Honeybee Biology

Crossing Bees Instead of Peas

When is a honey bee like a Greyhound? When it’s a Buckfast. Get it? I didn’t think so. It’s a dumb joke anyway. Besides, a Buckfast is more like a Labradoodle – both are recognized hybrids or crossbreeds. A Carniolan or an Italian honey bee is more like a Greyhound. Purebred. See, there are strains of bees just like there are breeds of dogs. It all comes down to genetics, as Gregor Mendel discovered in the 1800s.

The sunrise surrounds my hives these mornings with an artist’s palette of reds and yellows, nestled as they are in the recent snow. All is quiet. They’re in for the winter and I’m keeping my fingers crossed they make it through. I’m also already planning ahead. If beekeepers are adding to their apiaries in the spring, this is the time of year when they need to order bees. Which strain to bring into my apiary is one of my top considerations. The choice can be tricky because there are so many factors. Italians or Carniolans? Or a strain I haven’t tried yet? Maybe this year I’ll order a variety, giving me a bee yard of United Nations out back.

Honey bees are native to Eurasia and Africa, and were first brought to North America by colonists at Jamestown in 1622. Over the years, humans have tweaked these first honey bees to enhance certain characteristics. Today there are several strains of bees, akin to breeds of dogs. All dogs are of the genus and species Canis familiaris, originating from the first wolf-like canid in Europe more than 30,000 years ago. Poodles, labs, and greyhounds are breeds, their genes tweaked for specific purposes such as hunting, retrieving or racing. All honey bees are Apis mellifera. The most popular strains of honeybees are Italians, Carniolans, and Russians, as well as a few hybrids of these strains.
Which is best? Well, that depends. Here’s a brief summary of the different strains.

Italian honey bees

The most popular strain of honey bee in the U.S. is the golden colored Italian Apis mellifera ligustica. The Italian strain’s popularity is mostly due to its relatively gentle nature and high productivity, two characteristics that beekeepers appreciate. They begin brood rearing early and keep it up all season long, supplying the hive with a constant flow of new workers. Unfortunately, they are somewhat susceptible to the numerous pests that plague honey bees. They also have a tendency to rob weaker colonies of their honey stores, classifying them as kleptoparasites, stealing from the rich but not-so-hardy. It sounds like a mean-spirited word, but I suppose they were just doing what nature does best, practicing survival of the fittest.

The German strain, Apis mellifera mellifera, never really got a foothold in America, despite the fact that it was here first. It tends to be more aggressive and is prone to American foulbrood, the most serious of all the bee diseases. Beekeepers that encounter American foulbrood must burn all their equipment and start from scratch. It’s enough to sway many beekeepers from this susceptible strain.

Carniolan honey bees

The darker colored Carniolan strain, Apis mellifera carnica, was developed in the area of the Carniolan Alps. This makes them hardy stock, able to survive cold winters and fickle weather patterns; the latter seems to be more common these days. They are the gentlest of all the honey bees, a plus. But with a tendency to build up brood quickly, they also swarm more frequently, a definite minus.

Russian honey bees are growing in popularity in the U.S. because they’re resistant to the varroa mite, the pest that all beekeepers live with but would rather live without. They seem to also have the measured spring buildup of Italians that keeps swarming to a minimum. Considering that I’ve witnessed two swarms in two years, these Russians might make good additions to my apiary. And coming from eastern Russia, they must be winter hardy.

The gray-black Apis mellifera caucasia strain of honey bee originated between the Black and Caspian Seas and was first brought to North America in 1882. They are gentle and they are homebodies, meaning they don’t tend to swarm, two very desirable traits. But if honey production is high on a beekeeper’s list of priorities, Caucasians are usually passed over. They’re also heavy producers of propolis, that sticky resin that protects them from nest invaders and chemicals seeping in between cracks in their home. Beekeepers don’t like this so much but the bees certainly have good reason to produce it.

Can there be more than 2 strains in a honey bee colony? The equivalent of a Labradoodle? Sure, if you consider how queens mate and whose genes they bring home. When you buy a package of honey bees, the queen comes already mated to your order specifications. This first season of workers and drones will be what you expect. But, if the queen is replaced naturally by the workers the next season, the new queen will populate your colony with workers of all nationalities, depending on the neighboring colonies and the strain of the drones at the drone congregating areas where she flies to mate. Those DCA’s are like any all-American meeting place for people looking to find their mate – a melting pot of nationalities and ethnicities.

There are also intentionally crossed strains, developed by humans. The most well-known are the Africanized honey bee and the Buckfast bee.

Africanized honey bee

The Africanized honey bee, Apis mellifera scutellata, is the strain of honey bee NOT to get. It’s also known as the killer bee and it lives up to its name. Only experienced beekeepers in Brazil seem to be able to manage these hot headed little ladies.

Buckfast honey bee

The Buckfast bees are certainly tempting, though. They’re crosses not unlike my dog Wally who is a blend of black lab, pit bull terrier, maybe boxer and probably something else. These bees are a mix of the Italian and German strains, intentionally crossed by Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey in the United Kingdom back in 1914. He’s the Gregor Mendel of beekeeping, crossing bees instead of peas. Over time, other strains were added to the cross, highlighting their desirable characteristics and diminishing the less desirable. These gentle bees have a high resistance to disease, overwinter well, and are great honey producers.

I play with possibilities in my brain. I could stick with Italians and I like Carniolans. Russians are hardier . . . but those Buckfast bees look more and more enticing as I research them, though they’re not as easy to find this side of the Atlantic. With the exception of the Africanized bees, I really could see a United Nations of honey bees in my backyard some year. Italians for their productivity, Russians for their resistance to varroa mites, Caucasians for their stay-at-home attitude, Carniolans for their gentle nature. And Buckfast bees.

A melting pot, because isn’t America one anyway?

2 thoughts on “Crossing Bees Instead of Peas

  1. None of these strains of bees exist in pure form anywhere feral bees exist. Which is practically everywhere. And the color of a bee tells you practically nothing. Behavior also varies widely from colony to colony and season to season. Don’t be fooled.

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