Honey bee phenotype (breed)

Your honey bee phenotype (breed): Part I


Honey bee breed (phenotype) for natural beekeeping

At times, I get to explain to somebody why we prefer Italian honey bees here, in Northern Alabama. As I start discussing the pros of breeding bees suitable for the climate, I always get a question about mite resistance. After all, I am a natural beekeeper and I don’t treat for mites in a traditional way… My answer is that mite resistance is just as important to me, but not more important. There are other ways to control mite population in the hive, as I mentioned in my previous posts. So, let me try to explain.

Honey bee breeds:

First, let me mention that in the US, there are a total of seven recognized breeds of Apis mellifera. The best known breeds are the Italian honey bee (notice that I am spelling “honeybee” as honey bee, which is scientifically correct), the European”dark” honey bee, the Carniolan honey bee and the Caucasian honey bee (the least known are the Greek, Macedonian and Iberian honey bees). The best known hybrids are the Buckfast honey bee, the Russian honey bee (Russian actually call it the Far East honey bee), and Minnesota Hybrid honey bee.

My small apiary needs:

As a small apiary beekeeper, I keep my own charts for tracking my colonies’ behavior, health and honey yields. I also keep history of any positive or negative changes. Some of them will be discussed in my later posts. There is an individual colony Fall Evaluation Report (download) that I fill out at the end of the season for each colony. I want to determine whether I should use the queen for next year breeding program or replace her. Every three years or so, I like to buy a couple of queens from outside of Northern Alabama. I do that for genetic diversity. Whether it is a necessary practice or not, is a subject of yet another post. After a very bad experience with a couple of very expensive queens from a mite resistant stock, I decided to buy only for genetic diversity and not mite resistance.

I buy only Italian honey bee queens. I breed from those queens’ genetics to see if I can get a better stock. Their daughters, the virgin queens, breed with local drones (mostly Italian honey bee drones). So, why Italian? Well, because I decided that they are, indeed, the best suited honey bee breed for me. Notice “for me” part. There are several ways to determine what is the best breed.

International Practices:

In the countries, where honey bee is considered one of the native pollinators, many beekeepers now prefer to keep their native breeds. These efforts are often driven by years of frustration with imported stock and not some patriotic feelings, although there is certainly nothing wrong with being patriotic. Many beekeepers in the UK have been promoting breeding and conservation of their native dark European honey bee. Yes, there is some disagreement on whether Apis mellifera mellifera is actually native to the British Isles. That argument can be settled by simply stating that it does not matter. We are talking about the honey and pollination industries and not the preservation of native species. You can read Dr. Jeff Ollerton’s, blog post on this subject.

Dark European honey bee seems to had done well in UK, Germany and other European countries before the emergence of the varroa mite problem. It also appears to had adapted to the local weather better than other breeds. Jo Widdicombe, the new president of BIBBA (The Bee Improvement and Bee Breeders’ Association) has been a big proponent of breeding locally and looking for better strands within the current gene pool.

My preferences:

I believe that it is important to remember that US is not the same size as the UK. Honey bees are not native to North America. So, the argument about choosing the best honey producing bee over the best bee for the climate or a better tempered bee can go on and on. The US has various climate zones, elevations, regulations, which depend on the states, etc. It also has three distinct types of beekeeping operations: commercial, hobby and research. I am willing to compromise on honey yields, but not aggressive behavior, for example. Commercial beekeepers may be interested in less swarming  or better honey yields.

BEESOURCE has an excellent chart: “Table 1: Comparison of Bees and Their Traits” here. You can also read about some characteristics of main and hybrid breeds on the same page. According to this chart, I can determine what characteristics are important to me. I take into account my operation type, my setup (climate, proximity to neighbors and other beekeepers,etc.) and my natural beekeeping practices to decided what I want. Then, I look at my colonies’ Fall Report charts.


I can see that my bees are doing fine. Italian honey bee breed appears to do very well. Of course, some would argue that my bees are hardly of pure Italian breed. That is certainly true. I see it when I open my hive: the queen and the majority of the bees look Italian, but here and there I see some smaller, darker phenotypes. As long as the colony exhibits “mostly” Italian honey bee behavior and conforms (mostly) in appearance, I am going to call them Italian. From this predominantly Italian honey bee queens, I am going to breed for mite resistance, while preserving my favorite “Italian” characteristics.

So, in the next blog post, I am going to break down the results of my evaluation of “Table 1: Comparison of Bees and Their Traits” results, and explain how it all ties to my practices of natural beekeeping.

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