Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Choosing A Bee Breed

My local homesteading community group has several sub groups and one of them is a Beekeepers Club. We've only had about 3 meetings, but I'm telling you... it's a blast to get together and talk bees! We get so excited at our meetings we could probably talk all night, so we remind ourselves that those rabbit trails we start to chase would be good fodder for another meeting!

At our last meeting we talked about various bee breeds. Of course this led to a discussion on which breed would be best in our geographical area and climate and before you know it, we were talking about what plants grow in our area that would appeal to bees and how we should get a speaker to come to our meeting to tell us what kinds of things to plant! Whew!

If you're thinking of adding bees to your homestead, you need to know what your options are and consider a breed that will be best for your situation. So here's the basics of what we learned about the four main breeds found in North America...

Photo Credit: UC Davis Department of Entomology
Information researched by fellow blogger and beekeeper Liz Wolfe

• Native to Italy
• Light yellow in color (see photo)
• Most popular breed and typically easy to find from suppliers.

• A very gentle bee and good for beginners
• Builds up comb and brood quickly in spring
• Excellent comb builders
• Only moderately prone to swarm
• Resistant to European Foul Brood
• Strong cleaning behavior
• Lower range propolis producer

• Continuous brood rearing continues after honey flow ceases
• More likely to starve during long winters as they tend to exhaust honey stores (may need to be supplemented)
• Poor flight orientation, highly prone to drifting
• Aggressive foragers and easily provoked to rob weaker neighboring colonies

Photo Credit: UC Davis Department of Entomology

• Native to Slovenia, Southern Austrian Alps, parts of Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and parts of former Yugoslavia
• Darker in color - a grayish brown with stripes

• Considered gentle and non-aggressive
• Less prone to rob honey than Italians
• Sense of orientation considered better than the Italians
• Very proficient in adjusting their worker bee population to the availability of nectar flow and can adjust with great speed
• Quite resistant to brood diseases
• Longer lifespan by about 12% compared to other bees
• Only need a small amount of propolis to seal unwanted open spaces or small gaps in hive
• more suitable for areas with long winters; can survive with a small number of worker bees while keeping their honey storage at its maximum
• useful in areas with strong nectar flow, foraging even on wet/cool mornings or evenings and able to quickly adapt to changes in the environment
• recommended for areas with strong spring nectar flow and early pollination

• Prone to swarm when overcrowded
• Less able to thrive during hot summer weather
• Brood nest strength depends on pollen availability
• It isn't easy to find the queen in the hive due to the darker color (but these usually come marked)

Photo Credit: The Daily Green


• Native to Eastern Russia
• Not as light as an Italians, nor as dark as a Carniolans

• Low propensity for robbing
• Usually builds brood only during times of pollen availability (like Carniolans)
• Pollination skills much like the Italians
• Highly resistant to Tracheal mites
• More resistant than other breeds to Varroa mites
• Naturally grooms often (thus resistance to mites)
• Good honey producer

• While some consider this a calm bee, most feel it is a bit more aggressive than the Italians or Carniolans
• Increased tendency to swarm
• Brood rearing is highly dependent on forage availability
• Tends to produce more propolis than Italians/Carniolans
• Very limited availability makes them expensive (although possible to find Queens)

Photo Credit: Sonoma County Beekeepers


• Feral bees are often well adapted to the local area (and thus are sometimes called Survival Bees)
• Good genetically diversity
• Free!

• Must be found and then captured when swarming
• Possibility of being Africanized
• Possibility of American Foulbrood Disease
• Temperament? May be more erratic
• Prone to swarm
• Typically less honey production (however, if you are not in production for a living, a feral swarm or two captured and producing in a hive box may be plenty for a family, so don't rule them out)
• May not be easiest for a beginner, but then again, if you don't know better, you will soon be accustomed to whatever bee you have, right?

There's a lot to learn when it comes to beekeeping and apiculturists are always learning more by observing these fascinating creatures. I seriously think you could study them for a lifetime. However, don't wait that long to get started with a hive of your own! Thankfully, a one day class is enough to get you started. And since you only check your hives about every 2 weeks, you have time in between to learn more.

Before you make a final decision on the bee that's right for you, check around in your area and ask beekeepers what breed they are using. They're likely to have some insight into the best choice for your climate. Also, you need to know what's available as close to your home as possible. Shipping for packaged bees is extremely high (typically sold in pounds of bees along with a queen in a box with some feed to last a couple of days). If you buy a nuc (typically about 5 frames from a hive that includes brood, honey, drones, workers, and a queen - bring your own box to put it in), you'll have to drive to pick them up.

If you plan on starting your beekeeping adventure in 2012, you'll need to contact a bee supplier right away. In California, most have already reserved all their bees for this year's customers. Free swarms are often available if you spread the word among your local friends, but be ready with your gear in your car. The bees won't wait long for you to get there! (Catching the swarm is a story for another day!)


  1. I'm thinking this might be a 2013 project for me but I will be watching your experience with great interest to learn all I can before stepping into this adventure.

  2. Wow Amy,
    This is a great help. I am going to the next Backwards Beekeepers meeting on the 25th. I had been hoping to start beekeeping this season, but I have been holding off on buying my bees for after my trip to L.A. Maybe that was a mistake? I hope there will be some bees left to buy then. I cannot imagine tracking down a swarm myself. Thanks again for the invaluable information.

  3. What a helpful post! Loved it, especially the well thought pros n cons of feral swarms.
    Thanks for all you share here! Please stop by for a chance to win The Chicken Encyclopedia book giveaway I'm hosting!

  4. Thank you for this great information. I SO want a beehive, but I am still working on the garden this year. I have a beekeeper who is willing to take me with him to show me how beekeeping works for him. I need to contact him.

    1. Cristy, mentoring under a beekeeper is an excellent idea! If you have someone willing, you should jump on it!

  5. Amy, thanks so much for this information. We are getting the Italian bees on Friday. I'm a little apprehensive, since we 'lost' our first hive. They swarmed! We'll have to be more diligent at checking our hive to hopefully ensure that this doesn't happen again! Upon investigation, we discovered that a wax moth? had invaded the comb. We don't know if it was before or after the swarm. That was several years ago, and hopefully we learned from that experience! Blessings from Bama!

  6. For those who want to try capturing a swarm, I've seen folks post ads on Craigslist, asking people to call them if they see a swarm on their property, and they'll come out and get it. Worth a try, I suppose.

    My guy has Carniolans ordered, due in a couple weeks. Hoping they'll do well here in the pacific nw! :)

  7. Picking up swarms is usually pretty fun and interesting. Check in with your local sheriff/fire station/ext. office and let them know you are interested if/when they get calls this spring and summer. Might save the bees from being exterminated as well as providing you another hive :-).

  8. Beekeeping has been a dream of mine for more than 25 years. Someday I just may take the plunge!

  9. Aloha Amy!

    Great information! Would you mind if I mentioned and linked your article in my blog? I would schedule it for the 19th.


  10. Amy, I'm fascinated with beekeeping, and it seems many farms are keeping them now. We usually have one swarm each year on our property, and I'd love to find someone who could take them vs. extermination.

    1. Andrea, the fact that the bees swarm to your property each year must mean you have a fruitful and diverse habitat that attracts them! What a blessing! Reminds me of the scripture references to a land flowing with milk and honey!

      Friends, if you live in Southern CA, you need to make friends with Andrea, The French Basketeer and be ready to give her bees a good home!

  11. Oh Amy...this is so wonderful! Thank you for taking the time to post such great information. I am getting my bees [Carniolans} in two months! I am so excited to dive into beekeeping:). Your information is so helpful:).



  12. Again, I must say Thank You! Thank you for your research and your very thorough explanation! We are going to be starting our own hives instead of renting them so this post of yours was very timely. I mentioned you in one of my blog posts, I hope that's o.k. :-) Enjoy the upcoming rain! kim

  13. Thank you again for such an informative and beautifully written post! We are going to be getting our own bees soon instead of renting them each year! We attempted to keep hives around 15 years ago but mites killed alot of them and the skunks ate the rest of them! We are better informed now, Thank you, again! I hope you don't mind, but I mentioned your wonderful blog and put a link on one of my posts! Sorry for not asking first! kim

  14. Thanks again for the permission! Posted your post today <3

  15. I started beekeeping this year with a package of Buckfasts that I got in late April. Then I caught a swarm out of a tree and hived that and then I bought a 4 frame nuc of Italians from an Amishman in the area. All 3 are doing good and I'm really enjoying them.

    Here is a little history on the Buckfast race honeybees...



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