What is the Best Queen Strain?

As the 2020 queen season has to come to an end for us we thought this may be good time to discuss all things queens. There are many differing opinions on the ‘best queen strain’ and this can often be quite a contentious debate between beekeepers that are even the best of friends. So through our collective experience of working with the various queen strains that we sell, we are able to give you our opinion on the differences between the strains and what may appeal to you as a beginner.

Mellifera Mellifera (AMM)

Also known as the Western Black Bee or the European Black Bee, the Apis Mellifera Mellifera is believed to be the native bee species to the United Kingdom. They are generally quite dark in colour and have stocky bodies. The colonies can build up quite big and despite this they do extraordinarily well in the smaller national hive. Mellifera bees are known to be quiet on the comb during inspections, but their temperament is heavily reliant on the conditions outside of the hive, they will certainly let you know if a storm is on its way.

One of the most impressive qualities of the Mellifera strain is that they are noticeably frugal with their stores. Don’t expect an endless production of eggs throughout the year, the Mellifera are particularly sensitive to the season and will cut down egg production according to nectar availability in order to conserve their stores. The weather has been more and more unpredictable in recent years and this quality is extremely beneficial to the colony strength and longevity. Despite being quite conservative with their stores they don’t store much of an excess of honey even if given drawn frames.

Due to their ‘hardiness’ and affinity to the UK weather, brood rearing tends to start earlier than other strains as they can be the first to bear the brunt of the weather in the approach of spring. But this does not mean that they will be bursting at the seams once it is warm enough for you to inspect your hives, Melliferas are not known to be incredibly prolific. The upside to this is that the queen appears to have a longer life span as well as having a lower swarming tendency.

Melliferas also bring in masses of pollen, the idea behind this is that they are evolved to bear with adverse weather and therefore long periods of confinement in the hive. They may also have more pollen stores in comparison to other colonies in harsher seasons as they have a greater wing strength and will still be flying when other strains will choose to stay at home.

These are the qualities that make up the Mellifera strain, but the availability of a ‘pure’ strain is quite contentious, as most breeders open mate and therefore there is a huge variation in genetics as with all of the strains (aside from the Slovenian Carniolan which has protected breeding sites and strict guidelines to adhere to).

The mellifera is a perfect strain for those beekeepers who want to do minimal interventions and don’t mind getting a sting here or there. With that in mind we tend to not recommend Mellifera to beginners as sometimes it’s hard to detect the more subtle environmental changes that the Mellifera are sensitive to. It’s the cutting back of brood rearing that often trip up beginners who aren’t sure if their queen is off lay and panic buy a new queen.

Most customers who purchase Mellifera are dedicated life long fans, so don’t be scared away by their often misrepresented reputation of being ‘aggressive’ – they’re not, they just have the bee equivalent of ‘seasonal affective disorder’!

Buckfast

The Buckfast bee, often referred to as the renowned Brother Adam bee is a hybrid bee of many strains of honeybee from Brother Adam’s search for the most ideal bee with the development of the Buckfast breeding programme in the 50s following the devastating effects of Acarine disease on the mellifera native bee populations. It makes for fascinating reading if you want to read his book ‘In Search of the Best Strains of Bees’ which reads like a work of adventure fiction. He found that the only surviving colonies on the Abbey were of Ligurian lineage, spurring on a life’s work in crossing strains in order to harvest the best traits in one little bee.

The colour of the queen can vary from very light with a black bottom to stripy to very dark, not to mention a great range of colour variation between their workers, this is no doubt as a result of the wide genetic pool used to keep the variability of the Buckfast strain. Regardless of their colour, the spring build up and over wintering abilities are the same.

The Buckfast are bred in many countries, notably Greece, Romania, France, Germany, Denmark as well as the UK and may not be what was the original Buckfast developed by Brother Adam as some may mistakenly believe. Many of these breeders have developed their own ‘crosses’ breeding for many years to suit the modern beekeeper. Although not identical, most Buckfast breeders are looking for the same 4 primary characteristics of the original breeding programme:

  • Fecundity – the queen at a certain point (relative to the nectar flow) must be able to fill at least eight or nine Dadant combs with brood.
  • Industry – a boundless capacity for (foraging) work is doubtless the foremost requirement.
  • Resistance to disease – is absolutely indispensable and essential to successful beekeeping.
  • Disinclination to swarm – an indispensable prerequisite in modern beekeeping.

Following this are the numerous secondary characteristics which complement honey gathering ability:

  • Longevity – prolongation of the lifespan of the bee will denote a corresponding increase in the effective foraging force and capacity of a colony.
  • Wing-power – the ability to forage further can prove a material factor in the performance of a colony.
  • Keen sense of smell – without this a colony would not forage further, so it is closely linked with wing-power.
  • Instinct of defence – this is the most effective remedy against robbing (it is not to be confused with aggression against the beekeeper).
  • Hardiness and wintering ability – the ability to winter on stores of inferior quality for long periods without a cleansing flight.
  • Spring development – must not occur prematurely and without the need for artificial stimulation.
  • Thrift or frugality – a quality closely connected with the seasonal development of colonies.
  • Instinct of self provisioning – seasonally appropriate brood chamber storage for overwintering.
  • Comb building – a keenness to build comb seems to increase the zest for every form of activity of economic value.
  • Gathering of pollen – not to be confused with the collecting of nectar; good quality pollen positively affects longevity

This is why we usually refer to the Buckfast strain as a great all-rounder for the beginner. They respond well to being manipulated with most breeders focusing on temperament, fecundity (prolificness), low swarming tendency and industriousness. We import queens from both Greece (referred to as Buckfast Cross on our website – crossed with Apis Mellifera Cecropia) and Romania, and in our experience they have taken to our winter relatively well when going into winter strong. They tend to produce a good amount of honey when the conditions are ideal but there are indeed downsides to the Buckfast.

A common issue with the Buckfast strain is the problem of ‘F2 aggression’. This is the observation made by beekeepers whose second generation of queen lays particularly aggressive workers. There is always a chance that a virgin from a perfectly gentle and prolific queen can mate and lay some nasty workers. There isn’t a concrete explanation for this phenomenon, but it can be dependent on the drones in your area as well as the original queen’s genetics. This is why a lot of beekeepers tend to replace their queen in favour of letting them create their own queen cells.

Another colloquial complaint of Buckfast strains especially amongst the commercial beekeeping community is the absence of the supercedure impulse. When a queen comes to the end of their laying prime the colony will ordinarily attempt to supercede the queen, but some have observed that Buckfasts can sometimes suddenly become queenless after only a couple of years – this may be due to their prolific laying, but it certainly isn’t very handy for the colony to lose their ability to detect a dip in fecundity in their queen.

The main takeaway I’d like beginners to take from this is that in the very nature of Buckfast is the incredible variation of characteristics and appearance. This is why you must be reliant on the breeder’s reputation as well as your own experience once handling their Buckfasts.

Carniolan

The Apis Mellifera Carnica is native to Slovenia and Austria as well as many pockets across Central and Eastern Europe. There are many brilliant qualities that Carniolans bring to the table that make her quite a good choice for a beginner. Possessing great fecundity the Carniolans can burst out of your brood box in spring providing you have a good spring flow. This is incredibly advantageous as they are exceptionally industrious and in our experience bring in a huge excess of honey as long as you are providing them with the supers ready to fill.

Carniolan’s actually have a great self-provisioning instinct, though some have observed that their productiveness completely stops rather than chugging along as most other strains. However we do find that they respond well to ‘false flows’ – this is when you feed syrup in order to mimic a nectar flow and therefore stimulate the queen to lay. Therefore it is relatively simple to promote colony build up in spring if your site does not have great forage until the summer months.

Carniolans great reputation for prolificness is clearly a double edged sword as you will have to be on your toes to prevent the Carniolans from swarming. This is their most considerable disadvantage, which is why we don’t usually recommend that Carniolans are run in British Standard unless you were planning to double brood that colony which may be too much to go through for a beginner. They are better suited to Dadant, Langstroth, 14×12 or Commercial kit as this gives them far more laying space.

One of the most wonderful traits of the Carniolan is their sweet disposition and ease of handling making them a very good choice for those who have their bees where there are non-beekeepers around such as gardens or allotments. Carniolans are also well adapted to harsh weather and therefore overwinter quite well in the British climate often taking quite a small cluster through and not needing a huge amount of stores.

We import Carniolans from the mountains of Slovenia where breeding sites are protected in order to keep the strain pure. Appearance wise the pure Carniolan workers are relatively dark with no orange, they appear grey.

Carpathian

The wonderful Carpathian is considered as a subspecies of Carniolan by Brother Adam and they indeed share many of the positive characteristics including quick spring buildup, strong honey gathering and beautifully calm temperament. There is not much literature about the Carpathian but they continue to be quite popular in Eastern Europe but they lack the promotion of a strict breeding programme therefore it is getting harder to get a good pool of genetics to breed from.

In addition to being a good all rounder, the Carpathian is less likely to swarm than the Carniolan making them a good alternative if you want a prolific queen but are more apprehensive about your bees swarming.

Ligustica

The Ligustica is widely known for their gentleness on the frame, some beekeepers in warmer climates than the UK even favouring to work them without a beesuit or smoke (not recommended for beginners)! She is so popular that it is believed she’s the most widely distributed strain of bee, being exported to North America, Europe as well as Australasia. It is a common misconception that the Ligustica is simply a ‘golden bee’, there is actually also a huge variance in colouration but some breeders indeed have colour in the forefront of their breeding programmes though we find that this is more typical of American or New Zealand breeders of Ligustica.

Due to their wonderful temperament Ligustica is another wonderful choice for beginners as they will tolerate you keeping them open for longer inspections as well as moving calmly across their frames. Their ease and calmness makes them a firm favourite for beekeepers who share their hobby with children or have a school hive.

Ligustica are also renowned for their good hygienic behaviour, but this doesn’t mean that you can let them run riot, a good knowledge of disease and pests is essential for all beekeepers. However they are less likely to allow brood diseases to run out of control so you may not even see any issues despite some disease being present.

Aside from their wonderful temperament and hygiene the Ligustica is decidedly average in most other capacities. They bring in lots of honey but also consume a lot of it themselves throughout the season and certainly need a lot to overwinter on which is always a difficult aspect of bee management for beginners. They are quite slow to build up due to our uncertain weather patterns and need a good stretch of warm weather to bolster their numbers before being strong enough to bring in lots of nectar.

But if you are looking for gentle bees that you are not expecting lots of honey from then the Ligustica are for you.

In Conclusion

These strains and their subsequent traits are all generically speaking and you must understand that all queens are open mated. This means that any number of traits and appearance can change throughout a queen’s lifespan as they go through their sperm stores. It is also important to gain your own experience working with different strains which can be difficult when beginners do not have access to the same sheer numbers that commercial beekeepers are used to, but soon you start noticing that you cannot work the different strains identically, for example, you may be able to go through a Carniolan colony in the pouring rain without a sting, but opening a Mellifera colony in drizzle may leave you with multiple stingers!

Take a look your own circumstances and reasons for having bees, do you want to harvest honey? Do you want them to help pollinate your garden? Do you want to share this hobby with your family? Do you just want to enjoy their presence during the summer? This will give you a much better idea of which strain to choose before you get going next season.

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