Beginning way back into Egyptian times, there’s been a strong history of the use of honey. It’s one of the oldest foods known to man and will store longer, safely, than any other food known.
It has medicinal properties aside from nourishing the body. But where does this superfood come from? We all know it’s made by honeybees. But did you know that there are 20,000 different races and species of honeybees. If you ever wanted to become a beekeeper and raise your own honey, you need to do a lot of research before investing in bees for honey.
Selection of bees is the most important decision you’ll have to make. There are many races and species with many different traits and characteristics. I have listed here the most popular bees for beekeeping for honey production. Keep in mind that almost any bees that you will find today are more than likely going to be hybrids or combinations of race and species bred for the best of traits and characteristics used to improve the stock. Whether for disease resistance, lack of aggression , production of honey, etc. The problem is that sometimes less desirable traits are also passed on. The only way to ensure that this doesn’t happen is by artificial insemination, where genes that cause the less desirable traits can be separated. Talk with others who keep bees in your area and find out what kinds are better suited for your climate and level of expertise.
Let’s begin with the 3 types of bees in a working hive. The most important bee in each hive is, the queen. She will be larger than the others and usually in the middle. Her job is strictly to reproduce or lay eggs, which is initiated in early spring when the flowers begin to bloom or pollen is brought to the hive. Egg production continues until no more pollen is brought to the hive. The queen can lay as many as 2000 eggs per day and can live as long as 5 years. She is usually replaced after 3 years, however, as a younger queen will lay more eggs. An older queen will usually produce more drones which replace the workers, often without the knowledge of the beekeeper. It’s better to buy a new queen from a reputable source.
The queen also releases what is called, “queen substance”. This is a mixture of chemicals called “Pheramones” that is passed bee to bee in the hive as they share food. The worker will know if the queen dies from the decrease of pheremones, and it will give them a strong urge to rear an “emergency queen” from the youngest eggs. These pheramones also inhibit workers from developing ovaries. After a period of no pheromones, workers could become laying workers. If the pheromones are insufficient or of poor quality, the worker may supercede the queen. This is the reason that most beekeepers use paint to mark the thorax of the queen to make sure it is the proper queen, or to see if she’s been replaced.
Another type of bees in the hive is the worker bees. Worker bees are the smallest and most numerous bees in the castes. Workers have well developed compound eyes, each containing 6500 facets, allowing them to see front, sides,and above and below. They also see all of the colors that we see, with the exception of red which appears black. They also see UV light as a color and can detect polarization of UV light which aids in navigation on cloudy days. They also have 3 simple eyes called ocelli, grouped on
.Drones are the male honey bees whose main job is to fertilize the young queen. Drones are visibly stouter than the workers, possess large distinctive eyes on top of their heads, and have antennae that are longer than workers or the queen. They have smaller mouth parts and don’t tend the brood, produce wax, or collect pollen or nectar. They feed themselves directly from the honey in the hive or will beg food from the workers. Drones are reared in the spring and summer about 4 weeks before the new queens are produced, ensuring there are ample drones to fertilize the “emergency queen”. A typical drone’s day consists of sleeping and patrolling mating sites, which are called Drone Congregation Areas. As food quality decreases, drone production declines. They are driven out of the hive before winter and guarded from returning.
There are around 20,000 races of bees in the superfamily Apoidea, all sharing common traits unique to bees, yet separate from all the other Hymenoptera. Bees get their nutrition from the pollen and nectar of flowers and are completely herbivorous. However, when a lack of food presents itself they will attack and consume the bee larvae for the most needed protein.
There are many species of honey bees, Apis, kept around the world. There are even some stingless(native) bees kept in Africa, Australia, and America. There are several species of stingless bees (Meliponines) which belong to the tribe, Meliponini or Meliponinae. These tribes belong to the race of Apidae. The word “stingless” is actually somewhat misleading as a great many of the species in the family of Apdrenidae are incapable of stinging, and instead bite to defend. There are in excess of 500 stingless bees in the world. Australia is home to native Trigona carbonaria. These are smaller than the common honey bees; about the size of a common house fly. This little bee makes its home in hollowed out logs, trees, and rock faces. A simple wooden box with an entry/exit hole will suffice. Most keepers just remove the hive with that part of the tree. As far as honey production goes, if this is your sole purpose, then these are not the bees you want. Stingless bees only produce about 1kg of honey per year. The honey is not like common bee honey at all. Instead it is thin like pancake syrup and has an entirely different taste similar to port or fortified wine, and doesn’t have a very long shelf life. The honey is kept in pots made of resin or gum that are gathered in groups around the corners of the hive or in one bulk area. When harvesting honey, be sure the honey isn’t leaked or dripped into the hive or thru the brood. Just one teaspoon of honey can kill the whole brood.
Man Made hives have countersunk holes in the base of the hive to allow leaked honey to drain These stingless bees are mainly found in tropical and subtropical regions such as Australia, Africa, SE. Asia, Mexico, and Central and South America.
The domesticated honey bees were first introduced to N. America in the 1600’s from the Europeans. The Spanish brought hives to Florida and English settlers brought honeybees to Virginia. These bees have contributed to the Western Hemisphere’s economy ever since. They are simply called Western honeybees or Apis mellifera mellifera, of which there are at least 20 known races. Each race is named for their particular geographic region. Florida is now number three in the nation’s production of honey, with both of the Dakotas in the lead. Florida is also one of the nation’s leading rental agents of hives and an important overwintering destination for colder climate states
One race of bees that is very common and one of the most popular is the Italian honey bee, or Apis mellifera ligustica. These bees originated in ‘The Apennine Peninsula, Italy. These are gentle bees, great honey producers, making them very popular. In 1859, Italian immigrants carried them to the United States, where they’ve thrived. Their negative traits are that they may swarm and rob and aren’t the best navigators. In the US they replaced the Black or German bees.
The Cordovan bee is a subset of the Italian bee. They do well in warm weather, are a bit gentler, but also a bit wilder and rob more. They are bright yellow with no stripes.
The Russian bee or Apis mellifera macedonica, is dark brown to black in color, with a pale abdomen. Originally from the Primorsky Region, they are cold tolerant and overwinter well, mite tolerant, and guard the hive vigilantly. They are thought to be agressive, but will headbutt pests that get too near. They were imported to the US in 1997 to breed mite tolerance into US bees, but were not released to the public until the year 2000.
The Carniolan bee or Apis mellifera carnica, originated in the Austrian Alps, Yugoslavia, and the Danube Valley Region. This bee is dark with brown spots or bands on the abdomen. Best ever at wintering, forage in cool wet weather, gentle, disease resistant, and found in Eastern Europe.
The Buckfast bee or Apis mellifera buckfast, originated in Devon, England in the 20th century at the Buckfast Abbey. They are yellow to brown in color, winter very well and are economic in winter, are mite tolerant, are very gentle, and are great honey producers. They were imported to the US by way of Canada to breed in building up the hives quickly.
The Caucasion bee or Apis mellifera caucasia, originated in the Central Caucasus Mountain Region, between the Black and Caspian Seas, and are Silver to Gray to Dark Brown in color. They have a longer tongue than the Carniolan and are high propolis producers and conserve honey. They do not build honeycombs. They forage on cold days (cold tolerant), and overwinter well.
The Spanish bee or Apis mellifera iberiensis, is a Western honeybee subspecies native to the Iberian Peninsula and Balearic Islands of Spain. They are very cold tolerant so they overwinter well. They are dark brown to Jet black in color; the queen is uniform black. They are prolific and have a high fertility rate which is controlled by environmental conditions. They are breeding sensitive to diseases and only generate one queen to a hive.Their movements are quick and nervous-like. They exhibit traits such as nervousness, quick defensive reactions, and are apt to swarm. The use lots of propolis (bee glue). They always have a couple sentries guarding the entrance to the hive. If the colony is disturbed, the sentries will raise a persistent alarm and will attack anything threatening them for up to 24 hours.
“What about Africanized bees,” you ask? Well, let me tell you that story. In the 1950’s Brazil imported African brown bees to breed with Italian bees to increase their production of honey. In 1957, 26 swarms escaped quarantine and took over South America. In 1985 they made their way to the southern US. These bees are highly aggressive to the point of chasing a person up to a ¼ mile “if they feel threatened”. The problem is that even the slightest vibration can set them off. There have been more than 1000 documented cases of death of humans, horses, and other large animals. They begin foraging younger than other honeybees and often times produce more honey. They also reproduce faster than German bees (Apis mellifera mellifera). They actually originated in Northern Eurasia. They are a difficult race to maintain a healthy colony and are not available in the US, for obvious reasons. There are so many better and safer bees available, why risk it?
Now that you are acquainted with honey bees, if you are still interested in becoming a beekeeper, talk to some other beekeepers about what might work best in your area. Don’t forget to research hives for your area and even talk to your local ag. extension agent about it. Don’t be afraid to talk to local farmers, they are always happy to help when it comes to sustainable farming, plus it would mean more fertilization for their crops.