The honeybee is one of the first animals
to be domesticated by man for the obvious purpose of profiting
from its lovely and useful products (honey and wax).
Bee keeping - or Apiculture - is an old
science. More than three thousand years ago there was already
a deep knowledge of this insect and its behaviour.
The basis of this science, art and sport
was already established, though with obvious mistakes that
time has proved wrong. But considering the technological limitations
of those days, almost everything to be known about the empirical
ways of bees was already known in the ancient, though developed
cultures of the world (China, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt,
Greece and Rome).
Nothing relevant or even new came into this
science for thousands of years, since the time of the ancient
Greeks. The swarms were trapped the same way, the hives were
also built in ancestral ways, the honey and wax was collected
by the same systems (and still is in some parts of the world,
including Eivissa). It was not until the second half of the
XIX century that a new revolution in this science did happen
and modern Apiculture started.
Most of these new ideas for the progress
of this science came from America. The US citizen Langstroth,
who invented a new type of hive, with extraordinary results
for the bees' production, is considered to be the father of
modern Apiculture. It was also in America, with the introduction
of different races of honeybees, where the selection and the
crossing of different types could be studied in a more scientific
way. The results were spectacular and the real Apiculture,
as a solid industry, begun.
We ended our first chapter talking about
the different "varieties" of the specie "Apis
melliphica": the honeybee.
In modern times and for practical terms,
Root divides the honeybees into two main groups or sub-species,
the black ones and the yellow ones. (More recently, there
are also indeterminate numbers of hybrids between all the
different varieties of both groups, and it's not easy anymore
to see any of them as a pure specie).
The bees of the black group form the eldest
and most extended of both groups, all over the place. These
are the bees known from ancestral times: it is the bee that
Aristhothelles and Plinio wrote about. It is believed to be
originally from Greece or Asia Minor. We can distinguish branches
of the European black, or common bee: The Dutch ones, the
first to be imported in America, developing its own characteristics
as they were colonising this continent: The German ones, from
the centre of Europe, Russia, Scandinavia, Holland, Belgium,
British Islands, France Spain and Portugal.
This bee is very active, strong and sober,
living as native, wild in its own environment as they do in
these three last countries, they are also passive and very
prolific; the swarms are easily formed and they can be rather
big. It was introduced in America much later then the Dutch,
where it adapted well, being now very appreciated for their
Other important sub-species of the common
black European bee, are: the "Carniolica" bee (Apis
carniolica), from the Alps and the river Donau area, very
resistant bees, with also a very mild and passive character,
easy to work with. But their hives need more protection then
others because they don't even defend themselves from other
The "Caucasian bee", even more
passive and mild then the "carniolica", the most
peaceful in the world. The bad news is that they produce too
much "propoleos," cementing their honeycomb, producing
a lower-quality honey:
The Banat bee, originally from Rumania,
not too aggressive, adapts well to all European climates,
being active until the beginning of the winter. (Within this
group, we can also include the most aggressive African bees'
The Italian honeybee is the most important
of the yellow group, with another three sub-groups of what
we can call Mediterranean yellow-bees: Syria and Palestine
bees. (Of the yellow group we also can find the Oriental bees,
from Egypt and the Sahara, India, China and Japan).
The Italian bee is, of course, originally
from Italy. Known as well as "Apis ligustica", it
is well extended all over and is also the most important in
the world in commercial terms. This is a pretty bee; lighter
colour then the common bee, especially when it's young, with
two nice yellow-orange rings across the abdomen. The end of
it is black and it is - according to the great majority of
beekeepers - the most beautiful of all. It is also very prolific
and active, forming the biggest swarms of the lot, with a
mild character when it is a pure race, easy to work with,
but also very efficient stealing honey and pollen from other
hives and lonely bees.
It was introduced in the United States in
1855, at the same time that they started to extend and be
used through different countries in Europe. Soon all beekeepers
felt a real passion for this bee and for years it was the
favourite of the Apiculture industry. But some other problems
started to show for this particular bee. Its queen comes out
for her wedding flight before the other races do, and her
flight is also longer then other queens, because, for unknown
reasons, the queen prefers drones of other races. If there
are other swarms in a radius of at least five kilometres,
there is a good chance for her to be crossed with other kinds
of drones, so the future generations will be hybrids. Also
this bee prefers to live in big swarms, the bigger the better,
so if the swarm that she belongs to is too small for her,
she will abandon her own hive and queen and will join a bigger
It has also been proved by specialist W.
Vogel, Dzierzon, Roma Fábregad that the new-born hybrids
get the morphology and the working aptitudes of the mother
queen, but the character comes from the drone. If an Italian
queen is crossed with a drone of the black races, the Italian
bees become stronger, keeping or enlarging the working activity.
But also this normally tranquil and mild bee as a pure race
becomes tremendously aggressive and dangerous to work with.
The Spanish introduced the European common
black bee into Mexico. In 1763, they arrived in Pensacola,
Florida and in 1793 a few swarms were taken to New York. By
1797, the common black bee was already colonising West of
the Mississippi. There were two kinds of honeybees ("Apis
trigona" and "Apis mellipona") used by the
natives from long before pre-Columbus times. The peculiar
fact about these bees is that they don't sting, but they can
bite painfully when they get too excited or the hive is under
threat. Also the Apis mellipona produces a much darker wax,
known as "Black wax", which is not as much appreciated.
There are still quite a few more races of
the specie "Apis melliphera" all over the world,
important for the quality and the quantity of its production,
but it is a long list, beyond the scope of these articles.
Also since the development of the new Apiculture (especially
in the last twenty years, with the new electronics and micro-technology)
beekeepers have tried to improve the quality of their swarms
and their production by crossing queens and drones of different
races, with good results in some cases.
Beekeepers select the races according to
several different qualities and aptitudes of the bees, such
as the fertility of the queen, the age that the bees can reach,
the distance they can fly, the length of their tongue, the
amount of pollen and honey they can carry, resistance to work
and illnesses, their character, etc.
In most cases, crossed bees increase the
production, with a better result then the different pure species
by themselves. Other times, the results are not so good, producing
problems, especially with their character. It can change so
much that it's like starting all over again for the beekeeper,
so he loses control of the situation and the production drops.
This is most probably what's happening at present in America,
with what they call the African or Killer bees. Apparently
they are the result of crossing Italian queens with some of
the varieties of the common black-bee-drone, reproducing as
wild in very large virgin areas, without any competition and
control, forming enormous swarms of very aggressive bees.
It is also said that the rising of the temperatures all over
our planet helps this bee, which could easier conquer more
territory up to the North of the USA.
In our modest Island, the great majority
of beekeepers keep faithful to our common, bad character black
bee. At least we know how its honey and sting taste. There
are also some other varieties, but for practical terms, most
prefer our ancestral and lovely "Maya".
The European Bee
José P Ribas