An introduction to honeybee varieties

Across the globe, people harvest honey from various sorts of bee-types. In Asia apis cerana, Koschevnikov and Dorsata are used. Not all of these can be kept in hives, but humans have gone looking for colonies to harvest from for centuries. It has been a popular subject for photographers and documentary makers, to show people harvest full honeycomb from bees that build on a cliffside or high up in a tree. Keeping bees in hives allows us to manage bee colonies with more precision and allows for less disturbance when doing hive checks or harvesting.
The honeybees we harvest from, whether mellifera, cerana or dorsata, are all social bees. Solitary bees generally don’t survive winter, instead they will lay eggs somewhere where the larvae can develop, in some cases the parent will provide food for the larvae, but they will not stick around or survive. Social bees rely on each other for their survival. They collect large amounts of pollen and nectar which they store to bridge periods when there will not be any food to be collected. They rear brood inside the colony, caring for successional generations and continue a genetic line. It is the quality of building up stores of food and building ample housing space for brood that made social bees so interesting for humans to begin with. Although some solitary bees do produce wax and honey, they never do so in the quantities that a social bee does.

The Lowland Homestead bees
Carnica hybrids


Before beekeepers developed the hive with removable frames we know today, European beekeepers kept bees in skeps. The use of skeps made it necessary for bees to swarm from their hive before honey could be harvested. The colony that was left behind in the skep was often suffocated with smoke, then whatever was left inside was harvested. Imagine if you can, what this does to the genetics of bees in area’s where honeybees are managed like that for centuries. The bees that survived this kind of management, were the ones who swarmed fastest. This might be one of the reasons why the black bee (or dark bee), certain old types of carniolan and other breeds, were known to swarm often. If you look at these breeds today however, you’ll find that these breeds have lost much of their swarming instinct.
Besides selecting for swarming instinct, the hives that were quickest to be ready to produce a swarm, which were because of this probably most productive, were harvested first. The bees that descended from the swarmed hive were killed and didn’t pass on their genetics. If it had been possible to harvest from these strong colonies without killing the remaining bees, by now we might have ended up with much stronger, more productive breeds.
But what’s done is done. The hive with individually removable frames allows beekeepers to study and select bees based on almost any characteristic they deem desirable, including productivity, without killing the bees.



Apis mellifera

I’m certain about 98% of everyone who will ever read this post has some type of apis mellifera in his/her hives. apis mellifera naturally inhabits the continent of Africa, Europe and parts of Asia. Although you’ll find it in Australia and the USA as well, they are not native to these continents. The difference between African and European apis mellifera varieties is staggering. European beekeepers (and all beekeepers in colder climates) will attach a lot of importance to the wintering capabilities of the honeybees they decide to keep. In African countries, this is reversed, the difficult period for honeybees to get through is summer.

Apis Mellifera map from

Please do not think that African honeybees are limited only to apis mellifera scutellata, or even the infamous ‘killer bee’ (these two aren’t the same btw). The African continent is home to at least nine different subspecies of apis mellifera, the European (if we consider the Caucasus mountains to be the eastern border) is home to about eleven. The European apis mellifera subspecies are capable of ‘fattening up’ before winter. Winter bees are smaller than summer bees and develop to store more protein in the form of vitellogenin. This prepares them for the winter when they will not find any other food sources outside, the weather won’t permit flight and the bees will need to cluster around the each other, the queen and the starting brood in January when the temperature threatens to dip too low for them to survive.
African honeybee varieties defend their colonies more vigorously than European ones do and have developed to withstand long periods of drought. Parts of the world where summers are long, dry and very hot, will not have much of a habitat for honeybees during those times. African honeybees can bridge these periods, like the European honeybee does a cold winter.

The Lowland Homestead bees
Carnica F1

Honeybees in the Low Countries

I live in Flanders, so my direct knowledge of bee subspecies and breeds is limited to the Carniolan, Buckfast, Black bee and Ligustica. Ligustica is the least used, because they don’t winter well and tend to rob other colonies. They were imported en masse during the first half of the twentieth century. Back then it was believed that Ligustica was more productive than the black bee. This turned out to be no more than wishful thinking and exotifying a non-native bee. The importing of Ligustica bees was followed by other subspecies, Carniolan and Caucasian bees. These foreign subspecies hybridized with the native Dark bee in our area, which resulted in a near-extinction of the subspecies.

Before the Dark bee became nearly extinct in the Low-countries, the Acararpis Woodi had been wreaking havoc in the British Isles. The Buckfast bee was developed by the famous brother Adam. British and Irish beekeepers went looking for new honeybees to make up for their losses. Many were imported from Belgium and the Netherlands. This importing and exporting between Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom is also the reason why our most used frame sizes are very similar. The Dutch Spaarkast, Belgian Simplex and British WBC are almost interchangeable, usually only the handles on the frames differ.

The Lowland Homestead bees
My own Carnica F1 hybrids

Situation in the Low Countries

Today, in the low countries only a few pockets of pure black bees remain. Organizations have been formed to help the Dark Bee reestablish in its native area. In Belgium we have organizations in Chimay and in the province of Limburg who work with a strain imported from Ireland. Ireland was chosen because the Dark bee they have is very close to what our native bee would have been. The Apis Mellifera Mellifera is divided into types according to the geographic region where they established. Switzerland has its Nigra type, Sweden and Norway have the lehzeni and it’s not at all an official name, but in Belgium some have taken to calling the dark bee we chose from Ireland the ‘Celtica’ type. I think this trend is quickly leaving us though.
The thought that we’d ever be able to push out all non-native bees and reestablish the black bee in our area is too optimistic. Whatever we do, we have lost much of our original types and what we are importing now are mixes between at least two types of black bees. This isn’t a bad thing. In the low countries we need to make sure we select bees that are best suited to our climate. Irish bees make sense. But so do Scandinavian bees. We’ll never get back the pure genetics of the types we lost, but we can try to go back to something close to what the original might have been, and which is well adapted to our particular climate.




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