October 11, 2016

German Black Bee

Honey bees are not native to the New World, although North America has about 4,000 native species of bees. Honey bees were brought to America in the 17th century by the early European settlers. These bees were most likely of the subspecies A. m. mellifera, otherwise known as the German or ‘black’  bee, although they occurred originally from the UK to eastern Central Europe. Native Americans referred to these black bees as ‘white man’s flies’ noting that when honey bees appeared in areas previously devoid of them, European settlers would not be far behind.

This honey bee is very dark in colour and tends to be very defensive, making bee management more difficult. One of the German bees’ more favourable characteristics however is that they are a hardy strain, able to survive long, cold winters in northern climates.

But because of their defensive nature and their susceptibility to many brood diseases, including American and European foulbrood, this strain lost favour among beekeepers well over a century ago and was quickly replaced with Italian Bees . Although until recently the feral bee population in the U.S. was dominated by this strain, newly introduced diseases have almost wiped out most wild honey bee colonies, making the German bee now no longer a strain found in North America.

More about Honey Bee Strains and Hybrids

Russian Hybrid Honey Bees

Russian Hybrid Honey Bees are one of the newer bee stocks in the U.S. The Department of Agriculture’s Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana have produced queens derived from bees found on the far eastern side of Russia in the coastal Primorski region on the Sea of Japan and around Vladivostok.

The researchers’ logic was that these Russian Bees have coexisted for the last 150 years with the devastating ectoparasite Varroa destructor, a mite that is responsible for severe colony losses around the globe. Moreover, they are also highly resistant to tracheal mites, the other major enemy of honey bees here in the West. While these bees are much more expensive than other strains and require special management techniques, they may be the only answer to the Varroa problem. Such stock very importantly also provides a chemical free alternative to pest control.

The USDA tested whether this stock had evolved resistance to varroa and found that it had, with numerous studies showing that bees of this strain have fewer than half the number of mites that are found in standard commercial stocks.

Russian Hybrid bees also tend to rear brood only during times of nectar and pollen flows, so brood rearing and colony populations tend to fluctuate with the environment, thereby suiting them better for areas with more severe and longer winters.

Russian Hybrid Bees also exhibit some unusual behaviour compared to other strains. For example, they tend to have queen cells present in their colonies almost all the time, whereas most other stocks rear queens only during times of swarming or queen replacement. Russian Hybrid bees also perform better when not in the presence of other bee strains as research has shown that cross-contamination from susceptible stocks can lessen the varroa resistance of these bees.

More about Honey Bee Hybrids and Strains

Hybrid Honey Bees

Hybrid bees are produced by crossing several lines or strains of honey bees. This is usually done with the aim of  increasing honey productivity and controlling temperament. More recently hybrids have been developed with a view to controlling diseases and parasites, such as the Varroa mite.

Initially, planned crosses result  in a line of very prolific bees that exhibit what is called hybrid vigour. As long as mating is controlled this vigour can be maintained. Commercial hybrids such as Midnite and Starline are produced by crossing inbred lines that have been developed and maintained for specific characteristics such as gentleness, productivity or over wintering.

Another well-known hybrid the Buckfast Bee is a hybrid selected over a long period of time from many strains of bees from southwestern England. They have been shown to be more resistant to tracheal mites and better suited to the cool climate of that region. Buckfast Bees are also easily available  in the United States.

Other groups of stock such as Russian , SMR, or Hybrid (sometimes Minnesota hybrid) are bees selected for greater mite resistance and/or improved hygienic behaviour (hive cleaning—specifically, dead and dying brood removal), a trait that results in bees ridding their colony more quickly of potential harmful pathogens.

If you are considering purchasing any of these hybrids as with any stock, researching your potential supplier is a good idea if you are uncertain about the claims made concerning the characteristics of the stock. In addition you should also check on the experience of other beekeepers that have used the particular hybrid in your area.

If you use hybrid bees or bees of a selected stock in your operation, you will need to requeen regularly. As allowing natural queen replacement usually leads to loss of hybrid vigour and may even causes colonies to be quite defensive and therefore more difficult to manage.

More on Hybrid and Honey Bee Strains

Major Honey Bee Strains

When ordering bees for the first time new beekeepers may be faced with the decision of which strain or race of bee to order. Honey bees in the United States and most of Europe are a heterogeneous blend of several strains, originating from Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Currently, there are three major strains, Italians, Caucasians and Carniolans. These current day strains are of course not the same as the original ones they were named after, having under gone considerable interbreeding and selection.

It is however still worth looking at the characteristics of these three main honey bee strains and identify the advantages and disadvantages of each.  As you become more experienced  you may wish to experiment with queens and bee packages from different specialist queen breeders and suppliers to learn more about the behaviour and relative productivity of each strain under your local conditions. However do not expect any one strain of bee to have read the text books and behave completely as expected.

Italian Honey Bees

Italians are the most popular honey bee strain in the United States and Western Europe. The Italian bee is lightish yellow or brown with alternating stripes of brown and black on the abdomen. The workers with three abdominal bands are sometimes called leather-coloured Italians and the queens with five bands are sometimes called goldens or cordovan queens.

Italian honey bees tend to start brood rearing early in the spring and continue until late autumn, which results in a large population throughout the active season. Large colonies can collect a considerable amount of nectar in a relatively short period, but they also require more honey for maintenance during  Autumn/Winter than do the darker bee strains. Most strains of Italian bees are considered to be quiet and gentle on the combs.

The disadvantages of Italian Honey Bees include weaker orientation to their hives compared to other strains, which results in more bees drifting from one colony to another and may also be responsible for their stronger inclination to robbing, which in turn can also facilitate the spread of disease. The Italians are however considered good housekeepers and are comparatively resistant to European foulbrood (EFB)—which was the major reason for their initial popularity.

The lighter colour of the Italian queen makes finding her in the hive easier compared to queens of the other two races. Italian honey bees also produce brilliant white honey cappings, which is ideal for producing comb honey.

Caucasian Honey Bees

Caucasian honey bees are usually described as being the gentlest of all honey bees. They are dark brown to black in colour, with greyish bands on the abdomen. They tend to construct a lot of excess comb and also use large amounts of propolis to fasten combs and reduce the size of the entrance. Some of the newer strains, however have been bred to use less propolis. Because they propolise excessively, they are not considered suitable for producing comb honey.

Caucasians are inclined to drifting and robbing but not excessive swarming. Colonies normally do not reach full strength before midsummer and they conserve their honey stores somewhat better than the Italians do. They also forage at somewhat lower temperatures and in less favourable weather conditions than do Italian bees. They have also been found to display some resistance to EFB.

Carniolan Honey Bees

Carniolans are dark bees, similar to Caucasians in appearance, except they often have brown spots or bands on their abdomen. These bees overwinter as small clusters but increase rapidly in the spring after the first pollen becomes available, as a result, they are prone to excessive swarming .

However due to their small overwintering cluster size, they are very economical in their food consumption, even under unfavourable climatic conditions and generally overwinter well. They are also not inclined to robbing, have a good sense of orientation and are quiet on the combs.

More on Hybrid and Honey Bee Strains

Beekeeper’s Role in Combating Africanized Bees

Africanized bees get a bad press and this tends to rub off on beekeeping in general with a lot of people believing that all bees are dangerous and beekeepers simply increase people’s likelihood of getting stung. In fact beekeeping should be encouraged as a way of reducing the problem of Africanized bees as beekeepers are in fact the only ones who are going to be able to reduce the problem.

The reason for this is that without beekeepers, the density of more docile European bees in an area will decrease, leaving that area open to infestation by Africanized bees. Only beekeepers have the knowledge and resources to maintain high densities of European bees that can genetically dilute Africanized populations. It is this dilution and breeding out of the more unpleasant over defensive aggressive traits that will work.

Beekeeping and Africanized Bees

If you are beekeeping in an area with known Africanized bees then you will have to change some of your beekeeping methods. Here are some points to consider:

  • As soon as your colony becomes unusually defensive you should re-queen with a bee from certified European stock.
  • Mark your queens so that you are sure that your colony has not been re-queened with an Africanized one.
  • Place your hives away from where they are likely to be any nuisance to others. Place them by hedges or fences to encourage them to fly upward on leaving their hive, thereby reducing the likelihood of them flying into passer bys.
  • If you bees have become more defensive in the short-term, use more smoke than normal to passify them when inspecting them.
  • Beekeepers will in the short-term need to recognize that the practice of combining several hives on a pallet will not work as the vibration from working one hive disturbs them all. For this reason, beekeepers in Latin America have switched to single hive stands.
  • Consider white-faced veils instead of black as Africanized bees are more attracted to dark objects than Europeans and a white outer surface minimizes bees massing on the veil and obstructing your vision. The interior side of the netting can be black to minimize glare.

More Africanized Bee Information

Reduce the seriousness of an attack by Africanized Bees

As Africanized bees spread across North America, more and more people are  having to adjust to living alongside these bees. Thankfully the incidences of serious attacks are not as frequent as the media would have us believe. However there is no doubt that Africanized bees do prove a serious risk in some circumstances especially to the elderly, the very young and those with a serious life threatening reaction to bee stings.

It is wise therefore to be aware of the best course of action to take if you are attacked by Africanized bees. Here are some things that you can do to reduce the seriousness of the attack.

1. If bees start bumping into you or flying around you or you see that you have disturbed a nest then Run away quickly. Encourage others to drop everything and do the same.

2. The bees will target your face, eyes and neck, so as you run try to pull your shirt or similar garment up over your head to protect yourself, obviously ensuring that you can still see where you are going.

3. Do not flail your arms about or try to the kill bees as crushed bees only emit more alarm pheromones and encourage more bees to join the attack.

4. Continue running until you find shelter in a building or secure vehicle. Africanized bees will chase something they suspect of trying to attack their nests for over a 100 yards. Do not jump into water as the bees will still be there when you come up for air.

5. Once you have reached shelter or have outrun the bees, remove all stingers. When a honey bees stings, it leaves its stinger in the skin, this kills the honey bee so it can only sting you once, but it also means that venom continues to enter into the wound for a short time after. Never pull out the sting with your fingers or with tweezers as this will leave part of the sting in, instead scrape it off with a credit card or your nail.

6. If you see someone being attacked by bees you should call the Emergency Services.

The venom in an Africanized bee sting is no more toxic than a European bee sting, in fact it is slightly less venomous. The problem arises from the sheer number of stings as many more Africanized bees will attack you if they feel threatened than would European honey bees. Most people can tolerate 15-25 stings without requiring special medical treatment, but any more and even those with no allergy to bee stings will start to experience problems.

People with a history of systemic allergic reactions (fainting and breathing problems), however, should always carry with them an emergency kit of injectable epinephrine, use it if they are stung and then immediately seek medical help. Anyone who receives more than 15-25 stings or feels in any way unwell after an attack should also seek medical supervision for possible delayed systemic complications. Severe complications can occur at any stage of your life even if you have never had a previous reaction to stings before, so do not take any risks.

More Killer Bee Information

How to reduce the likelihood of being attacked by Africanized Bees.

As Africanized bees spread across North America more and more people are having to learn to live with these bees and adapt their behaviour, just as they have had to do when living near poisonous snakes or large bears. The first thing to remember is that Africanized bee attacks while being very alarming when they do occur and in some instances fatal, are in fact relatively rare. The movie depiction of angry swarms of  ‘killer bees’ lurking in bushes and trees and then chasing and covering an unsuspecting passer-by in seconds is thankfully far-fetched.

However attacks do occur and even if you are not chased by hundreds of bees, the over defensive behaviour of these insects does mean that if you disturb an Africanized bee’s nest you can be chased and stung by many more bees than if you disturbed most other type of bee. Multiple stings especially in those who are allergic or the elderly or very young can be very serious. Therefore it is worth taking some precautions to reduce the likelihood of an attack by Africanized Bees and here are some suggestions.

  • Check your house and yard at least once a month to see if there are any signs of bees taking up residence. If you do find a swarm or colony, do not touch it. Keep your family and animals away from the bees until you have had it removed or inspected by a pest control company or an experienced beekeeper.
  • It is impossible to prevent Africanized bees from building nests as they will use almost anything for this purpose. But try wherever possible to fill any cracks or gaps in house walls or holes in the ground near to your living area. A tidy yard will also reduce the likelihood of bees building nests, as Africanized bees often nest in piles of refuse or unused materials and are even known to build nests in discarded soda cans.
  • When gardening or clearing, cutting bushes or trees check first for signs of bees coming and going. If in any doubt wear head protection. The same applies if you are using mechanical equipment as bees become very agitated by such noise.
  • If you go hiking try to stay on defined trails, carry bug spray and always carry your cell phone with you in case you have to call for help. You should also consider wearing light coloured clothing as bees are more prone to attack dark things.
  • Avoid wearing strong perfumes as bees are sensitive to odours and these will attract their attention.
  • If bees start to bump into you, behave strangely or follow you, vacate the area quickly, as this is often the first sign that a colony is on the alert and may be about to attack.

These Africanized bees can be alarming and unpredictable but by using common sense and taking sensible precautions you should be able to avoid any serious problems.

More Killer Bee Information

The Difference between European Honey Bees and Killer Bees

There is very little physical difference between a Killer or Africanised Honey Bee and a European Honey Bee. The Africanised Bee is actually very slightly smaller but this difference  is not immediately obvious and often  microscopic analysis is the only way to tell them apart.

The main differences between the two types of bees is to be found in their behaviour and specifically the following:


On average a European honey bee colony will swarm once a year, whereas the Africanised bee will often swarm as often as every six weeks. In addition unlike the European bee when Africanised bees swarm they will often produce two swarms at a time. Swarming is the natural means by which bees replicate and spread. As the numbers in a hive expand a new queen (or queens in the case of  the Africanised ones ) will be produced and once mated these will leave the colony with a large number of the worker bees and honey stores to set up a new colony. By swarming so often Africanised bees are able to spread and populate a wider area considerably quicker than their less ambitious cousins.


As the Africanised bee swarms so frequently their numbers do not usually get as high as European bees so they are happy to occupy much smaller spaces than the Europeans. They will often occupy holes in the ground or trees and even meter boxes, mail boxes, flower pots or soda cans, will be considered. They also do not tend to occupy nests for long whereas European bees will colonise a site for years or as long as it remains weather and predator proof. Africanised bees also do not seem to mind if their nest is unconcealed and open whereas Europeans tend to look for protected sites, sealing up all but one small entrance.


Africanised bees are far more defensive of their brood (young) and their honey stores and it is this behaviour trait that gives them their bad reputations. Unlike European bees, which will normally guard an area of a  few feet around their hive and rarely chase a potential predator for any distance or send out more than a couple of bees to investigate; Africanised bees  will guard up to 100 yards and will come out of their nests in large numbers to defend that area.


The Sting from an Africanised bee is no worse than a European bee and like them they can only sting once. The problem for anyone encountering these bees comes from their tendency to attack in greater numbers thereby inflicting multiple stings, which tend to be focused on the head and neck areas.

More Killer Bee Information

Killer Bee Facts and Fiction

The Africanised honey bee or ‘Killer bee’ is widely feared by the public, a reaction that has been encouraged by sensationalist movies and exaggerated media reports. Although this bee is much more aggressive than a European honey bee, stings from Africanised bees kill only 1-2 people per year in the United States which is a similar figure to that of wasps and European honey bees.

Killer bees are a hybrid of African and European honey bee species and were accidentally introduced into the ecosystem from a laboratory in Brazil in 1956, where scientists were attempting to create a strain of bee with improved honey production.

The Africanised queens and consequently the colonies escaped, swarmed and began to quickly establish themselves throughout South and Central America. The first sign of Africanised bees in the United States was in October 1990, in Southern Texas. The bee then spread steadily across the southern part of the United States where the winters are mild and the summers are very warm. However scientists and entomologists believe that the Africanised bees are now adapting to colder climates and roaming further north at an average rate of 2 miles per day. If this projection is true, it could become a major problem to the European honey bee within the United States and possibly eventually even Europe.

How to Identify a Killer Bee .

People are often surprised to learn that killer bees are in fact slightly smaller in size than European bees. They are however virtually indistinguishable from each other when viewed with the naked eye and precise identification can only be done microscopically.

The Africanised bee will become agitated as a result of a perceived threat ten times quicker than a European bee. The latter will stay closer to their hive to defend it if they feel threatened and most of the colony will stay inside and start working to remove their honey stores, leaving just a few guard bees to see off the threat. However Africanised bees will leave their hive en masse’ to defend it, surrounding the perpetrator and inflicting as many stings as possible and are also likely to give chase for up to a quarter of a mile. It is this behaviour pattern that has led to them being called ‘Killer bees’. One of the main reasons why they behave in such an aggressive collective manner is that unlike the European honey bee their main focus is not on their honey stores, but on multiplying their numbers. This is because they are originally adapted to live in warm climates where winter hibernation is not necessary and therefore the need for large honey stores does not arise. For this reason they collect much more pollen (necessary for growth in young) and as a result are in fact better pollinators.


European honey bees rarely build nests on the ground or in exposed locations, whereas Africanised bees will build a nest anywhere they can find a hole large enough to fit through and their nests are much smaller. If they cannot find a suitable concealed location they will nest in the ground or in tree branches. The Africanised bees will often invade a European bee colony replacing its queen with one of their own.


European honey bees swarm once or twice a year, whereas the Africanised honey bees swarms ten times or more a year allowing them to colonize much larger areas. Furthermore, the Africanised bees will completely abandon or ‘abscond!’ from their nests whenever environmental factors become unfavourable, whereas European honey bees rarely ever abandon a nest completely.

The Future

Africanised bees are effectively a work in progress as they continue to breed with European bees. Scientists and beekeepers however are now using selective breeding programmes to try to control and manage the problem. In particular it is recognised that the African bee has a lot of positive traits, for example it is more disease and pest resistant than the European bee and is a more active forager. Therefore by selecting these traits in addition to trying to breed out its aggressive ones, the end result may be more favourable than was once feared.

By Maggie Roberts

To learn more about Beekeeping see http://www.beekeepingbeesandhoney.com/