There’s one breed of honey bee that’s familiar to just about any beekeeper, whether you’re only getting started or have been doing it for many years.
In fact, they’re so common that they’ve become the standard. Even if you’ve never kept bees yourself, most honey bees you’ve spotted out and about are probably Italian honey bees.
These honey bees are the most popular species among beekeepers, both hobby and professional. Read on to learn about Italian honey bees and why they’ve become so well-loved in the beekeeping community.
Italian Honey Bee Basics
The Italian honey bee, Apis mellifera ligustica, is a subspecies of the Western honey bee.
Many other related breeds were either founded on the genetics of Italian honey bees or were at least cross-bred with them at some point.
If you’ve ever purchased package bees or a nucleus colony from a beekeeping supply store and the breed wasn’t specified, chances are they were Italian honey bees. Many smaller local companies also sell a mixed breed that includes Italian genetics.
It’s nearly impossible to prevent nearby colonies from cross-breeding with each other. Since Italian honey bees have become ubiquitous, many beekeepers will end up with Italian mix honey bees regardless of what they start with.
Origin of the Italian Honey Bee
The earliest instance of the Italian honey bee is not entirely certain. It’s most likely that they originally come from Italy’s continental region, south of the Alps and north of Sicily.
As a result of their environment, as they evolved, these bees are best adapted to the Mediterranean climate. They do best in heat and humidity.
Where to Find Them Now
Italian honey bees are currently the most popular bee to keep domestically and have been for quite some time.
These honey bees were originally brought from Italy to Great Britain in 1859 where they were considered far better than the resident species, the Old British Black bee.
Today they’re found in many different parts of the world as they can usually adapt to living in a variety of different climates.
Italian honey bees have the classic honey bee look with their dark brown or black and golden yellow stripes.
Some strains can vary a bit, including a darker “leather” color, medium yellow, and pale yellow.
Italian honey bees tend to be a little bit smaller than breeds that are darker. The drones of this subspecies are larger and more stout than the workers. They also have bigger eyes that meet at the top of their heads.
All of the female bees, both the workers and the queen, have barbed stingers with an internal venom sac. The drones lack stingers and venom.
Queens have a long abdomen and gold legs with a shiny black thorax. They can vary in color from gold to deep brown. The best way to spot an unmarked Italian queen is to look for her black fuzz-less back and wings that look short compared to the rest of her body.
Are Italian Honey Bees the Best Choice?
There are many positive traits that make Italian honey bees ideal for so many beekeepers.
However, that doesn’t mean they are the right kind of bee for everyone. Many factors determine what bees will be most successful for the individual beekeeper, including climate, productivity, behavior, and environment.
What Makes the Italian Honey Bee so Popular
Most beekeepers have had Italian honey bees or a mix at some point in their beekeeping journey because there are so many factors that have made them as popular as they are today.
They’re a common choice for backyard beekeepers with small apiaries as well as large commercial apiaries.
They’re well known for their gentle and hard-working dispositions. They’re industrious with regard to foraging and building out comb, and they have a fair amount of disease resistance. Italian honey bees are also less likely to swarm.
A Good Attitude
Their lack of aggression is probably one of the most desirable traits of the Italian honey bee.
This makes hive inspections easier, faster, and much more pleasant when you aren’t at risk of being stung. It’s also beneficial if you live in a more populated area with close neighbors. While most bees won’t attack while they’re out foraging, you get better peace of mind from the gentle Italian honey bee.
Swarm season can be a stressful time of year with breeds that are prone to this kind of behavior. Fortunately, Italian honey bees are not usually so quick to look for a new place to live as long as they’re generally content.
Italian honey bees can forage from a wide variety of plants, being small enough to fit into most flowers larger pollinators would skip over.
They also have a proboscis, or tongue, that’s long enough to access hard-to-reach nectar. making them very efficient and capable foragers.
A Clean Bee Is a Healthy Bee
Part of the reason why they don’t succumb to disease too easily is due to their hygienic behavior.
Italian honey bees tend to groom each other regularly which helps control mite infestations. They also keep a tidy and sanitary hive, removing dead bees, diseased brood, and other debris. This often helps keep many other kinds of pests in check as well that may have found their way into the colony.
The way these bees use propolis is considered ideal for a lot of beekeepers.
They don’t usually produce and apply it in excess, so it’s easier to perform inspections and separate the hive components. They still make enough that you could harvest the propolis if you like.
Happy to Make Honey
An unexpected frustration for many beekeepers is when the bees don’t go up into the honey supers, leaving you with nothing to harvest and potentially causing other problems.
Italian honey bees tend to be more easygoing and will usually start using supers without any problems. They typically start building comb and storing nectar to make honey right away.
The resulting frames hold beautiful white-capped honey. Some beekeepers like to sell cut comb, and these bees make very attractive honeycomb.
Negative Traits of the Italian Honey Bee
While they certainly earn their status as the most popular species of honey bee, Italian honey bees still have weaknesses.
For unknown reasons, it seems that the lighter varieties have these drawbacks to a higher degree. They also appear unable to effectively ration their food stores and are more susceptible to certain diseases compared to the darker strains.
Warm Weather Preferred
Because they originated in the Mediterranean region, they tend to struggle with hard winters and wet springs. They’re much better adapted to humid tropical weather patterns.
While they are known to be relatively adaptable, they sometimes need a bit of assistance and proper management in order to ensure their survival.
It’s a bit more difficult for them to stay warm through colder months as they don’t cluster as tightly as other breeds. As a result, they have to eat a lot more of their stored honey and may not have enough to last them.
An Overabundance of Brood
This cold intolerance is paired with their pattern of starting brood late in the fall with a larger population to feed as just they enter the sparsest time of year.
Even in warmer months, Italian honey bees are often prone to overpopulation and don’t sufficiently adjust their population according to the nectar flow in their area. Again, this means they can easily run out of food and lead to starvation.
Italian honey bees don’t navigate as well as other species and are more likely to drift to another colony or fail to find their way home.
They will usually forage in shorter distances and stay closer to the hive to avoid getting lost. However, this does give them fewer flowers to gather nectar and pollen from in their more limited flight range.
Italian Honey Bees Win the Prize for Popularity
Italian honey bees are a great bee for anyone just getting into beekeeping as well as experienced commercial operations.
Most people have positive experiences with Italian honey bees and are able to keep them successfully almost anywhere with the right preparation.
A calm and friendly colony makes hive inspections much more enjoyable whether you’re a seasoned pro or just getting started. If you’re looking for honey producers, they always work hard to forage and build comb.
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!