When buying bees, we recommend that you buy local bees. They may be mongrels, but they will be well-adapted to your area and unlikely to upset other beekeepers in the vicinity. The Association may be able to help you find bees or check our newsletters for advertisements of bees for sale.
It is important that you find out about other beekeepers who may have apiaries near you. If they are established beekeepers engaged in a breeding programme, then it is better to consult them before buying your bees, rather than risk undermining their breeding programme. (For more information about different honey bee species, scroll further down this page.)
Another option for obtaining bees is to put out a bait hive in the hope that a swarm will like your offering. A bait hive can be a hive consisting of only a brood box, floor and roof, or a nucleus, or any other container of about 40 litres in capacity. Add frames to the box, but use a few shallows in the middle of the box to give the bees a feeling of space. They like boxes and frames that have been used by other bees, but as a new beekeeper you are unlikely to have those. Instead, you can buy swarm lures that might help to attract bees.
Never set a bait hive near other people’s apiaries and if your close neighbours have a few colonies, then consult them before placing a bait hive in your garden.
Map of the spread of various European honey bee races:
Apis mellifera mellifera – the European Black Bee
Apis mellifera mellifera is our indigenous bee. Its native habitat stretches over a large area Northern Europe from the Pyrenees to Western Russia, and from the Ural Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean. They are well-adapted for cooler climates and harsher winters. Their dark colouring and hairy thoraces help them to heat up quicker, and protect them from the cold.
There are several different eco-types of AMM – some are quite dark or black (as in the photo above, right from ImkerPedia) and others, like our native bees (on the left), are more brown with thin lines (tomenta) across the abdomen.
In Britain, between 1904 and 1921 beekeepers experienced huge losses of bee colonies. This was attributed to a new illness called ‘Isle of Wight Disease’. At the time a mite, Acarapis Woodi, was blamed – but there may have been other factors involved. As a consequence of this, huge numbers of foreign bees were imported – to such an extent that many people believed our Black Bee had been wiped out. But that is not the case. They are alive and well, and thriving in some areas.
Apis mellifera carnica (Carniolan bees)
The Carniolan bee comes from a large area that includes the Alps in Austria, Slovenia, parts of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.
Apis mellifera caucasia (Caucasian honey bees)
The Caucasian honey bee is a dark bee and, as its name implies, comes from the mountainous region between the Black and Caspian Seas stretching from southern Russia to Azerbajan. They probably have the longest tongue of all honey bee species.
Apis mellifera ligustica – the Italian bee
There are many varieties of Italian bee, but the Ligurian bee from the Ligurian Alps was imported to the UK in large numbers after the Isle of Wight disease. Brother Adams believed it to be the best bee. It is tan in colour, but in recent years brighter-yellow types were imported. It is the most popular bee worldwide.
Apis mellifera iberiensis (formerly iberica)
Apis mellifera iberiensis and Apis mellifera mellifera are closely related and display similar qualities – for example, winter hardiness. They are gentle, but the guard bees can remain aggressive for up to 24 hours after a disturbance, and that has given them a reputation for aggressiveness.
The Buckfast bee is a strain of bee that was bred by Brother Adams following the Isle of Wight disease. It has become very popular and is bred throughout Europe.
Apis mellifera scutellata
Apis mellifera scutellata is an African honey bee and included here because of its link with Africanised bees found in the Americas. We don’t have Africanised bees or Apis mellifera scutellata in Europe.
In 1956 forty-eight scutellata queens from Pretoria, South Africa, and one from Tanganyika (Tanzania) were imported to Brazil, and a year later twenty-six queens escaped resulting in the Africanised bee that soon spread throughout the Americas.
Hybrid or mongrel bees
Most of us are likely to have hybrid bees or, more accurately – mongrel bees. Here are two examples of mongrel bees: the first a frame of carniolan mongrels with a queen, and the second of Italian mongrels with a young, fluffy, newly-emerged bee (centre right, with its head pointing down south-westerly).