Honey bee race

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Honey bee race is a classifications of honey bees, in particular European dark bees (Apis mellifera mellifera) into various named instances of an informal taxonomic rank of race, below that of subspecies, on the basis of shared genetic traits. Pure representatives of any race are becoming ever rarer because humans have imported favored subspecies to regions that previously had distinctive type(s) of their own, and the imported bees have interbred with the native bees. The best chance to find representatives of any subspecies is in the center or the most protected part of the subspecies' native area. In the Americas, there has been a great deal of mixing of subspecies (and European dark bee "races") of the European honey bee (A. mellifera) more generally, since all American honey bees have been imported at some point after 1492. Lacking systematic and widespread DNA analyses it is difficult to estimate which subspecies predominate there, and it is probably more realistic to treat most feral populations as belonging to undefined hybrid lineages. Among beekeepers, the term "race" has been used increasingly imprecisely, and is often used to refer to bee subspecies and hybrids as well as sub-subspecific divisions more properly.

There are also certain lineages of honey bees whose rank is below that of subspecies (particularly within the nominate subspecies, A. m. mellifera), being little more than color variants or domesticated lineages (strains) that may not be correlated with distinct native distributions; these are "races" in the most restrictive sense, and are often referred to as "breeds". These were often given their own scientific names when originally described, but modern zoological nomenclature does not recognize the names given to these forms as valid (only ranks of subspecies and above have formal scientific names in zoology).

Based on morphological similarities and the separation of regions during and since the last ice age, there are five bee lineages[1]

  • A (African)
  • C (“carnica”, subspecies east and south of the Alps including those along the northern Mediterranean)
  • M (“mellifera”, subspecies of western Europe),
  • O (Oriental, subspecies from the eastern end of the range of the species)
  • Y (Yemenitica from Ethiopia)

Lineages of known hybrid origin, such as Africanized bees and Buckfast bees, also do not have formal names.

Within the lineage 'M' there are three races

  • Mellifera (brown bee)
  • Lehzeni (heathland bee)
  • Nigra (black bee)

Differences in the colors of bees may be more pronounced in queens and drones; workers are much less easily differentiated by color. Drones are produced from the unfertilized eggs of queens and therefore their genetic characteristics depend entirely on those of the queen, whereas worker bees are produced from fertilized eggs, which means that each worker bee will share genetic characteristics. To make things even more complicated, a queen will normally mate several times before settling down to a life of egg laying, and the spermatozoa from her multiple matings are retained alive within her body. That means that workers may only be half-sisters, and their colors and other characteristics may differ.

The insects we call honey bees are divided into several species. In Europe, the Americas and Australia the term "honey bee" means a bee of the species A. mellifera. They all spring from bees that originated in Europe and Africa. In other parts of the world there are several other recognized honey bee species, most notably A. cerana, A. dorsata, and A. florea. The first two of these species have subspecies.


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