Monday, February 4, 2013

Choosing a Bee

Now that we have decided to have some bee hives our first item of business is to choose what type of honey bee we want to keep. There are four major subspecies of honey bees, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. (Each is named for the area of the world they were originally found.)


When the Pilgrims arrived in America they brought with them the western European honey bees, but they proved susceptible to local diseases and were harder to manage (i.e. they stung a lot). Later settlers brought bees from the Italian peninsula, which were more docile and produced larger amounts of honey. They quickly became the most popular honey bee in North America. Additional benefits of the Italians include a large brood (number of bees) build up in anticipation of spring and a lower swarm rate, because one big colony often makes more honey than the two smaller colonies created after the divide, and then to keep the new hive you have to anticipate and be prepared to capture swarms when they occur. However, they are more prone to winter starvation due to keeping a large overwintering brood size most likely because winters on the Italian Peninsula are short and mild.


In an effort to find a bee that could overwinter better in cooler climates, people next brought bees from the Carniolan Mountains in Eastern Europe. These bees are darker than the Italians and are more prone to swarming. However, they keep a small brood in the winter which meant they needed to store less than their Italian counterparts. They also began gathering earlier than the Italians along with being very gentle.


Also known as the killer bee, these bees are very protective of their hives and as such when threatened will attack in force (thus the name killer bee). However, one can learn to safely manage them. The advantage of these bees is that they are very productive in hot and moist climates while Italian and Carniolan bees usually succumbed to disease. For this reason, Africanized honeybees are found in South and Central America countries. As a northwest gardener, we will likely not have to worry about them because of their propensity to swarm or abscond very often means that in the cooler northern climes they cannot gather enough honey before perishing in the winter.


After the introduction and subsequent devastation of American bees due to the varroa and tracheal mites, American beekeepers searched for bees who had had the longest natural exposure to the pests, hoping to crossbreed to our bees their natural resistance. It turned out that the Russian honey bee, as far as we can tell, has been living with these pests for thousands of years, and the Russian honey bees have developed some resistance to being infected, most likely due to their very hygienic behavior of removing any infected brood cells. In the United States, these were introduced in the 1990s to combat the rapid spread of mites in commercial bees. They can be purchased here as purely the Russian subspecies or often crossed with the Carniolans or another subspecies.

So as you can see each type has their advantages and disadvantages. For us we are going to start with two hives of Carniolans and see how we come out. What type of bee do you like working with and why?


  1. Just started reading your blog. I'm in the PNW as well. I don't keep bees but I'm really interested in following along with your experiment. Are there any potential problems with having two hives in the same vicinity?

    1. There is not problem with keeping hives right next to each other. As long as there is plenty of foraging material around the bees don't care and will stay separate.