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Italian Honey Bees

Italian (Apis mellifera ligustica) bees are said to be the world's most widely distributed honey bee. They are thought to have evolved in the Italian peninsular south of the Alps, therefore in a climate that is reliable and warm for much of the year. In conditions like that, it evolved to be very prolific, with queens laying throughout the year.

I started beekeeping in 1963, soon after the long hard winter of 1962/3 and to make up for the heavy losses, many beekeepers turned to splitting the surviving colonies and introducing an Italian queen, or buying package bees from America, many of which were headed by "Italian type" queens. The queens that were sourced from Italy looked different, being a darker yellow than their American counterparts. For a few years afterwards, there was a huge problem with colonies being heavily infected with nosema and the West Sussex County Beekeeping Instructor (CBI) told us he had never seen so many colonies heavily infected with nosema, and they were virtually all recently imported yellow bees. Many of the colonies headed by Italian queens didn't live very long, partly because they didn't do well in our long winters.

Italians are very prolific, always needing large brood boxes, or multiple boxes of smaller hives. Double brood BS hives won't be too big. Many years ago, I came across a new beekeeper locally who had just come out of the RAF and was going to set the beekeeping world alight. He bought 6 "special" queens from Italy and those colonies had 3 national brood boxes largely filled with brood - they were massive colonies I have not seen the like of since. He lost the lot the next winter (I suspect starvation and inexperience) and I never heard of him again! Yet another who thought more bees = more honey.

In places where there is reliable warm weather, prolificacy is a benefit and is why Italians are popular in large honey producing countries such as America, Australia and New Zealand. This is a disadvantage where the climate has variable summers and long damp or cold winters, where there is little or no forage for 7-8 months of the year. Italians need a lot of food to keep them going through the year. I have seen estimates of two and a half times the amount of honey or syrup needed by a colony of Italians in comparison to native or near native bees. From my own observations I definitely wouldn't argue with that and think it probably on the generous side. This gives the beekeeper with Italians in the cooler climates three problems:-

  1. Starvation is likely to be a problem, both summer and winter.
  2. A lot more feeding is needed, adding to costs and the amount of work required.
  3. A lot less colonies can be kept in the same location - instead of the honey going in the supers, it's going to feed more brood that may not be needed.

Why do they need all this extra food? I think it's quite a complex issue, but here are my thoughts:-

Italians have evolved in an area where they have no need to look after their stores. If it rains all day today, it will be O.K. tomorrow. In the cooler climates such as U.K. and Ireland we regularly have spells of 7-14 days of non-flying weather in the summer. Italians don't fly well in cool or damp weather, so the foragers sit at home and eat stores and of course there is much more brood to feed, so there is a heavy toll there. I once looked after 4 colonies for someone who insisted he had fresh "New Zealand Italian" queens every year, because that's what he read. One autumn I fed the colonies heavily, but when I checked by hefting in mid-December I found they were very light. The day was quite warm, so I opened them up. There were 4 frames of solid brood! This means that treating with oxalic acid is ineffective if 80% of varroa are in the brood.

We are told that worker bees live for 6 weeks in the summer, but I believe this may be as the result of research that has been done in other parts of the world, most likely on Italians. Authoritive sources say that Amm live 50% longer than that. Once again I wouldn't disagree with that.

Being the most widely used sub-species, the Italian has had a lot of attention from the bee breeders and they vary a lot. I think the very bright yellow ones that are available now have been bred for their looks, rather than toughness. Certainly those I have dealt with are far too soft for the U.K climate. Italians have been used as the basis for a lot of hybrids and heavily selected in other countries where beekeeping is a large industry. When I started beekeeping, the American bee press carried adverts for "Dadant Starline" bees and queens, which were apparently "hybrids" between two strains of Italians.

One well known subset of the Italian is what is known as the "Cordovan" bee, which through a genetic trait has a purple-ish pigment in body parts that in other bees are black. It is very prolific and has a reputation for eating a lot of stores, robbing and poor defence.

I have handled many colonies of what are known as "New Zealand Italians" and I agree they are very docile, but I get no feeling there is any vigour in them. Even though they can be handled without smoke, I have come across more than one instance of colonies being vicious a couple of generations later (F2 aggression). Three of the most vicious colonies I have had to deal with were a result of this. A beekeeper asked to keep some bees on his allotment and was told he could, providing the bees were gentle and didn't sting other allotment holders. He bought 3 "New Zealand Italian" queens and they were very docile, but they swarmed and the next generation were still O.K., then they swarmed again. They were pretty nasty and he was told to do something quick. What did he do? He bought 3 more New Zealand Italian queens and they quietened down, until they swarmed a couple of times and the same thing happened again. He was told to get rid of them for good. Another beekeeper bought them and couldn't deal with them, so asked me to help.

It is widely known that Italian workers, queens and drones don't fly at low temperatures. The latter two may be the reason often given for queens not mating in poor weather, especially if they are unable to perform Apiary Vicinity Mating (AVM). In addition, they may not go out on cleansing flights, perhaps defecating within the hive, so spreading nosema.

Italians have a reputation for being good robbers and certainly I have observed hive entrances and seen yellow bees come out of one colony and go straight into another. In fairness that might be because they are easier to see, but if correct it would suggest they are more vulnerable to foul brood.

At one time, there were some "dark Italians" advertised in the American bee press, but I never knew anything about them, whether they were dark with no lighter bands or if they simply had darker yellow bands.

Roger Patterson.

Page created 25/12/2015

Page updated 01/12/2022