The Unbearable Lightness of Beeing

There seem to be quite a lot of bees, over 20,000 species worldwide. Bees are part of the insect genus Apis, which (surprise!) is Latin for bee. This post discusses the bees generally available in North America, which is one of the seven different species of honey bees generally recognized.

One of the reasons I bought from Aunt Bea’s is that I quickly realized how little I really knew. I found a seller with package bees from the south and almost purchased them. When I asked John of Aunt Bea’s, he said that the regulations in Georgia (where the bees apparently come from) are not as strict, and he’s had trouble with dead or weak bees in the past. I have no idea, of course, but he now buys from a seller in Pennsylvania that purchases bees from California. Apparently the regulations are more robust, and John says they see very few dead bees and receive nice productive queens. I have no idea, of course, so this became another reason to purchase my first hive and receive some guidance on the bee-side of the purchase.

The honey bees in North America are part of the genus Apis melliflora.  Since the species is the same, the stock or race of honey bee is typically discussed, as this accounts for the region, breeding line, and other characteristics in addition to species. This summary is what I’ve gleaned from a few different references, which are listed at the end of this post.


The Italian bee was brought to America by none other than Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth, and like his hive this bee has become the most popular honey bee in North America. The Apis mellifera ligustica is the type I hope to purchase through Aunt Bea’s, unless my daughter has her way (more on this in a moment).  Italians are light in color and typically gentle and good producers. Their biggest weakness is a tendency to rob and drift. Robbing is when the little buggers steal honey from other hives. They apparently do this more often when the nectar flow decreases in the summer. Drift occurs when a honey bee looses her location and returns to a hive other than her own, which I’ve read is more likely when hives are in a line. Robbing can be especially problematic when bees try to steal honey while the keeper is inspecting other hives, something I’ll have to keep in mind if I have more than one hive.

There are two other lines I’ve read about: Starline bees and Cordovan bees. Starline are hybrids formed by crossing two different Italian strains; while Cordovan are typically an Italian strain as well. You can read up on these if you wish to learn more.


A darker brown to black bee, the Apis mellifera carnica is a gentle bee with less robbing tendencies. Carniolans can build up population quickly and thus have a high propensity to swarm. I wonder if this is could be more prevalent with top bar hives where the space can be a bit more limited.

One of the beekeepers I met at the class in Reston told me they have over 80 hives of Carniolan bees, mostly out near Luray Caverns in the Shenandoah Valley. With each hive having some 50,000 some bees, that’s some 400,000 bees altogether. Wow.


These bees apparently have longer tongues that allow them to reach nectar that other races may not have access to. The use of Apis mellifera caucasica has declined in the U.S., perhaps because they reportedly build up slower in spring than the Italians. Those long tongues sound pretty interesting, though.


Called the black bee, the Apis mellifera mellifera originally came from England and Germany. Honey bees are not native to North America, and this was one of the first bees brought to the New World by settlers. Because of their somewhat defensive nature and dark color, the Native Americans sometimes equated these new creatures with the white man’s bullets. These bees are supposedly a bit runny and swarmy, and fell out of favor over a century ago. The term runny refers to bees that get excited during inspections and tend to run around the combs. The bees are said to do well in northern climates.


The Apis mellifera caucasica is a newer species to North America brought over because of its resistance to the dreaded varroa mite in its eastern Russian home. After some testing by the USDA in Louisiana, they went on sale to U.S. beekeepers in 2000. These bees can be defensive, but tend to head butt rather than sting. They generally build populations only during nectar flow, so are not as productive as other races.

My daughter is lobbying for these bees. She’s been making Russian bee jokes all week (terrible ones, I might add), and wants to name the queen Natalia after the Black Widow of the Avengers. There is a producer of Russian bees about an hour from our house, and if I do a second hive perhaps I should try these. They only provide Langstroth nucs, however, which could be a problem. A nuc is a smaller version, typically only 5 frames, of a Langstroth hive used to produce or start a new colony. I’m not exactly sure how to incorporate a nuc into a top bar hive, and the YouTube videos are a bit scary. I also wonder how they would do in the presence of Italian bees, especially if the Italians start robbing in the summer. One does try to make the daughter happy, however. Sigh.

Africanized Honey Bees (AHB)

I didn’t realize there was a difference between this and the African honey bee (Apis mellifera scutellata), which is native to central and southern Africa. The African bee was crossbred with other strains of Apis mellifera by biologist Warwick Estevam Kerr in the 1950’s and formed Africanized Honey Bees, or AHB. Kerr was trying to breed a bee appropriate for the tropical climates of South America, but ended up with a rather aggressive bee. The bees were accidentally released in 1957 (oops) and spread through the Americas. These bees are productive but can be very defensive. Fortunately rain and colder weather seems to have halted their spread north, and interbreeding with other bees have softened some of their aggressive behavior.

References for this post

Bush, Michael, Races of Honey Bees in North America, Retrieved 20 October 2014.
Beesource Community Site, The Different Types of Honey Bees, Retrieved 20 October 2014
Horn, Tammy (2006), Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation, The University Press of Kentucky, Audio version purchased from

By the way, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” is both a movie and a book, neither of which I am familiar with.  Great “bee” quote, though.

5 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Beeing

  1. I love that Russian bees headbutt rather than sting and I’m interested in learning more about Starline bees, if only for the lovely name. A great summary of all the honeybee species – and then there are all the different bumbles too!


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