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Honey Bees: What They are & How They Work

The honey bee (Apis mellifera) is an insect species which lives in colonies usually consisting of one queen, thousands of workers and a variable number of drones. New colonies are produced by swarming. The colony lives in a nest which in nature is usually located inside a hollow tree. The nest, or hive, is a series of vertical, two sided wax combs made up of hexagonal cells. The cells hold developing larvea, honey, pollen and/or bee bread which is a mixture.

The main food of honey bees is pollen and nectar collected from flowers. Honey bees are native to Africa, Europe (except northern part) and Near East. They were introduced to Asia, both American continents and Australia. Domesticated honey bees are kept in hives. They are important economically as pollinators of crops and producers of honey.

This link will take you to some excellent honey bee drawings of their anatomy & physiology.

Honey Bee Races

There are several races of honey bee, each having advantages and disadvantages linked to their original regional background. i.e. climate, topography, resources and predators. Because of differences in background, each race of honey bee has evolved in a slightly different manner than their cousins, allowing them to better take advantage of their specific environment.

Today the Italian Honey Bee is the most commonly kept honey bee in the United States. Conversely the Africanized Honey Bee is the most feared, and illegal to keep in may regions. Between these two extremes are the many other races and the Feral Honey Bee. Though technically not its own race, it may be acclimated to the area in which it has been found. The following is a partial listing of the races of honey bee that may be available to a prospective beekeeper. Along side is a brief description of each race and some common advantages and disadvantages of each.

Characteristics of Races of Honey Bees

Italian Bees

Probably the most common race of honeybees in this area.

Colonies are usually large and winter well.

Very good honey producers.

Usually gentle and non-aggressive.

Swarming instinct is not especially strong.

Minimum propolis.

Keep a clean hive and are quick to get rid of the wax moth.

Queens lay all through the summer, so a large amount of stores are used for brood rearing.

Italian bees have a strong tendency to rob.

Yellow coloring with bands on the abdomen.

Caucasian Bees

Very gentle bees.

Do not swarm excessively.

Brood buildup is later in the spring.

A good honey producer, not exceptional.

Caucasians produce and use a good deal of propolis.

Brown in color.

Carniolan Bees

A very gentle race of bees. Probably the best wintering bees. Little use of propolis. Builds up very rapidly in the spring. Summer brood rearing depends on pollen and nectar flow. Usually not inclined to rob. These bees tend to swarm more, probably due to rapid spring build up.

Not as productive as Italians.

Buckfast Bees 

 Developed by Brother Adam at Buckfast Abbey, 

Devon, England. 

Very rapid spring build up. 

Very gentle bees.

Low tendency to swarm. 

 Low consumption of winter stores. 

 Well adapted to areas with damp cold winters. 

Excellent honey producers. Inclined to rob.

Midnight Bees

Hybrid bee.

Very gentle.

Developed for hobbyist beekeepers.

Not as productive as the Italian or Starline races.

Starline Bees

Hybrid bee based on Italian stock.

Rapid spring build up.


Winter well.

Good honey producers.

Russian Bees

Not actually a race but they are actually a hybrid between Italian, Carniolan, Caucasian.

Mite resistant.

Frugal - Winter with small population.

Explosive growth in Spring.

Russian vs Italian Honey Bees

Italian honey bees are susceptible to two deadly parasitic mites, the tracheal mite (Acarapis woodi) and the varroa mite (Varroa destructor), which were introduced into the U.S. in 1984 and 1987, respectively. Colonies contract these mites through equipment sharing and overcrowding, and, once infested, entire colonies can succumb within one or two years. Beekeepers have relied largely on pesticides to control the mites, but many of these chemicals can contaminate the honey and beeswax in a hive. The mites also are becoming increasingly resistant to the pesticides, making the chemicals less reliable and, eventually, ineffective. The high colony mortality that accompanies these two mites is a serious concern of the bee industry today, and various types of bees are continually being examined with an eye toward ?nding a hardy, productive stock that can resist them. 

Russian Bee Project

Efforts to find a honey bee that is genetically resistant to the varroa and tracheal mites led researchers at the USDA Honey Bee Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Russia. There, on the far eastern side of that vast nation, in the coastal Primorski region around Vladivostok, they found what they sought?a promising strain of Apis mellifera. These Russian bees had been exposed to varroa mites for approximately 150 years, much longer than other Apis mellifera strains had, and the researchers surmised that the Russian bees could have developed a resistance to the mites. Indeed, subsequent research has shown that these Russian bees are more than twice as resistant to varroa mites than other honey bees. Moreover, they are highly resistant to tracheal mites, the other mortal enemy of bees. Russian bees also tend to produce as much honey as standard bee stocks, if not more.

A number of American queen breeders now produce Russian queens for sale. These breeders are located all across the country, but most are concentrated in the South and in California. Many of the Russian queens on the market are hybrid daughters of a breeder queen openly mated to any drone, which may come from a variety of stocks within two miles of a particular mating yard. The resulting colonies are genetic hybrids. Recent research has suggested the hybrids are only partially resistant to mites, but studies at North Carolina State University show that partial resistance is statistically signi?cant when the hybrids are compared to Italian bees. Production of pure Russian queens can be guaranteed only by truly isolating the breeding grounds, as has been done at the USDA?s bee laboratory on Grand Terre Island, 25 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Here the drone stock is also controlled.

Management of Russian bees

Russian bees are quite different from standard Italian bees in several ways:      

Russian bees do not build their colony populations until pollen is available, and they shut down brood rearing when pollen is scarce. This characteristic makes them suitable in areas where the main honey and pollen ?ows occur later in the year, such as the mountains of North Carolina. By contrast, Italian bees maintain a large brood area and worker population regardless of environmental conditions. This trait can result in more bees than the hive can feed and may lead Italian colonies to early winter starvation. It also explains the Italian bee?s tendency to rob other colonies of their honey stores.

Russian colonies maintain active queen cells through out the brood-rearing season. In Italian colonies, the presence of queen cells is interpreted by beekeepers as an attempt to swarm (reduce overcrowding by establishing a new colony) or to supersede (kill and replace) the resident queen. This is not the case with Russian colonies, as the workers often destroy the extra queen cells before they fully develop.

Russian bees can vary in color, but they are generally darker than the Italians. Requeening Italian hives with Russian queens can be difficult, and many beekeepers lose their newly introduced Russian queens. Russian queens have a different odor than Italians, and parent colonies must become acclimated to this odor before they will accept the newcomers. Beekeepers who intend to go from Italian to Russian bees should re-queen a colony in the fall by splitting the hive in two with the use of a double screen. This will permit the odors to mix but, at the same time, prevent the workers from interacting with the new queen. The old Italian queen should be kept in the lower half, and the new Russian queen should be placed in the upper half in a cage. If a separate entrance is provided to the upper half, only young nurse bees will enter the top portion, and the older foraging bees will return to the lower hive. 

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