In this article, we look at the relative similarities and differences between Carniolan vs Russian bees. This is a relatively simple comparison between two bees adapted to tolerate long cold winters and rapid spring honey flows.
A Brief History Of The “Russian Bee”
Russia is very big. It consists of a number of zones, with the Far Eastern zone being a region in which the indigenous bee is Apis cerana. Varroa destructor is a natural parasite of Apis cerana. With the development of beekeeping in Far Eastern Russia in the 1800’s bees from Western Europe and Central Europe were imported to this Far Eastern region. This resulted in Apis mellifera and Apis cerana coming into close proximity. The varroa mite jumped species.
Over time, the selective breeding of bees that flourished in the Far Eastern Region selected for bees with a natural level of varroa resistance. These bees are not called “Russian Bees” in Russia but rather Apis mellifera Far Eastern strain.
Arrival In The USA
When the varroa mite reached the USA in 1987. It spread rapidly through the heavily managed US bee population causing significant damage. The Honeybee Breeding, Genetics & Physiology Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana imported queens from these Russian Far Eastern Breed Apis mellifera in 1997. These bees were established on Grand Terre Island. This is a barrier island of the coast of Louisiana. The remoteness of this island ensures to a certain extent that the Russian Bee gene lines stay relatively clean.
The bees chosen for use in the US were from stock that showed resistance to varroa – with nearly 2x more resistant traits to mites than US bees displayed.
Apis mellifera carnica, or the Carniolan bee is a truly beautiful bee. This type f bee is native to Bulgaria, Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Slovenia, and Romania. This is an ancient heartland of beekeeping. The history of human/bee interaction in this area dates back many many thousands of years.
Outside its natural range, the Carniolan bee is the second most widely kept race of bees. It has been moved around the world due to its positive traits in being an excellent spring pollinator in cold climates. The bee is efficient at defending itself against pests such as yellow jackets. The bees show a high level of hive fidelity – ie they don’t drift. Carnies start their day earlier than most other bees and will, if temperature permits, be the last bees to stop working in your apiary.
I have fond memories of working with these peaceful gentle bees in the fields outside Bratislava. In mid-summer, this region is a marvel of productivity. The Slovaks have a special relationship with their bees. In Romania, you will also see the occasional Romani Bee cart. In these countries, bees, and more importantly, mead – honey wine – are cornerstones of an ancient culture.
Learn more about: Buckfast Bees
Carniolan vs Russian Bees
There is a lot of debate about this. Some forums insist that Russian bees are really just Apis mellifera caucasia bees. The scientific evidence suggests they are different, being more similar but distinct from Apis mellifera caucasia.
Both Carniolan and Russian bees have relatively high overwintering success rates and an ability to form a tight winter cluster. The cluster is generally efficient and consumes stores conservatively. A number of beekeepers have found that Russian bees can be a bit too conservative on consuming stores. This means they can enter spring with a small cluster and a lot of stores.
Both Russians and Carniolans can survive a few months without a cleansing flight, making them ideal for colder climate beekeeping.
Carniolan bees have a low tendency to swarm. This allows beekeepers to produce honey easily with limited management. Russian bees have a high tendency to swarm. They require regular brood nest inspections to remove queen cups.
Rusian bees are very prone to rapid build-up in bee numbers, and, without careful management, you will mainly convert your honey crop into feral bees.
Carniolan bees seem to be regarded as better honey producers, which falls in line with my experience. Russian bees, due to their swarming tendency can produce lower honey crops. They require a lot more management to achieve higher crops.
Carniolan bees are really peaceful bees. Any bee can get riled up if you treat the hive badly, but these bees are very slow to anger. I have actually worked a few Carnie hives without a smoker – just removing honey. This still sends shivers up my spine given my early training with African bees. If you do that with African bees you are flirting with disaster.
Russian bees can be a bit more touchy and require a certain amount of skill to work without creating a hail of angry bees. Smoke is more important with these bees.
The general consensus here is that Russian bees have better mite resistance than other races of bees, including Carniolan bees. Carniolan bees are however seen as having excellent resistance to Tracheal mites, and slight resistance to Varroa.
Adaptation To Warmer Climates
Both these bee races fare poorly in warmer climates. They need a cold winter for their natural biology to work. Keeping these bees in a part of the world where they are not shut down by cold for a few months is not advisable.
Looking at the traits of Russian bees, if they were to hybridize with African bees in the Southern US it could be problematic. You would be creating a mite-resistant, swarming prone bee with elevated anger. Probably not an ideal combination.
One also has to question the logic of importing a strain of bees from a cold part of the world and setting up a breeding station in the warm gulf region, but that is another debate for another day.
Ability To Keep Multiple Races In An Apiary
Russian bees most desirable trait is mite resistance. If an apiary has mixed genetics, you will lose most of this benefit. Hence for Russian bees, it is best to keep apiaries unmixed. With Carniolans, you can have other races in an apiary with less problematic consequences. It will not cause much trouble if a few Italian bees drift into the Carnie hives as your pest management strategies for both races are similar.
We hope this article has helped highlight a few differences between Carnies and Russian bees. When choosing Carniolan vs Russian bees work out which works best for you using some of the above guidelines.