Nov 02, 2018 by Tristan Copley Smith
The Western honey bee, referred to scientifically as apis mellifera, plays a small but sweet role in the vast, global tapestry of bee species. There are over 20,000 known types of bee, spanning every continent bar Antarctica, and their ancestors have existed for over 80 million years. Bees are impressively pre-historic, global, and even after all this time, they’re still busy.
This article focuses on examining the better known apis varieties. We will dip into their history and the common knowledge of their behaviours and characteristics. Next, we will compare this common knowledge with data gathered from 609 hives in the OSBeehives Network—our global community of internet connected beekeepers—by looking at data from BuzzBox beehive sensors, and hive journals made using the OSBeehives App.
The genus Apis—into which all honey bees fall—is a beautifully diverse bee species, with at least 44 known sub varieties. These are all united by traits of honey production, wax comb production, and living in a colony with a queen. They also demonstrate unique behaviours and characteristics that should be noted by keen beekeepers.
The Western Honey Bee
The European or Western honey bee
Apis mellifera—literally meaning honey-baring bee—is the most widely distributed and domesticated bee species in the world. Known for its striped yellow abdomen, large colony sizes, and propensity for enclosed communal hive-style living spaces (originally dead, hollowed trees) the European bee offers clear behavioural benefits to humans wanting to keep them. For the past 5,000 years, domestication has had a significantly impact on apis Mellifera’s genetics, selectively breeding out aggressive behaviours and prioritising honey production and climate hardiness for their human utility. Due to these characteristics, our taste for honey, and our need for pollination services, apis Mellifera can now be found in many places it never previously existed, such as the USA, Australia, and South East Asia.
For most of history, geographic isolation—impassable areas such as high mountains, barren deserts, and expansive seas—created natural barriers to the spread of bee genetics. For apis Mellifera, the natural boundaries were the seas and oceans surrounding Western Europe (the Atlantic and Mediterranean), up to the Eastern Caucasian mountains and south as far as the Middle East.
Due to geographic pockets within Europe and selective breeding, apis Mellifera has developed a number of unique sub varieties on the continent and beyond. Below we will look at some of the popular sub varieties, though as you can see in the map legend above, there are many more to discover.
Apis Mellifera Mellifera
The Dark or German honey bee species
The name is a bit of a mouthful, so let’s call them apis. M. Mellifera. These bees are a relative newcomer to Europe—if you consider the last Ice Age “relative”—which it is when we appreciate the vast history of bees. Apis m. Mellifera is smallish, stocky, and as the name suggests, ranges in colour from jet black to dark brown. Natives to the UK, Scandinavia, and Germany, these bees are well adjusted to the cold and damp, and should show no hint of yellow colouring in their purest form. However, due to the proliferation of the Italian bee (more on them below) finding a pure variety of apis M. Mellifera is rare. This is a bummer, because when the German and Italian varieties breed, the resulting bees have been known to show significant aggression, as I found when visiting the barefoot beekeeper Phil Chandler earlier this year.
Apis Mellifera Liguistica
The Italian honey bee species
Apis M. Liguistica is the most common sub-variety of apis Mellifera, making it buy and large the most popular variety of domesticated bee in the world. This variety seems to have successfully held out in Italy during the last ice age, and as a result is adapted to a warmer climate than its Northern cousins. Italian bees have been cross bred all over the world with other varieties due to their gentle temperament and industrious production of honey, brood (bee eggs) and wax. Some drawbacks to these guys are their habit of robbing their neighbours of honey, and hive drift, whereby they will, in a most disloyal fashion, join other colonies. Italian bees are also known to gorge on their own honey supplies if ample forage (pollinating plants) are not available
Apis Mellifera Carnica
The Carneolan or Grey honey bee species
Apis M. Carnica originated in Eastern Europe, between Austria, Hungry, Bulgaria and Bosnia and Serbia. This variety is smaller than other European species, and appears grey due to the large amount of hairs on its body. These bees are especially known for being gentle and incredibly easy to work with, making them perfect for backyard beekeepers concerned with aggressive behaviour. They are also known to over Winter with a greatly downsized population, so they do not require great stores of honey over Winter. However, as Spring takes place, apis M. carnica will jump rapidly to life, building up the size of the colony incredibly fast. This can be problematic, as it makes them prone to swarming—backyard beekeepers take note!
Apis Mellifera Caucasica
Caucasian honey bee species
Native to the Caucasus region, whose mountain range divides South-Eastern Europe from Asia, the caucasian honey bee is a large variety. Like the carneolan, they are hairy and can appear grey, also sharing the mild temperament of the carneolan bee. However, they are know to be slow in building up their colony, and fair poorly in the cooler, damper climates of Northern Europe.
Apis Mellifera Iberiensis
The Iberian or Gibraltar honey bee species
This is probably the most unusual variety of Western honey bee—and my personal favourite. These are a small black bee found mostly throughout the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal) but despite sharing the area with the Italian bee, their genetics remain incredibly pure. This is because the drones (or male bees) of this variety are incredibly picky about which kinds of Queens they will mate with—namely only those sharing their own genetics! This makes them pure, but still genetically diverse within their own variety. Another interesting feature of apis M. Iberiensis is their stubborn defence technique. After being intruded upon, they are known to send a sentry group of bees to patrol the surrounding area up to 24hrs after the intruders have left, aggressively attacking anything in their path! Unfortunately, this has given them a bad reputation with local humans, who often destroy their colonies if found.
Apis Mellifera Scutellata
The Africanised honey bee species
Although now synonymous with the “African killer bee” title, apis M. Scutellata is in fact not a great deal genetically different from its European cousins. Originating in Southern Africa, this variety rose to ill-fortuned fame when a group of Scientist in South Eastern Brazil allowed hybrid stock to escape. The scientists, who had been breeding apis M. Scutellata with other European varieties, bred an abnormally aggressive variety, exhibiting unusual behaviours such as an expanded 30 metre patrol radius surrounding their colony. This variety have expanded rapidly through the Americas due to other dominant tendencies, including forcibly taking over other colonies by executing and replacing their natural queen. Also of interest: apis M. Scutellata will send between 3 to 4 times the number of bees to defend against intruders as other varieties of honey bee … so please, wear a proper beekeeping suit.
Other Honey Bee Species
Here we will briefly touch on some other notable varieties of apis, which are not as regularly kept by beekeepers, but are nonetheless fascinating to learn about.
Asiatic or Eastern or Himalayan honey bee
Found in the vast range from Northern India, across South East Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Pilippines and Japan is apis cerana. The smaller size, and less populous colonies of this variety mean they do not produce as much honey as their European counterparts. Because of this, a large number of apis Mellifera varieties have been imported by beekeepers in the region, which may have been good for the honey business, but perhaps not so good for bees. This is because many of the diseases previously isolated to this region, most notably varroa mites, have spread to apis Mellifera, and now becomes globally distributed issue for all apis varieties.
Due to the fact that apis cerana has coexisted with these diseases for several thousands of years, it has adapted better behaviours for dealing with them. An incredibly hygienic variety, it is an expert at clearing and renewing the wax of brood combs, protecting vulnerable bee larvae from pathogens such as varroa.
Other unique adaptations include a hardiness to temperature changes (they can reportedly survive freezing temperatures far better than European bees) and have also developed a means of defending against their particularly large predators such as the asian hornet. They do this by surrounding the large predator in a tight cluster, and vibrating their wing muscles so intensely that the heat generated will cook the covered hornet to death.
Giant honey bee
As the name suggests, apis Dorsata, found in South and South East Asia, is considerably larger than most other honey bee varieties. Unlike apis Mellifera, their colonies do not nest in enclosed cavities, but under hanging trees and rocky cliffs, meaning they cannot be domesticated in hives, like other varieties. Instead, the honey of this group is harvested by climbing to the great heights where they build their colonies, and cutting off the combs directly. You may have seen amazing images of indigenous people harvesting honey and wax from apis dorsata wearing little or no protection--quite an amazing feat, considering how aggressively these giant bees will defend their honey!
OSBeehives Honey Bee Data Analysis
Looking at data from 609 hives in the OSBeehives network, we have found some interesting patterns in the types of bees mentioned above. Although this dataset is not large enough to draw solid conclusions, it is nevertheless interesting to compare.
Let’s look at the honey bee varieties most popular with our users in each country. As of writing, the heaviest concentration of our users reside in the United States, with clusters in many other countries around the world.
In the graph below, we can see some of the conventional knowledge about these varieties coming into play. Most notably, apis Mellifera scutellata (the Africanised honey bee) known for its abnormally aggressive and dominant behaviour, seems to struggle maintaining healthy queens--over 30% of the hives monitored experienced queenlessness over the past 6 months. We can speculate that this data ties into their tendency to expand aggressively into the territory of other bees--these queens may be absconding to assist in the takeover of other hives!
We can also see that apis Mellifera ligustica (the Italian honey bee) seems to have earned its place as the most popular variety. With low levels of all reported abnormalities, our data indicates this is the most stable and predictable variety, at least within the climates it has been kept (most of these users are based around the warm, dry climate of the Mediterranean--this varieties natural home).
Another interesting observation is that the apis M. caucasica, known for its slowness in building up a strong colony, collapsed in over 10% of our samples. This seems to validate it’s less-than-ideal colony strength, as well as its relatively high level of queenlessness.
NOTE: If interested in learning how to stop losing your queen bees, see our previous blog post: Causes and Effects of Loosing a Queen Bee.
We hope you have enjoyed this analysis, and we encourage any beekeepers interested in these studies to join in by downloading the free OSBeehives App, or by joining the BuzzBox network. With more users joining the network, these insights will become ever more powerful and interesting.
Important Note: OSBeehives provides data-driven insights into bee colony health and beekeeping practices. Part of these insights are based on reports by individual beekeepers. While we have made attempts to ensure that the displayed data is correct, OSBeehives is not responsible for any errors, omissions, or the results obtained from the use of this information.