The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Comb Honey Corner

Which Honey Comb Races are Best for Comb Honey Production?

- December 1, 2015 - Ray Nabors - (excerpt)

The many different races of bees are a result of natural selection for adaptation to geographic locations throughout the world. The naturally selected traits do little to make bees well adapted to modern beekeeping economics.  There are many distinct geographic races. Only a few have been introduced into the Western Hemisphere. We will examine the main races available in North America and consider their value in comb honey production here in temperate climates.

Different races of bees all have advantages for beekeeping. However, every race of bees has undesirable characteristics as well. These various characteristics can help or hinder comb honey production. The value of various races increases or decreases regarding geographic location. Pollen flow periods and nectar availability periods vary from one place to another. Which race of bees is best adapted to your location should be given serious deliberation. That decision is most critical when comb honey production is your objective.

Apis mellifera scutellata — The African bee’s genetics are part of the bee population genetics in parts of North America now. The most devastating effect for comb honey production is not necessarily the aggressive defensive behavior. Africanized bees are much more prone to swarm or abscond. A new package of bees may abscond after apparently accepting a new hive body. Africanized bees will leave brood behind and move on after a month of residence in a new hive. This behavior was most uncommon if not absent before African genetics arrived in the Western Hemisphere.

Bees with African genetics will swarm in the fall. This behavior was non-existent or extremely rare before the Africanization of our bees. Some bees have always been more defensively aggressive than other bees. Africanized bees bring this characteristic to a whole new level. In African history below the Sahara, bees were robbed not kept. Bee robbers would pick the easy targets first, thus selecting for aggressive defensive behavior. Honey badgers and other African animals, as well as people on that continent rob bees.  The one advantage is that some African traits seem to handle Varroa destructor better than European races.
Apis mellifera ligustica — The Italian race of honey bee is the most popular bee in the history of our nation. These Italian bees have numerous advantages. Italian bees are foremost, generally more productive than other races. Italians overwinter well in most of our country. They start brood rearing earlier than other races. This bee is less prone to swarming than other races. Italian bees are generally less aggressive than most other races.  Italian bees are conservative in their use of propolis which is a distinct asset for comb honey producers. The Italian colony expels drones earlier in the season. They would rarely if ever swarm late in the season.

Italian bees do have undesirable characteristics. This bee is more prone to robbing than other races. They will quickly annihilate weaker colonies. They do not overwinter as well as some races in colder climates. Italian colonies use more stores and must be fed more or have more honey left on them than other races. Italian bees will keep brood production going after a nectar flow stops if honey is available. An Italian colony will have more drone comb than colonies of other races. Winter losses with Italian bees can be greater if they continue to raise brood with stored honey or feed.

The characteristics of early spring build up makes this bee ideal for honey production in temperate forest areas. In the United States that would include most areas from the Ozark Plateau east to the Atlantic Ocean. If your main honey crop is gathered in April and May; then Italian bees are probably your best choice of the races available in North America. The Italian bees on our continent have hygienic behaviors bred into them. This helps with mite control and disease control.

The strongest honey flow is required for comb honey production, regardless of race. If your strongest flow occurs early in the spring, then Italian bees are most likely to  be ready early and take advantage of that early honey flow. Typically, trees bloom early in the spring. Here in the center of the country Maples will bloom in February.

Apis mellifera caucasica — The Caucasian bee is gentle. This is the most gentle bee known. Caucasians do not run on the combs. This bee produces strong colonies, but they swarm less than other races. All is not perfect with these bees. Their use of propolis is renowned. They will seal their hive entrance almost shut. Frames in the hive will be difficult to pry apart. They must be worked frequently if you intend to get the frames loose at all. This bee is slow to build up and a later honey flow or longer flow favors the Caucasian. The Caucasian colony is susceptible to Nosema. Caucasians produce less honey and their cappings are flat in the honey. Caucasians are more prone to drift than other races of bees.

Where would Caucasian bees fit in our landscape? We need a place with …