Differences in honey production, rate of reproduction and gentleness are all things that are associated with different honey bee varieties. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

So, you’ve decided this is the year you are going to start a honey bee colony in your backyard. That’s great! Now, it’s time to get down to work preparing and planning for your honey bees — beginning with what bees to get.

The first thing you need to do is sit down and decide exactly what you want from your bees. Those honey bee goals are going to help you determine what variety of bee to get. That’s right, honey bees come in several different varieties and there are pros and cons to each one.

So before you order your bees, think about how much honey you hope to harvest. How much time are you willing to spend managing the colony? What level of gentleness do you want in your bees?

“Honey bee varieties are like plants,” said Jennifer Lund, state apiarist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “You have something like a summer squash, but then you have all sorts of sub-species that are slightly different and you need to find the one that works best for you.”


Here are five common honey bee varieties and their characteristics.

Italian honey bees

If you are looking for a bee with a reputation for being gentle and non-aggressive, look no farther than the Italian honey bee. Not only are they impressive honey producers, from an aesthetic point of view, they are one of the more attractive bees with their lemon yellow coloring. You do need to keep an eye on them throughout the season. Italian bees spend more time than other varieties raising their brood — baby bees — and that means they may consume surplus honey if it’s not removed quickly enough. They are also known as “kleptoparasites,” meaning they will rob honey from other hives. If there are any bee diseases in those hives, the robber bees could bring it back to their home along with any stolen honey.

Carniolan honey bees

If you want the population of your hive to grow quickly in the spring when you get them, the gentle Carniolan honey bee is the bee for you. Because they establish their population so early, they are able to take advantage of early spring blossoms and nectar sooner than other varieties. They are considered the gentlest of varieties by beekeepers who often work with colonies without protective clothing. Carniolans produce a lot of wax comb which can be used for candles, soap or even cosmetics. The downside to the variety is that fast buildup of population in a hive can lead to overcrowding if not managed properly. Left alone, the overcrowded Carnolians will swarm and look for another home. And they will take a lot of honey with them. To prevent them from swarming means you need to be aware of their population levels in a hive and be ready to expand their hive or start a new one. But if you are willing to put in the work, you could well find yourself with one or more extra colonies by the end of the summer.


Buckfast honey bees

If you live in an area that is normally cold and damp, or if your long term seasonal weather forecast is calling for a wetter and colder summer, you may want to check out Buckfast honey bees. This variety was developed to produce honey in rural England — an area famous for its damp and chilly conditions. Buckhead colonies build up slowly in the spring, so they do miss out on many of those early blooms. However, they are also among the more defensive varieties so you need to take great caution when working with them as they can be cranky and attack any threat to their colony.

Russian honey bees

A gentle honey bee with a genetic trait to resist the parasitic varroa mite is just one of the things that makes Russian honey bees quite different from other varieties. The varroa mite is responsible for global colony collapses and losses. Russian honey bee hives tend to have queen cells present all the time. Queen cells are where new queens develop. In other honey bee varieties, queen cells are formed when the colony needs a new queen because their old one has either died or left with a swarm. In a Russian hive, it’s easy to get overrun with queens and that is not a good thing. Too many queens can cause swarms so you will need to constantly look for and destroy those cells. Russian honey bees are very sensitive to the environment and raise brood only when the nectar and pollen are flowing.They don’t like crowded colonies and even if a hive does not look overpopulated to you, they may not agree and will swarm.

Caucasian honey bees

Slow to populate its colony and very gentle, the Caucasian honey bee has a very unique physical trait. It has a very long tongue which lets them get at nectar deep in flowers other bees can’t. That’s the good news. The bad news is Caucasian honey bees also produce a lot of propolis compared to other varieties. Propolis is a type of sticky resin beekeepers call “bee glue.” The bees use it to patch up any cracks or holes in the hive. But left to their own devices, they will also use it to glue together different parts of the hive. Propolis is an amazingly strong glue and it can make it very difficult to open up the hive if the bees have glued the lid shut. This means you will want to check on the hive boxes frequently and scrape off any extra propolis.

Once you have decided what bees you want, all that’s left to do is place the order, sit back and dream of spring. Beekeepers will tell you the real joy of an active colony is watching thousands of bees doing what they do best — pollinating flowers, collecting nectar and creating sweet honey.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.