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Russian Honey Bees: Their History and Care

If you’re a beekeeper, or interested in becoming one, you have so many different choices to make when it comes to your apiary. Unless you plan on catching a swarm, you’ll even have to decide what kind of bees to start with.

Many beekeepers love the Russian honey bee, a subspecies known for its hard work, even if they can be a little bit grumpy sometimes. Learn all about Russian honey bees, their positive traits, and whether or not you should bring them into your apiary.

Russian Honey Bee

Understanding the Russian Honey Bee

The Russian honey bee is a subspecies of the Western honey bee and looks very similar to a lot of their relatives. They have the classic gold and black striped look that honey bees are known for.

They’re a very hardy and sought-after breed for beekeepers who want bees that will make a lot of honey, overwinter successfully, and resist health problems with less human intervention.

Russian Honey Bee Origin

Russian honey bees originally come from the Primorsky Krai region of Russia, an area in the southeasternmost corner of the country.

Imports to the United States

Historically, the Russian honey bee has experienced a population decline as a result of mite infestations in the past.

In 1997 they were imported to the US by the USDA’s Honeybee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Laboratory in Louisiana. This was partly in an effort to bring their numbers back up through improving their genetics and disease resistance.

Current Status

Today, Russian honey bees are becoming more and more popular. They’re a common breed option when buying packages and nucleus colonies from beekeeping supply companies.

Russian Honey Bees

The breeding program is currently overseen by the Russian Honey Bee Breeders Association or RHBA. The Baton Rouge Bee Laboratory remains part of their breeding program in North America as well.

What Makes Russian Honey Bees Different

Russian honey bees are becoming more popular for their hardiness and honey production abilities.

These advantages are worth the trade-off of a more aggressive colony for many beekeepers.

They can also be cross-bred with other subspecies, passing on more of their desired traits to help develop colonies that produce a lot of honey and fare well in colder conditions.

The Russian honey bee breed is continually being improved for better health and vigor in their genetics to this day.

Excellent Honey Production

Russian honey bees are very well known for making a lot of honey in a short amount of time.

They’re motivated and diligent foragers, gathering and storing tons of nectar to evaporate into honey. They can also forage in less ideal weather compared to other honey bee species. They can more easily tolerate cold and wet weather without getting stuck in the hive.

More Aggressive Behavior

The other trait Russian honey bees are known for is being more aggressive.

This applies not only to potential intruders but also to newly introduced queens. They typically take longer to accept an outside queen that’s brought into the hive.

They’re very protective of their hive, which helps them fight off robbers such as other honey bees or different species of wasps. They can even scare off larger animals looking for a quick snack.

Russian Honey Bees Fighting

Unfortunately, this protectiveness also applies to beekeepers. Inspections of Russian honey bee hives can be more difficult with guard bees constantly on the offensive. Beekeepers will have to be more cautious, move more slowly to avoid upsetting them, and likely use their smoker more liberally to avoid stings.

Resistance to Pests and Diseases

Another major benefit to keeping Russian honey bees is their general resistance to pests and diseases. A beekeeper can do everything right and still lose entire colonies to health problems, so this resistance is a big deal in maintaining a successful and healthy apiary.

They display excellent hygienic behaviors that help them deal with pests. They’re much better at handling varroa mites, for instance, than other honey bees. They are more than twice as resistant to them overall and are much more aggressive toward a mite infestation.

Interestingly, they have the ability to know which mites are female in capped brood cells and will uncap them. This not only removes active mites, but also works to keep the population down over time with fewer females who can continue to reproduce.

Russian honey bees are also known to be resistant to tracheal mites for the same reasons. While the mites themselves aren’t desirable in the hive, they also act as vectors for various diseases that can devastate a colony.

Bee Mite

These bees are very aggressive toward small hive beetles to keep them from infesting and breeding before they’re able to get out of control.

They are less prone to American Foul Brood, a disease that is highly transmittable between hives and can cause problems for numerous apiaries in a single area.

Best of all, Russian honey bees will pass their pest and disease resistance on in their genetics. This benefits both the breed itself as well as any other subspecies they might cross-breed with.

Environmental Cues

Beekeepers who live in colder climates often choose Russian honey bees because of how well they fare in cooler temperatures.

They tend to have an easier time surviving through winter and have excellent population management based on available resources. If they’re unable to find nectar and pollen in abundance, they won’t raise as much brood to ensure they always have enough food.

In the spring, they will grow their population more slowly to time it just right with when pollen starts coming into the hive.

Prone to Swarming

One unfortunate characteristic of the Russian honey bee is their increased likelihood of swarming.

They’re known to frequently create queen cells and are very quick to replace their queen if they don’t feel she’s doing an adequate job.

Bee Swarm

Beekeepers who keep Russian honey bees should be sure to provide plenty of space for the bees to expand their brood and supply storage. This can help reduce the risk of swarming as they’ll be less likely to run out of room and need to look elsewhere.

Wrapping up Russian Honey Bees

What Russian honey bees lack in friendliness they more than make up for in productivity. It’s also a huge benefit to worry a little bit less that they’ll survive the winter if you live in a cold area, which can be tough for any kind of insect.

Fans of these bees like them for a reason, and many swear by them. It’s not unusual to speak with beekeepers who firmly believe that more aggressive bees will produce much more honey. They’re more than happy to be patient and work their hives more slowly in exchange for being able to harvest more honey.

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!