Choosing the right type of honey bees to populate your hive is an important consideration for any novice beekeeper. Different races of bees have slightly different characteristics. To choose the right kind of bees for you, keep in mind that there is not one single best kind of honey bee, and your final choice depends on the characteristics you are looking for in your bees.
So which are the best honey bees for beginners? If you’re looking for the gentlest bees possible you should choose between Caucasian and Carniolan bees. If your primary objective is honey production choose Italian bees. If you need bees which are resistant to harsh winters and disease you can opt for Russian or Buckfast bees.
The perfect bee for all beekeepers would be incredibly gentle, produce massive amounts of honey, be very resistant to pests and diseases, and if you live in a cool climate, be good at surviving cold winters. Unfortunately the perfect bee doesn’t exist. But there are some excellent western honey bees with good characteristics to choose from.
The Best Honey Bees for Beginners
The domesticated honey bee used by most beekeepers is the apis mellifera(latin for “honey-bearing bee”). Many different species of honey bees have been tested over many generations. The most suitable bees endured, while bees with undesirable qualities were abandoned. Today there are three main types of honey bees commonly used for beekeeping.
As a beginner, you need to ask yourself which traits are the most important for you. Certain bees are better adapted to harsh climatic conditions, whereas others are reputed for their mild temperament. To help you choose, here’s a summary of the most commonly available bees and their different attributes.
Carniolan Honey Bee Benefits and Weaknesses
Understandably, beginner beekeepers find it a bit unnerving working with bees. Personally I think one of the most important factors for long term success with beekeeping is feeling comfortable around your bees. If you don’t enjoy visiting your bees you’ll soon give up. For this reason one of the foremost factors to consider when choosing honey bees for the first time is their gentleness.
Carniolan honey bees (latin name Apis mellifera carnica, or sometimes called “carnies”) are one of the subspecies considered to be the most gentle. They build up brood and increase the colony population very easily in the spring. Carniolans seem to react rapidly to changing climatic conditions which is why they build up their numbers quickly at the start of the season but they also reduce activity in the fall and go into winter with a small population so they don’t consume much in the way of food stores. They also don’t tend to rob other colonies (robbing can spread diseases).
They’re so docile that I’ve heard carniolan beekeepers will work their bees with very little protective clothing and limited smoking. They also don’t produce a lot of propolis(otherwise known as “bee glue”, bees use this to seal up unwanted gaps in the hive). This trait can be useful because it makes hive inspections less intrusive, and the beekeeper doesn’t have to force open hive boxes and frames that are stuck together.
Carniolans originate from the mountainous regions of Europe which suggests they will do well in cooler regions. However I have heard mixed opinions about their overwintering abilities. Some beekeepers find they do less well than italian bees. I think this may be something to do with carniolan bees habit of going into winter with small colonies. A stronger colony such as that built by italian bees has a better chance of survival over harsh winters.
The main disadvantage of this species is their tendency to swarm, so swarm control is essential with these bees. But if you fear getting stung, Carniolans are possibly your best choice.
Carniolan Bee Characteristics:
- Dark colored bodies.
- Very docile and tolerant.
- Disease tolerance average.
- Good to moderate overwintering.
- Spring build up slow but quick to react to nectar flow.
- Honey production good.
- Low propolis.
- High tendency for swarming.
- Not known for robbing.
Italian Honey Bee Benefits and Weaknesses
The Italian bee (Apis mellifera ligustica) is said to be the most common honey bee in the world and as a result they’re very easy to find. As you can guess from their name they originate from the continental part of Italy, so they’re particularly well adapted to long warm summers but relatively mild winters. Italian bees produce brood pretty much all year round, but rearing young does slow down in the winter. This means they tend to have a lot of mouths to feed and they need good supplies to last through the winter and periods when nectar is scarce. Italian bees will consume a lot of honey stores particularly where winters are colder. On the other hand, italian bees raise lots of bees, and lots of bees means lots of honey!
Because they are so prolific these bees will consume honey supplies quite quickly when the nectar flow ends (the nectar flow is the period when nectar producing blooms are in abundance). For this reason beekeepers try to harvest honey quickly when nectar sources start to disappear in the fall.
Your climate should be taken into consideration if you want to keep Italian bees. They should do well in warm southern climates, but if you have harsh winters or long periods of the year without any blooming vegetation (known as a nectar dearth) then you may have more problems managing your colonies.
Italian bees are also quite gentle and not overly defensive making hive visits pleasant. Their gentleness is said to be moderate, but they are nevertheless tolerant and easy to manage.
Italian bees have a tendency for robbing.
Italian Bee Characteristics:
- Golden yellow colored with clear brown stripes.
- Very good comb and honey producers.
- Fairly resistant to disease.
- Tendency for robbing.
- Average gentleness.
- Low propolis production.
- Population build up good in the spring.
- Pretty good at overwintering.
Caucasian Honey Bee Benefits and Weaknesses
Caucasian bees (Apis mellifera caucasia) are also considered extremely gentle. However they are somewhat more difficult to find than Italian or Carniolan bees. They’re inclined to build up their colony population very slowly but will get going once the nectar flow begins. This slow build up makes them well suited to regions where the nectar flow peaks in mid-summer, but they won’t work best where the nectar flow is highest in the spring. And in a similar way to Carniolans they go into winter with smaller numbers and don’t use large amounts of food stores over winter.
They are known for creating a lot of propolis! Consequently hive inspections can be more tedious because of the need to pry open hive parts.
Recently propolis has become extremely popular because of its assumed health benefits and its use in alternative medicine (for example see this clever combination of honey, propolis, pollen & royal jelly! – Amazon) For this reason, more and more beekeepers are interested in keeping caucasian bees specifically for harvesting propolis. If you fancy producing more propolis than honey you might want to give this species a try!
Apparently, these bees have very long tongues which means they can reach nectar sources that not many other insects can acquire! They can be inclined to get lost and drift, and they also like to rob, which increases the risk of spreading diseases.
Caucasian bees have a low tendency for swarming and average overwintering.
Caucasian Bee Characteristics:
- Dark colored with grey stripes.
- Very gentle and mild temperament.
- Known for robbing.
- Species prone to nosema disease especially in cold northern regions.
- Average Honey production low to average.
- Very high propolis production.
- Disease tolerance is average.
- Spring build up very slow.
- Overwintering average.
Best Honey Bees for Cold Climates
Russian bees were originally imported to the USA to help improve the resistance of existing bee stocks to varroa mites. These bees are very resistant to mite infestations.
Western bee populations have been in decline partly because of increasing varroa infections. Varroa mites reproduce inside bee colonies, weakening bees and spreading disease. An important infestation of mites can destroy a bee colony. Many beekeepers control Varroa using natural products like Apiguard that you place inside the brood box.
As well as being very resistant to disease Russian bees are said to have very good overwintering qualities making them ideal for cold northern climes.
Russian bees rear brood slowly but are extremely active once nectar sources are available. They’re said to produce just as much honey as other more common bee species. Swarming can be an issue late in the season because of their quick build up during the nectar flow.
Russian bees are said to be moderately gentle, but I have also heard they can be “challenging” to manage.
Russian Bee Characteristics:
- Grey colored bees.
- Very resistant to mite infestations.
- Average aggressiveness – can be defensive.
- Very good overwintering ability.
- Spring build up slow – very reactive to changing conditions & available nectar.
- Can swarm late in the season but easily controlled.
Which Honey Bee is Best for You?
The choice obviously is yours, but If gentleness is your priority then carniolan bees are a good option. You may find overwintering more challenging, and honey production is less prolific than italian bees, but as a beginner, you will still learn a lot from your buzzy friends!
The next best choice is probably Italian bees. They’re incredibly popular and easy to manage, and they have less tendency to swarm than Carniolans.
Gentleness and temperament tips: Let’s face it… Gentle bees are much more enjoyable to manage. If you get the opportunity to observe bees from your local supplier before purchasing, here are a few signs that the bees are docile… When you open the hive the bees should remain “quiet on the comb” and not panic and start flying off. Even with a big colony of bees there shouldn’t be a large number of bees in the air. Similarly when you lift out frames to examine them the bees should mostly remain on the comb. When you leave the hive you shouldn’t be followed more than a few feet. If you find your bees are aggressive after you obtain them and your colony is evolving, you can probably reduce the problem by requeening the colony.
Before you Get your Bees…
Preparation is the key word. Get prepared early, making sure you have setup and located your hives, and that you have all the equipment you need. It’s a good idea to get your order for bees in early to avoid disappointment. Availability is usually confined to a small period of time. Before you collect your bees it’s a good idea to revise the procedure for getting bees into your hive.
This is where it comes in useful being a member of a beekeeping association. Having someone nearby who knows the answers to your burning questions can come in handy!
Where to Get Honey Bees? Unless you’re on a really tight budget and can’t afford to buy honey bees (in which case you’ll need to try to catch a swarm or beg your bees from another beekeeper), you’re best bet is to find a local supplier with a good reputation. Local is better because the longer bees travel the greater the stress. Try to get advice from other beekeepers in your area. They’re sure to know someone selling bees or they might even be able to supply you.
One of the most popular ways of obtaining bees is to order package bees. This is a box of bees containing a queen in its own small cage and about 3 lb (1.3 kg) of bees (these contain around 10,000 bees). Alternatively you can purchase a nuc (a nucleus is like a mini colony of bees for starting a hive). A nuc usually comes with 5 frames which already contain brood and honey, plus of course the bees and a queen.
If you want to go big time, you can sometimes obtain a hive with a fully established colony! But with this method it’s often said that you miss out on the joys of seeing your colony evolve and grow, plus all the learning opportunities that this involves.
Related reading: How to get started at beekeeping.