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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Honey bee races

There is sometimes confusion over what constitutes a subspecies or a race of honey bees.  The differentiation is based either on morphometry: the measurement of body parts such as wing veins, tongue and hair lengths, or on genetic analysis which is rapidly increasing our understanding of the relationships between various species and races of honey bees.

The great range of habitats with different climates (across Africa, Europe, the Middle East) where Apis mellifera occurs naturally, has enabled the evolution of significant variation in the biology and behaviour of this species of honey bee in these different environments.  There are therefore many races of Apis mellifera, and the race being utilised can have a considerable impact on practical beekeeping.  There is also great variation within races, and selection and hybridisation between races has resulted in considerable differences in honey bee types.  These differences can significantly affect the suitability of a particular race to be productive in a given location.  A race of bees that does well in one place will not automatically do well in another.

This has been dramatically shown by the rapid displacement of the European derived Apis mellifera honey bees that were used by beekeepers in South and Central America before the arrival of the 'Africanised bees' that were first introduced to Brazil in 1956.  These are now the predominant races of Apis mellifera throughout tropical areas of South and Central America and the southern states of the USA.  These bees, known as African bees in the Americas, have different biological and behavioural characteristics to European races of Apis mellifera.  The import and subsequent escape and feral development of the original African bees demonstrates how much better adapted they were to the tropical environment.

Like Apis mellifera, Apis cerana occurs naturally across a very wide geographical area, from temperate zone in the north to tropical Asia, and has a number of races.  These races differ in their biology and behaviour, and the race being utilised may have profound effects on the viability of beekeeping with Apis cerana in different parts of Asia.  In some countries, problems with managing tropical races of Apis cerana have resulted in pressure to import the exotic species Apis mellifera with all the associated problems that this may engender.

In practice, the most productive honey bee race in any given district is likely to be the existing, locally adapted honey bees especially where these have had some additional bee breeding or selection activity for appropriate characteristics undertaken by local beekeepers.


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