The 7 Best Types of Honey Bees

Even among domesticated animals of the same species, we can see considerable variation in their intrinsic qualities among different breeds.

holding a super with honey and bees
holding a super with honey and bees

Looking at insects that are seemingly single-minded, like honey bees, we can see that various subspecies have wildly different levels productivity, and also differ in their interactions with beekeepers.

Happily, no matter what your preferences and no matter your location, there’s a breed of honey bee that will probably work for you…

From honey production, springtime population increases, resistance to cold, gentleness, and a lot more, picking the right one is crucial for the success of your hives.

Keep reading, and I’ll tell you all about seven of the most common domestic honey bee breeds below…

These are Breeds, not Distinct Species

To clarify I want to impress on all of our readers that the above breeds of honey bee belong to the same species, Apis mellifera.

This means that their essential characteristics are fundamentally the same, such as the way they organize a hive and work to produce honey, and also their basic survival strategies.

But these subspecies, usually referred to as breeds or, more specifically in beekeeping as stock, differ somewhat radically in other characteristics, such as the timing of population booms in accordance with the seasons, their overall aggressiveness in defense of the hive, their coloration and even their interaction with other bees.

Practically speaking, most bees you buy commercially are hybrids, mixed stock.

This means that finding so-called purebred usually be very difficult and almost always drastically more expensive.

This is something to keep in mind if you have your heart set on one of the breeds you read about below.

A better option, though, is usually to talk to a knowledgeable provider who can tell you what the majority lineages are in the bees you’ll be buying.

But with that in mind, let’s get to the list…

1. German

Pros: Great cold resistance, good overwintering

Cons: Quick to sting, highly defensive, susceptible to disease

Sometimes referred to as the German Dark Bee, German Black or European Black Bee, this breed is rarely encountered in America today although it was among the very first domesticated bees brought over to America by the first European colonists.

These honeybees are a study in contrasts…

They show excellent resistance to cold weather and colony wintering capability, but they’re slow to build up population in the springtime and also infamous for being highly defensive.

In terms of appearance, the German bee might look very much like another typical honey bee with pale yellow or orange stripes, but many lineages appear much darker in color, almost pure black.

Sadly, this breed is highly susceptible to various diseases and parasites that plague beekeepers today, and even feral colonies of these bees are rarely encountered due to this vulnerability.

Nonetheless, if you can put up with the increased aggressiveness, their tremendous resistance to cold weather can be an asset in some regions.

2. Caucasian

Pros: Great foragers, very gentle, beautiful

Cons: Slow to build population, low production, uses lots of propolis

A truly beautiful breed of honey bee that ranges anywhere from a silvery to mahogany brown color, Caucasian bees were once extremely popular for honey production although they have since been superseded by other stock in the United States.

This is another breed where you get seemingly as much good as bad.

These bees are known for being superb foragers thanks to their extraordinarily long tongues which lets them access pollen and nectar from other plants that other bees just can’t get.

They’re also known to be extraordinarily gentle and easy to handle.

But in the negative column, the Caucasian honey bee is very slow to build up in the springtime and this means that, despite their excellent foraging, they’re rarely producers of booming crops of honey.

They’re also, somewhat infamously, very prolific layers of propolis which is that sticky foundational resin that bees use to begin building their hive and also to seal up cracks, openings, and other entrances.

This can make hive boxes containing Caucasian stock difficult to handle and manipulate without causing damage.

Even so, if you don’t mind putting up with some minor annoyances the Caucasian bee can be extremely attractive to beginners because of their docility and general reliability, if low production.

3. Italian

Pros: Super honey producers, huge population boom in spring, attractive coloration.

Cons: Modestly defensive, big populations eat lots of honey, energetic raiders of other hives

A relatively new introduction in America, first arriving in the mid-19th century, the Italian honey bee is a superstar producer, and this is made it the most popular domestic bee breed kept in North America by an enormous margin.

They also happened to be among the most handsome bees, with colors ranging from a lustrous golden yellow to a rich mahogany brown, making them the double darlings of bee fanciers.

As mentioned, no other bee even comes close to the amazing honey production of the Italian bee. This is because they are such phenomenal builders and sustainers of huge colonies.

They build fast in the springtime and are usually organized well enough to support immense populations all the way through the summer.

But this amazing advantage comes with an equally big disadvantage, one that must be managed by a seasoned beekeeper if you want that huge haul of honey.

Because Italian beehives tend to support immense populations, they also tend to eat a ton of that stored honey, meaning that immense production isn’t always one that you’ll be able to harvest unless you know what you’re doing.

These bees are also modestly defensive, although not nearly as bad as their cousins, the German bees.

And, potentially the most worrying drawback of the Italian bee, they are relentless and inveterate raiders of neighboring hives. That’s right, these bees are honey thieves!

If a neighboring hive has a smaller population, or is generally just weak or sick, your Italian bees will probably take all of their honey for themselves, possibly finishing them off.

Even more troubling as that this tendency to mingle at close quarters with other hives means that they are often responsible for spreading devastating communicable diseases.

The Italian honey bee is the most popular in North America for a reason, but this is a breed that will serve as a true test of your beekeeping and operational management skills.

4. Cordovan

Pros: As Italian bee, magnificent yellow color.

Cons: As Italian bee.

You might call the Cordovan bee a sub subspecies of the Italian bees we discussed above.

They inherit pretty much all of the characteristics of the typical Italian bee with one notable exception: they’re almost always a light, bright, sunny yellow color which makes them even more beautiful than the stereotypical Italian.

Other than that, you’re basically getting Italian bees, but Cordovan stock is so popular you’ll often see it advertised separately, so I wanted to mention it here so you’re aware of it.

Not necessarily something I would spend a lot of extra money on, but if you have a preference for Brighton colorful bees, the Cordovan cannot be beaten.

5. Carniolan

Pros: Super friendly and gentle, explosive springtime growth, reliable producers of honey and wax

Cons: Highly prone to swarming

Carniolan, popularly called “Carni,” bees are another extremely popular variety in the US, one with a different set of advantages compared to the ubiquitous Italian.

These bees are probably the single gentlest domestic variety kept today, and countless keepers report that they’re so gentle and shy on defense that they can be interacted with without much in the way of protective gear or even smoke.

This makes them incredibly attractive for beginning or skittish beekeepers.

Practically speaking, when it comes to honey production, the Carniolan is a regular high producer, although not to the same degree as the Italian.

But were they beat most other breeds is an absolutely explosive spring buildup, meaning that their colonies are up and running and taking advantage of a pollen and nectar sources available at the very beginning of spring.

You might say they are up early and out the door when other colonies are still getting their act together!

Another attractive characteristic of these bees is that they tend to mind their own business.

They don’t raid very much, and they are diligent builders of sturdy, pure combs, which means they’re among the most desirable bees if you want to make use of beeswax for other products.

But they have one Achilles heel: because the Carnis tend to grow their population so fast and so regularly, they are highly prone to swarming in an effort to alleviate crowding.

If not properly managed, this means that most of your hard-working and diligent bees will take their chances somewhere else, leaving a mostly empty hive behind and leaving you faced with the prospect of a poor harvest.

Staying on top of swarm prevention is your number one priority when working with Carniolans.

6. Russian

Pros: Excellent parasite resistance, unique gray color, very tidy

Cons: Quirky behaviors, interbreeding rapidly loses resistances, pretty aggressive.

One of the most recent developments in domestic bee stock, the Russian bee has only been commercially available since the turn of the new millennium in the year 2000, one showing tremendous promise thanks to its unique resistance to diseases and mites among other breeds.

Intensive research has shown that the Russian bee stock shows marked resistance to varroa and tracheal mites alike, two known and devastating scourges of domestic and wild hives.

This, more than anything else, has made them a promising addition to the breeds we are used to seeing.

Also noteworthy is that the Russian bee tends to be an extraordinarily tidy breed, and they diligently eliminate detritus and other potential sources of contagion from their hives.

But these tremendous advantages do come with some quirks: these handsome, gray bees usually only undergo population booms in direct correlation with the availability of resources in the environment, meaning that their overall production and colony size is directly linked with the food they have access to and have discovered.

They also, curiously, always have queen cells present in the combs.

Also, the Russian stock tends to lose its advantages once it intermingles with other common bees. Successive generations rapidly lose the resistance to parasites and diseases that have made these the darlings of agricultural scientists.

They also tend to be fairly aggressive, although not nearly as aggressive as German bees.

But if you are willing to overlook these issues and to invest solely in Russian stock the advantages might mean you don’t have to worry very much about parasites like you would with other breeds.

7. Buckfast

Pros: Hardy, resistant to cold and wet weather, good and reliable producers.

Cons: Prone to swarming, successive generations highly aggressive if allowed to requeen themselves.

The Buckfast bee might be said to be among the most fantastically interbred hybrids known to the world, but it is one with a distinguished history.

The Buckfast bee was developed in Great Britain at the Buckfast Abby by one Brother Adams.

At the time, England was currently seeing a dreadful collapse of domestic bee colonies thanks to a seemingly unstoppable outbreak of disease, today suspected to be a variety of tracheal mite.

Brother Adams was given the assignment of developing a new domestic bee lineage that could withstand this outbreak.

After long research and diligent work crossbreeding various bees, using the Italian bee as a basis, he produced the Buckfast bee.

This stock proved to be able to withstand cold and damp conditions better than any other bee of the era, yet was still a dependably good producer and was highly tidy and prone to extensive grooming. It maintains these characteristics today.

But these bees came with one major downside: if a queen is allowed to supersede, the following generations tend to be very aggressive.

Despite all of their other good qualities, this steadily, over time, led to them being less and less desirable for domestic beekeeping, and today, purebred Buckfast bees are rare.

Even if you go out of your way to acquire them, you’ll have to work very hard to prevent them from requeening themselves and subsequently getting very, very mean.

But, assuming you’re able to properly manage them, the Buckfast bee can give you a lot of advantages.

They are disease resistant, very cold resistant and even do well in damp conditions where other bees would struggle.

They’re reliable population builders in early spring, but nonetheless, they tend not to swarm excessively given even a little bit of management.

This can make establishing very large and highly productive colonies easy.

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