You might be surprised to learn that there is a breed of honey bee that doesn’t look quite like your average black-and-yellow-striped bee. The German bee has quite a few very unique characteristics, including its black coloring and even ties to Nazi Germany.
This subspecies has become rare compared to its relatives but is still fascinating and coveted by many beekeepers. Read on to learn all about the German honey bee, its complicated history, and the attributes that make it unlike any other honey bee.
What Is the German Bee?
The German bee is a subspecies of the Western honey bee Apis mellifera mellifera or Apis m. mellifera.
They are also referred to as the European dark bee, German dark bee, and Black German bee. What they’re called is sometimes based on their geographic region.
For instance, when found in England, they are referred to as the British Black bee. In Ireland, they may be called the Native Irish honey bee (despite not being native to Ireland at all). Other regional names include the Cornish Black bee and Nordic Brown bee. In all of these instances, they are actually the same subspecies.
The German bee is considered endangered and rare. Due to this, they are not usually kept commercially but have contributed their genetics to many other subspecies around the world.
History of German Bees
The first ancestors of the German bee originally evolved in central Asia and made their way to Northern Europe thousands of years ago.
They originally lived in parts of Russia, through northern Europe, and the Pyrenees mountain range. They were actually the first official breed established in northwestern Europe.
German honey bees were brought to North America in 1622 and were known as the English Fly by Indigenous people.
During World War II, the German bee was protected and promoted by the Nazis in 1937. The regime went so far as to ban the importation of any other honey bees to regulate breeding as part of their Blood and Soil program.
There are several countries that have made it illegal in the past to keep any other breed of honeybee, though this is no longer the case.
Unique Traits of the German Bee
German bees are different from other honey bee species in several important ways that make them very unique.
Interestingly, they do have quite a few negative attributes compared to other intentionally bred species. Even still, they remain a distinct species that many beekeepers are motivated to keep alive and well-populated.
The most easily observed difference between German honey bees and their relatives is their physical appearance.
They definitely don’t have the same classic honey bee look that most people are familiar with. They are a bit larger than most honey bees with a stockier overall body shape.
Most significantly, their color is a dark brownish black, sometimes with a few light yellow spots. They tend not to have the striping pattern that honey bees are known for.
This subspecies tends to have a very fuzzy thorax, but less fuzz elsewhere compared to other honey bees.
Unfortunately, some of the physical characteristics of German honey bees make them less effective foragers.
Their shorter tongues and larger body size make gathering nectar and pollen more difficult. They may be unable to access smaller flowers or reach into more narrow spaces for nectar. This also makes them less effective pollinators, so they don’t contribute to the ecosystem as much in this way.
However, they are very hard-working and motivated foragers which help to make up for their limitations in reaching nectar and pollen.
Unlike many breeds, German bees are not bred to have a docile demeanor. In fact, they tend to be more aggressive and can pass this unfortunate trait on to their offspring.
Adding to their natural aggression is an increased nervousness. This makes them more likely to perceive something as a threat and go after it with little provocation.
As a result, many beekeepers find that it’s much slower and more difficult to inspect hives. Keepers of German honey bees will have to move more cautiously and deliberately to avoid upsetting the colony. It’s also common that beekeepers will need to use more smoke to deter attacks.
While it can be a bit annoying to inspect the hives of these bees, they’re skilled at defending the hive from wildlife that might be looking for a honey or larvae snack. They can also fight off robbers, such as honey bees from other colonies or wasps, due to their nervous and alert disposition.
Some beekeepers feel that aggressive bees are more productive in making honey, so they’re willing to deal with this behavior.
Swarming and Brood
German bees are more likely to swarm for various reasons. The main reason is how they manage their population which can lead to a lack of available space in the hive.
They aren’t particularly adept at expanding their colonies in the spring and will often wait until later in the year. This may cause them to miss the nectar flow or have too large of a population heading into colder months.
They will almost always mate with the same subspecies as queens are much more selective and likely to mate closer to their hive. While this is good for maintaining the breed, it also makes them more prone to inbreeding. In turn, they can also become even more aggressive.
The workers are at a higher risk of deciding to ball the queen and superseding her, though the reasons why aren’t exactly known.
On the positive side, German honey bees are very industrious when it comes to rearing brood. Once they get into the later spring and summer, they will start to increase their population quickly. For beekeepers with a coinciding nectar flow, this is definitely a benefit.
They are specially evolved in several ways, and it’s these adaptations where the German honey bee really proves its worth.
Honey bees as a whole can be sensitive to climate and changes in season. This subspecies is able to tolerate colder, wetter climates, which much of Europe experiences in the winter.
This means they can fly and work adequately in a wider variety of weather and they can usually make a lot of honey as a result.
They can start foraging earlier in the spring and continue later into fall before other honey bees are warm enough. They can also begin each day of foraging earlier and stay out later as well.
Hygiene and Disease Resistance
Hygiene is a crucial trait in any species of honey bee as it can help avoid pest infestations and the resulting diseases that pests transmit. Unfortunately, German bees aren’t typically known for their hygienic behaviors when it comes to pests.
These bees typically have poor varroa mite management, so it will be up to the beekeeper to test and treat to keep mite populations in check.
This type of management involves workers grooming each other to remove and kill mites. Hygienic bees will also remove and discard brood that has mites already hiding out inside the cell. German honey bees aren’t very good at keeping up with mite infestations in general.
They have also historically been known to struggle with tracheal mites that significantly decreased their global population, allowing other subspecies to gain popularity.
German bees seem to be more susceptible to many diseases as well. When they were being bred in Nazi Germany, they were heavily afflicted by nosema, a fungal disease that can cause digestive issues and is often fatal.
Brood disease is another concern for this subspecies. If brood becomes sick, the workers are less able to effectively manage it and the colony population can take a severe hit.
Despite all of this, the German honey bee is quite adept at keeping the actual hive clean. They regularly sanitize the inside, and beekeepers of this breed can often see a distinct cleanliness. Workers are diligent about removing dead bees and other undesirable debris.
The German Bee Is All Business
Despite their behavioral and health issues, German honey bees work hard and are well-loved by many beekeepers. In fact, there are several conservation efforts in the works to build their population and preserve this subspecies.
They’re certainly distinct with their black color, stout bodies, and readiness to defend their hive against intruders of any kind–even their own beekeeper.
They often fare better than their relatives who don’t tolerate lower temperatures as well as they do. In certain parts of the world, this makes them among the best and most active subspecies of honeybee.
Interested in learning more about these miraculous pollinators? Visit my bees page to learn all about the different roles within the beehive, different bee species, beekeeping, and more!
- About the Author
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Hope Schwartz-Leeper is an avid reader, writer, and lover of all things nature with degrees in English and Philosophy.
Born and raised in the Northeast, Hope has always had an affinity for spending time outside. Growing up and attending college in New York, then living on Cape Cod and finally settling in Rhode Island has given her plenty of experience with the climate and environment of these areas.
She loves growing her own food and plants and is always trying to grow something new. She’s hoping her apple trees will one day bear fruit, but for now she’s excited about anything that comes from the garden.