Apis mellifera honey bees are also known as “western honey bees” and “European honey bees”. It is considered that many of the “pure” bees aren’t totally pure due to interbreeding from other sub-species (races). This has come about in the last few hundred years because man has moved bees into areas they were previously excluded from. This exclusion was caused by a number of barriers including water, mountains and ice, allowing the various sub-species to evolve in isolation to suit the conditions they were in. Sub-species of European honey bees freely interbreed with each other and in some areas of the world there is heavy mongrelisation. When we refer to a particular sub-species we are talking about high, but not total purity.
There are three classifications:-
“Pure”. As mentioned above there are many that aren’t 100% pure, so perhaps greater than 90% is acceptable, although I am happy to be corrected on that.
Hybrid. A hybrid is a cross between two sub-species, but bearing in mind the above, is this the correct term? Several sources quote a hybrid between two strains of the same race, but to me that is a mongrel.
Mongrel. This is where one or both parents is a cross. It is probably a more accurate description of many “hybrids”. In reality many of the colonies in the U.S are mongrels and unless there is a great effort to monostrain an area, this situation will continue. There are pockets of pure bees.
In some areas the European honey bee is not native and they have been introduced. In general they have done well, apart from perhaps the introduction of “Africanised” bees into the American continent. They have done so well in some areas they have contributed greatly to the economy, as well as being good pollinators. It may be argued in some case they have provided unwelcome competition for native pollinators and that may be a concern.
Bee breeders are no different than other livestock breeders and will select for particular traits. It is difficult to say how much the present races vary from the original, but my guess is considerable in some types.
Future blogs will lead you to a few types of bees that I have dealt with in reasonable numbers in my time in beekeeping in the U.S. They are a genuine opinion of my observations and experiences and are here as a guide only. Some past accounts of bees are probably quite biased, not least because writers had an interest – they were trying to sell them. Certainly in the U.K. and Ireland, up until around the start of WW2 there were some pretty wild claims made and much discrediting of other types.
If you are new to beekeeping or are looking for queens it would be sensible to do a little local research first. When writing this I looked at several websites advertising bees and queens. Although they were selling different types some of the claims were remarkably similar – “gentle” or “docile” and “prolific” were quite common, so what is someone who is desperate for bees or a queen to believe? Gentle or docile can and often does mean bad temper after a couple of generations, as bought queens are often imported and pure races or hybrids. Prolific colonies are very large and are suited to much warmer and reliable climates than we get in New England. Just because there are more bees in a hive, doesn’t mean you will always get more honey, because there are more bees and brood to feed when the weather is poor.
In making your choice it is worth remembering that the different sub-species evolved in isolation and the characteristics suited their location. What is good in one area may not be good in another. For some strange reason it is often thought “the grass is always greener etc……” when in reality it often isn’t. We must always remember that shunting bees around the world has given us many of the problems we currently have. Not only has it affected beekeeping, but the bees themselves who have suffered badly.
For a short time we had a member in my local BKA who bought 5 queens of different types “to see what they are like”! He was very inexperienced and didn’t even understand they needed to be managed differently. You simply can’t judge anything when you only have one and not in a short time. He didn’t keep bees very long!
If you are living in an area without varroa it would wreck beekeeping forever if it was introduced. Check locally first before bringing bees in from outside.