There is a great deal of published information describing differences among the tens of honey bee races now found throughout the world. Italian bees (Apis mellifera ligustica) produce large amounts of brood year around, are very quiet on the combs and somewhat more resistant to American foulbrood than others. Carniolan bees (Apis mellifera carnica), the gray bees of what previously was Yugoslavia, rapidly adjust their brood rearing to the season and have a medium length tongue. The short tongued German bee dark bee (Apis mellifera mellifera) is often defensive and susceptible to disease, while the Caucasian bee (Apis mellifera caucasica) has the longest tongue, is prone to foulbrood infection, and collects a great deal more propolis than the other races. The biogeography of the honey bee is an interesting study in itself. Perhaps the best rendering is that by William Blomstedt, a geographer by training. Something of interest in this map and not often recognized is that Apis mellifera is probably the first invasive insect species, brought to all corners of the globe by humans.
Throughout the history of beekeeping in the U.S., the four major European races of introduced bees mentioned above, have, like the human population, lost their individual identity and disappeared into a great melting pot. A good deal of advice has been written about maximizing honey production, controlling swarming, and other management practices over the years. In the cacophony, however, the predominant race of bee being kept is often ignored. That’s understandable because its difficult to catalog the insects that inhabit a particular colony.
Consider, for example, that any one hive can be a mixture of several races, sometimes called subfamilies. A single queen mated with a number of genetically different drones will produce discrete populations of closely related, but not identical, sisters. These half and quarter sisters relate to each other in subtly differently ways that ultimately affect the whole colony’s behavior.
Unfortunately, current technology does not allow one to quickly and easily determine the exact genetic composition a honey bee colony. Thus, on the market one will see various mixtures of the subspecies above. Most notable are Buckfast, VSH and selected hybrids called Starline and Midnite.
Giving counsel or making management decisions, yet discounting the fact that all bees are not alike, however, can be counterproductive. It is not necessarily the ability to react to the status of individual hives, but rather managing the variability among colonies that better defines the true bee master.
A historical concern of the beekeeping industry is the purposeful introduction of honey bee stock from other parts of the world. This practice is common in both plant and animal breeding programs because it provides what geneticists call “hybrid vigor,” often called “heterosis.”Advantages of hybrid vigor in honey bees include resistance to diseases, increased brood and honey production, and more efficient pollen collection.
Ever since honey bees were first brought to the Americas, there has been legal and illegal importation from practically every part of the Old World. The 1922 U.S. honey bee law prohibited importation of bee genetic material, however, many of the world’s honey bee genes were probably already present in the U.S. population, although often in small, not readily recognized quantities.
The danger from uncontrolled stock importation is possible introduction of exotic honey bee pests/diseases and/or objectionable behavior of colonies that are difficult to manage. This has been dramatically shown with introduction of tracheal and Varroa bee mites, as well as the Africanized honey bee, and more recently small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) into the Americas.
This presents a conundrum. How to increase the genetic variation of honey bees, without possibly introducing unknown consequences via exotic organisms. A pioneer in this effort is the University of Washington’s efforts to bring in sperm from other parts of the world on a controlled basis.
Perhaps the most successful importation in recent years was that by the USDA of so-called Russian bees. This is the only program with true genetic control under the Russian Breeders Association. These are more than likely some offshoot of the Carniolan race (Apis mellifera carnica), and were imported and marketed for their tolerance/resistance to Varroa mites.
Perhaps the strangest of all honey bees is the Cape bee from South African (Apis mellifera capensis). This is the only subspecies where worker bees lay fertile eggs, which have the ability to become what are called “false queens.” This subspecies has the capacity to change beekeeping as we know it should it be exported from its native range.