beekeeping honeybees

Bringing the Girls Home – or: Which Bee For Me?

It’s hard to describe the level of nerves and excitement that you feel waiting to pick up your first box of honeybees. On the one hand, it’s an event that you think about from the moment you decide to “do it” to the day they arrive, but on the other hand, every day that passes is one closer to actually placing them into the hive you’ve built. During that period, you face numerous questions: Is the hive built well enough? Is the placement okay? Do I have all the right gear? What the heck was I thinking?

Basically normal stuff.

In my case, I had signed up for the nucleus colony from our educational guru at BANV. Originally my thought was to go with the two packages of bees we’d be allowed to buy from the money we’d paid for the class, but during a conversation before class one night, I changed my mind. Part of that was because I was intimidated to install a new package and the other part was because the breed was one more suited to me: New World Carniolans.

We could write several posts on the various types of bees, but suffice to say, there are many and each has it’s pros and cons. So far, my only exposure has been to Italians and Carniolans and each keeper tends to pick their first bee for a certain quality. I can’t say which is better or worse, per se, because the individual keeper has to choose the right bee for both their goals (i.e. honey production, education, hobby, etc) as well as their personality. You’d be surprised how much your personality will affect your choice in bee.

So which one is right for me, you ask?

I have no idea, but I can give you some basics on the more common/popular breeds to help narrow the process down.

1) Italians (Apis mellifera lingustica):

No writing about beekeing is complete without a tip of the hat to Italians. Italians have long been considered the most common among “hobby” beekeepers because of their gentle nature and subdued swarming tendancy. A lot of keepers I know, P included, have kept Italians and have been pleased as punch with them. Pros include decent honey production, very gentle when being worked by the keeper. They also tend to use less propolis than other varieties.

But the Bees From the Boot also have their downside, mostly, their large population over winter. This can be a bad thing for keepers in cooler climates since more bees means either a larger store of honey (i.e. less for you to extract for eating, selling, covering yourself in, etc) or the need to feed them more often in winter. But they are hard workers and are pretty dependable, so new keepers cannot go wrong if they purchase these little ladies.


Typically Yellow with black or dark-brown stripes.

Gentle-ish (no bee is fully gentle, but these are less defensive).
Good honey production.
Kind of mite resistant
Minimal use of propolis
Can hook you up with a gondola ride through their cousin back in Venice.

Large winter colony. This means more honey needed during the cold months and, possibly, less for you.

Tendancy to choose their wine over decent stuff from California.

2) Carniolans (Apis mellifera carnica):

Okay, I am biased in this category since my grils are Carnies, but I’ll do my best to be objective. Carnies originally came from the Carniolan Alps in Europe. Since the nectar flow is shorter in that zone (approx. 6 weeks), this breed learned to have a population explosion at the onset of Spring, forage ealier in the morning and later into the evening, and gather as much as possible during the “short” window that they could. And, becuase of all this, they learned how to survive with a smaller winter population. All this is good news for newer hobbyists since that means you feed less and they need fewer pounds of honey to survive. As an added bonus, they use a very small amount of propolis which makes everyone (bees and keepers) happy in the end.

Some more pros are that they are also excruciatingly gentle (I can attest to this personally), are fairly quiet on the comb, and seem to be more concerned about their honey gathering than whether a novice beekeeper is working the hive or not. Because of all this, the popularity of Carnies has increased over the years and many new keepers are drifting away from Italians in favor of these bees.

On a final pro-note, Carniolans tend to be very hygenic when it comes to mites, diseases, and general hive cleanliness. Essentially, they’re more inclined to clean out a cell infected with a pest (varroa mites, chaulkbood, etc) than “standard” bees. That’s not to say others won’t do they same, but some breeds are more aggressive about self-maintaining than others.

But the Carnies are not without faults. The primary one in their case is the tendancy to swarm. If you’re not careful, their population explosion in the Spring may mean they run out of space sonner than you think and to them, it means it’s time to swarm. Before you know it, the Carnies may hatch a new queen and then half your hive takes off to find space for their own. If honey production is your goal, or if you’re someone that procrastinates a whole lot, these may not be the bees for you.


Typically Gray-ish with black or dark-brown stripes.

Very, very gentle.
Hard workers (the entrance will look like the skies over JFK).
Minimal use of propolis.
Very self-hygenic/mite tolerant.
Smaller winter population (i.e. more honey for you!).

Rapid population grown means greater chance to swarm.
Have to repeatedly tell people that you “keep Carnies” at your place. Because of that, some people may look at you funny.

Variant (s):

New World Carniolans – Credited to Susan Cobey, a geneticists out of the University of California who bred the line, these are rapidly becoming the “variant” of choice for Carnies. They combine a lot of the positives of the breed. My girls are a mixed breed of these and Minnesota Hygenic.

3) Russians

Da, Commrades, the Ruskies have made their way to the shores of the US and many beekeepers are seeing red. Who says we won the Cold War?!

Seriously. the Russians are a breed that, like the Carnies, have become increasingly popular with keepers (backyard and commercial).

Significant amount of consonats.
Tendancy to name every queen “Natasha.”

4) Buckfast

5) German

Actung baby! Germans (aka the Black Bee) were the very first bees brought over to the New World for beekeeping and they are historically some of the worst. Ill-tempered and nasty, German bees are nearly defunct as an Americain bee for either the hobbyist or commercial keeper and you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot dedicated to them. Even Webster’s Dictionary only has a single sentence written about them and that does little to make a person actually want to keep Germans. Still, they are worth nothing since they started the whole fad years ago.


Typically black.

Great engineering of their cars.

World domination.

5) Africainized

The Africainized Honey Bee (AHB) was actually an accident that has turned out to be a North Americain pandemic and that, more than anything, has been the cause for concern among beekeepers. Created during some breeding experiements in South America during the XXX, scientists were seeking to create a productive bee that was tolerant and domiant while also being agressive against mites and disease. The result was the current AHB strain and unfortunately, several AHB queens escaped into the wild. Several years later, swarms of wild AHB were found all over the southern continent and in the years since, have moved as far north as Georgia and as far West as California. There have been cases of AHB reported as far north as Maine, however to date those have been wild, migrant swarms that have not been able to survive the harsh winters. The latest information seems to list that so far they have not been able to survive any farther north that the Carolinas, but given their frighteningly quick ability to adapt, who knows what may happen down the road.

What makes AHB so unattractive for most hobbyists is that they have dominate genes. That means if a smooth-talking AHB Drone (male) hooks up with a sweet, passive-natured European queen, all of the eggs she lays will take on the AHB gene of being uber-defensive. Given no time at all, the hobbyist beekeeper can suddenly find him or herself with a hive of AHB and dealing with some exciting personalities.

The AHB is also known as the Killer Bee, however it should be noted that this title is a complete misnomer. I’ll say it again, the Africainized Honey Bee is NOT a killer bee! Despite what you may read, hear, or watch in terrible B-movies, the AHB is not aggressive and will not kill a person out of spite. What they are is extremely defensive which means they will sting you if riled and will chase you farther than their European counterpart (evey bee listed above). And while thier tendancy is to be painfully defensive, AHB are also one of the top honey producers in the world and many third-world countries use them as a source of income. But AHB can be hard to work and are nowhere near as tolerant as Europeans, the combination of which have tagged them for early termination in the US. In fact, many states have a law that any swarm caught in wild must be destroyed on the off chance it could be AHB.


XXXX. Plus they have this swagger because their genes are so dominant.

Massive honey production. Many third world nations use them for a huge source of income.
They can be managed and kept. It takes a little skill, but the end result can be some amazing hard workers.

Negative publicity thanks to movies, stereotypes, etc.
Tend to defend in greater numbers and for farther if “angered”.
Tend to go after dark objectes (i.e. a beekeeper’s veil).
Dominant genes. One male AHB drone knocking up your European queen can ruin your hive of Italians, Carnies, etc cause they take over.
Overall cocky attitude because of their dominant gene.

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