow is about half gone already. We could not
get a good test for robbing, because both Ann and I are quite meticulous in
avoiding any cause for robbing. They are not the bright yellow or golden bee
that is attractive to many Americans.
I have no idea of their mite resistance, if any, because I have always used
menthol, for tracheal mites since 87 and Apistan (following Miticur) since 90,
and don't lose bees to mites.
When we stopped experimenting, we did not requeen and allowed those 10 colonies
to requeen themselves and the problem with using hybrids was well proved. Those
Fl and F2 daughters produced nasty workers, and we went back to both Carniolans
and Italians. If I was in area without a real early nectar flow and particularly
in a area with a LONG sustained nectar flow, since I use annual requeening as
a major factor of swarm prevention, I would use Buckfast bees and requeen every
year and avoid that continuous brood laying and high food consumption of the
I do not think the Buckfast is a desirable bee for a novice or a beeHAVER,
but they are fine for a thinking, planning person or an established beeKEEPER.
Now, let me say a few words about a relatively unpopular race of bees, the
Caucasian Race whose original home was the lower steppes of the Ural
Mountains, near the Caspian sea. The Caucasian bee doesn't really "wake up and
come to life" until much later than all other bees, it seems to attract European
Foul Brood as well as Nosema. It is best known for the good point of having
perhaps the longest tongue (6.8 - 7.4 mm.) of any bee, and one very "sticky"
undesirable point of using a massive amount of propolis sealing every element
of a colony into a sealed unit.
It is extremely gentle, but not used rnuch by beekeepers because of its inherited
problems. Perhaps it largest use is to make up the hybrid, Midnite bee, which
is a combination of Caucasian and Carniolan.
Having mentioned the Buckfast and the Midnite, I might as well mention the
other hybrids found in the U. S. The Starline, The Double. Hybrid, and of course
Uncle Joe's, Cousin Bill's, Aunt Mary's, or YOURS if you don't have a planned
Your bees are very HYBRID if you just allow your bees to take whatever nature
provides for them via your virgin queen being bred by a whole flock of boys
just drifting along the flyways in your area maybe carrying all kinds of disease
germs, mites, another race and who knows, maybe an Africanized drone from a
swarm that escaped from a tanker cruising up Chesapeake Bay.
Africanized bees were not brought across the Rio Grande in a chauffeur driven
limousine, but rather swarmed across the river from Mexico unnoticed. All of
the hybrids have been specially bred by someone in the hopes of either bettering
some deficiency or demoting some problem point. Then there is that group of
uninformed people who believe that all bees are the same, or a honey bee is
just a honey bee.
Lastly, there are people who are unwilling to spend $10 for a queen of known
race whose good points as well as bad points are part of the characteristics
of that race. A knowledge beekeeper can use these characteristics to his advantage
in either colony manipulation, gain a larger honey crop, or have bees known
to be usually healthy.
The Starline was developed by Dadant Co. Dr. Gladstone Cale as a bee
designed for the migratory beekeeper whose bees were always supposed to bring
in large crops of honey month after month plus have all the other desirable
qualities you can think of and of course none of the unfavorable traits. No
queen was expected to last very long, because swarms were surely not wanted,
so colonies must be requeened each year or even twice a year. This hybrid is
a product of breeding two different inline progeny of Italians; and it was quite
popular 20 years ago and has lost favor since.
I want to end this report by saying you should NOT select a race or a stock
because George said it was best, or because commercial beekeeper Charlie uses
XYZ bee so that must be the best, or Professional apiculturist John onyy buys
bees from High Jinx Bee Company,so they must have the best bees, and lastly,
don't buy because it is the cheapest (if cars were bought that way, we would
all have the EZride sedan and no one would have a Cadillac or a Mercedes).
God gave you a mind - use it! What bee characteristics do you want the most?
Which, bad points do you want to avoid? You have read what I have written, particularly
for Maryland; and you can read what the famous apiculturists say, like Roger
Morse, Keith Delaplane, Steve Taber, Mark Winston and read the books like Hive
and the Honeybee, ABC & XYZ of Bee Keeping, etc, and talk to people who have
known beekeeping skills (not just friendly beekeepers in your club or your neighborhood
- I hope you don't consult your butcher or your computer teacher for advice
about having an appendectomy).
After doing all these things, make your decision and then ask these same knowledgeable
people "Which queen breeder do you use, so I can get some like yours?"
Again, forget what your good buddy in the bee club says - maybe you are debating
between getting a Lincoln and a Lexus, and your good buddy drives a beat up
old Rambler, and he is quick to tell you: "It is the BEST!"
You have all winter to think about this. I strongly suggest that you have your
order in to the supplier of your choice before February so you can get a decent
I will not give you any advice regarding queenbreeders for fear of offending
some, but I will talk with you about it if you call me. GOOD queen breeding
is a talent and art that require a lot of ability and hard work to become good
at it. I know most of the better ones and I know some that I would avoid at