A compilation of the effects of Bee Strain on behavior

This summer, three of our home bee colonies swarmed, taking the original queens away with the swarm. For whatever reason, a new queen didn't take, leaving us queenless in Seattle. (Well, Kent actually, but that's besides the point!) In researching which new strain of bee to use, I created a table of advantages and disadvantages of the various strains in order to lead to a better understanding of the various characteristics of the main strains of bees. This information seemed too useful to keep to myself. After all, there are more experienced bee keepers in the world whose experience may not match the article written in the May 1997 issue of Bee Culture magazine (page 32) or the Washington State Bee Keepers Exam booklet from which I gleaned this information.

If you have any data points to add to this, or if your experience is different, please let me know. I'll make changes, corrections, and additions to these tables, and I'll mention you if you wish. This can be useful for everybody, if everybody will help make it useful!

Rich Webb

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  • Reasonably quiet
  • Does not usually run on the combs
  • Good resistance to wax moth and European Foulbrood
  • Do not swarm excessivly. Queens are easy to locate


  • Tendancy to rob, including spread of diseases
  • Do not conserve their stores well
From the Appenine Peninsula in Italy. Does well in temperate and warm climates. Maintains large brood regardless of food supply. Does not do well in cold, wet springs or hot, dry summers. Requires large food stores over winter. Northern hives can easily starve during winter. Does well over long, warm season. Need abundant flora and good weather.

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  • Largest bee strain
  • Gentle disposition
  • Very prolific
  • Not prone to robbing


  • Excessive swarmings
  • Difficult to find the queen
From the mountains of Austria and Yugoslavia. Long, cold winters, short springs and hot summers. Slow spring starters, but good quick colony build up, likely to maintain good stores for over-wintering. Does well in Northern U.S. (New England) if there is no intent to move south for the winter. Good honey producers in adverse conditions.

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  • Gentle disposition
  • Longest tongue of any strain
  • Not prone to swarming
  • Not prone to robbing
  • Good wintering


  • Excessive propolizers
  • Difficult to find the queen
From the Caucasian Mountains near the Black Sea. Humid and sub-tropical at sea level, and warm to cool at higher elevations. Warm and humid to cold and damp. They will fly in cool temperatures and rain despite damp weather. Adjust brood rearing to match local weather. Likely to maintain good stores for over-wintering. Good choice for coastal climates or areas with high rainfall. They do well in warm or cold climates, and when areas where spring is often late, wet and cold. Good honey producers in adverse conditions.

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Comparison of various strains

- Italian Carniolan Caucasian Midnight Buckfast Starline
(Italian hybrid)
Swarming Med High Low Low Low Med
Handling Not so gentle Calm,
Gentlest Gentle Not so
Propolis Med Low Extreme Lots Low Med
Honey Production Best Good Good - - Good
Spring Buildup Slower
(or Rapid)
(or Slower)
Slower Slower Slower Rapid
Disease resistance - - Susceptible - Resistant -

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I need more information on the hybrids....

Good wintering ability. Bred to survive cold winters and late, damp springs.

Does well in warm climates. Good honey producers. Good choice for Southern U.S. and Northern migrators.

Can do well in cool, damp climates.

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From promotional literature distributed by the York Bee Company of Jesup, Georgia:

What is a Starline?
A Starline is a hybrid bee whose inbred lines were derived from the Italian race. These bees are yellow in color with dark stripes and markings. They are vigorous honey producers, and have long been the favorite of commercial honey producers. Their very rapid build-up potential suits them ideally for areas where fast spring build is required. Even though primary selection has been for high honey yields, Starlines are also gentle and winter very well.

What is a Midnite?
A Midnite is a hybrid bee derived from Caucasian sources. The bees of a Midnite queen are dark in color and extremely gentle. In fact, this hybrid was developed expressly for the hobby beekeeper. However, the honey producing capabilities of this hybrid are so improved that many commercial producers are now discovering and using it. In honey production capacity, it is now rivaling the Starline, while still retaining its gentle nature. In belief, dark bees are more resistant to mites.

It all sounds pretty glowing, but then they sell these strains, don't they?

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May 1997 issue of Bee Culture magazine (page 32)
Washington State Beekeepers Association Master Beekeepers Certification Program Certified Beekeeper short course

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Of course, the above is what I've gleaned from the documents in question. There is always the ever popular statement that comes from personal experience. It comes in flavors ranging from the polite "Well, in MY experience, it's always been..." to the ever familiar (and less polite) "You pickle headed fool, there's NO WAY that's true!" (Well, pickle headed is still kind of polite, but you catch my drift. This is the Internet that we're talking about!) So to further the knowledge of mankind, I offer you the OPINION section of my bee strains page...

John Caldeira of Dallas, Texas mentions:

Might be good to add some interpretive data. For instance, in the American south, a slow spring build up is generally GOOD, while in the north the same trait is usually BAD.

Also, it is practically impossible to maintain hybrids of any kind (Midnight, Buckfast, Starline) in the bee yard due to supersedure and swarming.

In addition to the advantages of the Italian that you listed, they can build huge (20 lb+) colonies that produce very large honey crops. On the downside, the Italian bees has a tendency to drift from colony to colony.

Also, you mention in a table that robbing spreads disease, and even if this is true (Is there reliable evidence?), it is an insignificant selection criteria.


I mentioned back at him that I would think that the drifting of the Italians from hive to hive would in fact be a factor in the transmission of, if not diseases, then of parasites. I don't think (but then again, I don't know) that varroa and tracheal mites hang out on flowers just waiting for a bee to swing on by. (Maybe they do, I don't know...) It seems more likely that an infected bee from another hive could easily pass on the contagion by returning to the "wrong" hive, thereby infecting that hive with the parasites.

I'd have to agree that drifting by itself is an insignificant selection criteria. But if you had hives in a bee yard where other keepers had their hives, then the spreading of diseases and parasites might be a real concern. The article that I stole this information from had mentioned it, so I figured that I'd mention it too, just for completeness.

I will also mention that John has his own bee keeping page that you are invited to check out...

Somebody in the Swenson family named Busybee (now who would name their kid Busybee?) wanted to mention that my chart:

looks pretty close to accurate.  I would say the only change based on our experiences would be to switch under spring build up:  Italian to rapid and Carnolian to slower.

Country Jack Griffes mentions that:

But, alas, both can be correct at the same time. What it means is that they wait to buildup later (buildup timing) and then when they start they explode (buildup speed). Thus both are correct and are not contradictory.

Of course with selection you can change the buildup timing (which is why locally selected strains can perform better via better timing for local area winters and flows). In fact you can shift buildup timing later by a month with about two to four years worth of Artificial Insemination (AI) if you start with early builders. You can also select for cluster size and change that just as Sue Cobey has done with New World Carniolan which now winters with large cluster size and has earlier along with vigorous buildup. Variations within strains and races exist and can be selected toward being the point.

Realize though that here in the USA it is more accurate to speak of Carniolan-type bees or Italian-type bees or Caucausian-type bees or German-type bees as none are likely to be pure for the race they represent (particularly if maintained via natural mating = NM) due to biological realities that were not understood when they were brought into USA and/or the colonies it descended from over two centuries ago.

Gary Coleman wrote of his experience with a number of bee strains, and added a suggestion to experiment with raising queens to thrive in a specific area of the country, breeding them to survive the local conditions:

your genotypes are, possibly, (simplisticly) accurate, however your phenotypes are way off. what queen rearer would advertise a strain that swarms exceesively, is runny, propolizes like a big dog or keeps a dirty hive etc., you and your knowledge of genetics (or at least closed population breeding) needs some time alone together.

i've had most major strains of bees sold in the us between 1974 and 1990 (midnites, starlines, caucasians, carniolians, a hastings [carn x cau] breeder, a usda [ carn x cordovan x ?] (these were especially cool because you could pick your specific traits from a list to cross together), homer parks queens, buckfast, weaver itialian wenner 'curneen blacks' (now this is runny!, but they'd fly anytime - under 50 degrees C., dark, damp, rainey, nights -these traits are advantageous to Northern states and alaska because when the nectar flows...........[talk about a stereotype in my experience most italians only would work 9-5 - this was effected by their placement {yard} temperatures etc., ) several carniolian lines (in those days the were derived from usda baton rouge stock {the make your own strain list - still cool} and hastings stock, free flight mated there were some good ones UNtil the mites came! indeed most (successful) lines were maintained by insemination and (unfortunately) inbreeding (this resulted in the loss of [eventually] most strains maintained at baton rouge (cardovan traits survived). Today most successful breeders use a variation of closed pop breeding.... check out www.ohioqueenbreeders [a lot of info in one place] also the article 'state of the art beekeeping ' by alex shigo (look on gleen apiaries site or put in honeybee queen breeders in google).

they were right (though incomplete. or misinformed - the buckfast is not a hybrid [starline and midnite indeed are 4-way hybrids] though may show some (hybridish ?) vigor. Roy Weaver and Brother Adam were extrodinary beekeepers and the buckfast line always served me well in diablo valley orinda (calif.) area. i've had wenner 'kearning blacks', bolling bee caucasians, 3-way (caucasian,carniolian and cordovan) breeders from usda baton rouge (20 something years ago) midnites (i'd never recommend them except for an [extremely] part- time gardener/ beekeeper). and carniolians bucfast hastings carniolian/caucasian hybrids you name it .....

1). from your current selection of bees do you have any exceptional hives see glenn apiaries {on web and at ohioqueenbreeders.com} under nwc [new world carniolian] selection evaluation.' -change [add] race-

2). select queens (race) to buy (decision based on primary problem(s) that need to be fixed (mite infestation foulbrood etc) [generally for your area {since i don't know your location} i'd say nwc queens.

GO BACK TO STEP ONE {repeat with russians, weaver italians , buckfast, etc..based on you're specific needs and their known traits...lotta foulbrood ..add a hygenic...use your unculled survivors (hmm longevity selection)- drones- and one year test new race -queens to zero in on you're niche and avoid inbreeding...also with drone saturation don't worry too much about ferals (they gotta be survivors) may add a little good (wild type)stuff genes and in very short time the ferals will express your gene selection anyway.

I've always liked communicating with persons from the Southern Hemisphere:

Pav from New Zealand, writes:

Hey Outsider

I was just looking at your web page about different strains of bee.

I shook my head when i read that John from Dallas questions that robbing spreads disease (its still shaking).

This has been shown over and over and over...

For AFB this is THE natural way the diease spreads (2nd only to beekeeper assisted spread these days) - hives sick and weak from AFB have their honey robbed by neighbouring hives... repeat ad nauseum.

EFB is also able to spread through contaminated honey, and is even more contagious.

These two are serious enough to weaken and kill hives, allowing wholesale robbing of their contaminated stores. Other diseases i don't specifically know about - but i have no doubt the same applies in many cases.

"Italians - tendancy to rob"... should read: "Italians - rob like bastards"

-Pav from NZ, where the recent varroa introduction means we're looking at importing some new blood for the first time in foompty years...

Check out Pav's home page here for beekeeping pictures and movies...

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This page is authored and maintained by Rich Webb.You can send E-mail to me by following this link to the contact page. And feel free to contact me if you have any comments, criticisms, or suggestions. I remain, however, perfectly capable of ignoring your useless opinion...

And while you're out and about, flitting from one bee keeping page to another, check out my page on the life cycle of honeybees...

This document was last modified on May 9, 2002 and has been viewed countless times...