Field Guide to Beekeeping
Stocks of Bees in the United States
All beekeepers must choose the type of bee that will be the workhorse of their beekeeping operations. Which bee to use can be the subject of intense debate among beekeepers. Should you use Russian bees or Minnesota hygienic bees? Which is better: Italian or New World Carniolan bees? The answers to these questions are not easy. There are, in fact, no right answers to these questions. The average beekeeper will use multiple types of bees during his or her journey through beekeeping. Part of the joy of beekeeping is figuring out which bee(s) is best for you.
What is a honey bee “stock”?
There are a number of terms associated with types of a given organism. These include breed, line, stock, pedigree, etc. Some use these terms interchangeably with the terms subspecies or race. However, each term has its own definition and it is important to use the right one when discussing the types of honey bees available in the U.S.
To understand “type terminology” best, it is important to appreciate a little about honey bee biogeography. There are multiple species of honey bees in the world, perhaps 7-9 depending on who you ask. We use the one species whose natural distribution is exclusively outside of Asia: Apis mellifera, the western honey bee. Western honey bees are distributed naturally in Europe, Africa, and parts of the Middle East.
Apis mellifera, as a species, can be divided further into subspecies, or races. The race name would be the third name in the Latin designation. For example, Apis mellifera ligustica is the Italian honey bee, with the race or subspecies name being ligustica. Races of honey bees each have unique physical and behavioral attributes and typically a limited geographic distribution, all of which allow them to be distinguished from other races of western honey bees. These differing attributes, or “phenotypes” as scientists would say, confer varying characteristics to the bees, meaning that no two races of honey bees are exactly alike. It is this diversity that is celebrated among beekeepers as it produces bees with varying characteristics that are more/less desirable, depending on the view and management practices of the beekeeper. For example, some bee races swarm more than do others. Some bee races can be quite defensive while others tend not to sting as much. Some bee races overwinter better than do other bee races. Thus, beekeepers are free to choose a race that works best for them, in their particular management system.
Europeans brought honey bees to North America hundreds of years ago. Consequently, the honey bees that we use mostly descend from European races of honey bees. I say “mostly” because we do have one African race of honey bee in the Americas. This is the “killer” bee of lore – Apis mellifera scutellata. The various races of western honey bees can hybridize with one another. To be fair and accurate, we no longer have European races of honey bees in the U.S. Instead, the bees we use are derived from purposeful and/or natural breeding between the various European races that were introduced into the U.S. I like to use the designations “European-derived” or “African-derived” honey bees when discussing the bees we have in the U.S. After all, they are no longer European or African! The lines maintained from the original or subsequent introductions of honey bees into the U.S. can be considered “stocks.”
I provide two good quotes that will help explain what I mean when using the term “stock.” First, Dr. Al Dietz explained the concept of bee races, and how we use them in breeding. He noted:
“The geographic races of bees are the results of natural selection in their homeland. That is, the bees became adjusted to their original environment, but not always to the economic requirements of beekeepers. Therefore, they are not the result, but the raw material for breeding.” – Dietz, A. 1992. Honey bees of the world. The Hive and the Honey Bee (J. Graham, ed.), Dadant and Sons, Hamilton, IL, USA. 1324 pp.
I really like Dr. Dietz’s description of a race and how he noted that bee races provide the raw material for breeding, ultimately producing the stocks that we have in the U.S. today.
Second, Dr. David Tarpy wrote a North Carolina State University Extension Bulletin and made the following statement on bee stocks:
“The term “stock” is defined as a loose combination of traits that characterize a particular group of bees. Such groups can be divided by species, race, region, population, or breeding line in a commercial operation. Many of the current “stocks” in the United States can be grouped at one or more of these levels…” – David Tarpy, 2005. The Different Types of Honey Bees. AG-645, NC State University, Cooperative Extension Service, http://www.cals.ncsu.edu/entomology/apiculture/pdfs/1.12%20copy.pdf.
It technically is incorrect to claim that we use one race or another in our beekeeping operations. We have stocks of honey bees that originated from multiple European races and one African race, or crosses between the races. Granted, some of the bees available for purchase may exhibit characteristics principally associated with a given race, but they almost certainly are not pure, unadulterated descendants of the original bees of that race. For example, you might purchase Italian-derived honey bees that are yellow in color, produce large colonies, are relatively gentle, and are prolific honey producers. However, they almost certainly are not “pure” Italian honey bees, descended from the original stocks imported into the U.S. Genetic analyses of honey bees across the U.S. support this assertion.
Points to consider when deciding which bee stock to use
There are five key considerations one must remember when searching for and purchasing one’s bee of choice. First, many bee breeders claim to raise a given bee race. However, I hope you now appreciate that there are no “pure” races of European honey bees in the U.S. Most of the race designations are assigned based on a given queen’s color, the color of the queen’s offspring, and sometimes on the colony’s behavioral attributes. Color can vary tremendously within a given bee stock (see Figure 1 as a great example). Thus, a bee’s color cannot be the sole indicator of its race. Furthermore, even a queen that is true-to-race (i.e. “pure”) supplies only ½ of the genes carried by her female offspring. Given that queens mate in the air, away from the nest, usually with multiple, unrelated drones, I suspect that most bees available for purchase in the U.S. are mixtures of multiple stocks. I have known beekeepers who breed multiple stocks of honey bees in the same apiary, selling the queen offspring based solely on the color of the queen. Hmmmmm………
Second, not all members of a bee stock exhibit the same ch