Here’s something you probably don’t know about me: I studied Romeo and Juliet on three separate occasions while I was working my way through school. Three times! Three times is too many times. It wasn’t even because I went to grad school. Having a doctoral degree does mean I sometimes get to tell wide-eyed children that I graduated from 23rd grade. But this barrage of literary tragedy all happened in middle and high school.
(Speaking of repeated lessons, I also took typing twice. My words-per-minute score is out of this world, but just think: One of those classes could have been shop class.)
This is why when I started to write a post about how we name different types of bees, I got stuck on “What’s in a name?” and developed a highly impractical urge to find out how many total times Shakespeare makes bee references across all of his plays. It’s safe to assume that I will never actually sit down with my copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare to answer this question, if only because I’d have to read Romeo and Juliet again. However, I did check to see if anyone else had done this already. (It could happen. Have you been on YouTube? People on the Internet have a lot of free time.) Alas, as far as I can tell, the answer is no. But in the process, I stumbled upon this1 genuinely interesting article on honey bee references in Shakespeare’s works, and how those allusions grew from common knowledge about bee biology at the time. Turns out some of those references are accurate, and some of them… not so much.
By my count, I’m now four paragraphs into this post, and at the bottom of a very deep rabbit-hole. Time to get to the point, which is: Every honey bee is not just any honey bee. There are many different kinds of honey bee, with a wide variety of biological traits that have important implications if you are a beekeeper.
The stereotypical honey bee (the one that we haul all over California because we really like almonds) bears the formal scientific name Apis mellifera — which indicates genus, then species. But when I first started hearing beekeepers talk about honey bees, I heard a lot of other, different names: Italian bees, Russian bees, Carniolan bees… (I had a lot of trouble with that last one for a while. Carni…vore? Camellia? Canneloni? Canola? Cannoli? Mmmm. Cannoli…) This was a great mystery to me, but from the way beekeepers talked about them, clearly the differences mattered.
And complicating this matter is the fact that not everybody discusses different types of honey bees using exactly the same language. There is bee race — an informal rank that usually says something about where it developed the traits that those bees possess. Race is one of the things a beekeeper might mean when they say “Italian honey bees” or “Russian honey bees.” Sometimes — but not always — bee race aligns with bee subspecies, the formal taxonomic rank below “species” assigned using the standard rules of biological classification. For example, Carniolan honey bees — a type of honey bee that does not, in fact, resemble a cannoli in any way — bear the scientific name Apis mellifera carnica (in order: Genus, species, subspecies).
Race is a tricky word in a lot of ways – as recent debates about the US Census have illustrated, just to give a single example. This is not only true when talking about humans. Some experts argue that “race” is not the best term to refer to different types of honey bee, because the word indicates geographic variation that arose naturally in a regional population, rather than deliberate beekeeper breeding for desirable traits. Instead, these experts use bee stock, a term that very explicitly incorporates the idea that we have selected for the traits we want in the honey bee. I particularly like this term because I get to imagine bees dressed like the signature character from the Monopoly board game in a top hat, a monocle, and six tiny spats. (Just imagine: Thousands and thousands of honey bees, dancing together in perfect step to Puttin’ on the Ritz. Eat your heart out, waggle-dance.) More importantly, though, bee “stocks” indicate the results of our deliberate management of bees for traits like good honey production, pest and disease resistance, gentle temperament, and other characteristics that tend to be associated with a certain type of honey bee. Different bee stocks* are sometimes variants of the same bee subspecies, another case of “sometimes-but-not-always” in all this confusing terminology.
There are also multiple honey bee lineages, groupings of honey bee subspecies that occur in roughly the same geographic region and that may have a shared evolutionary history. There’s still a lot of debate about that. Lineages are wonderfully tricky because – this blew my mind – we aren’t entirely sure where honey bees originate2. Some of the current best evidence points to northeast Africa or the Middle East. Meanwhile, literally every one of its relatives in the genus Apis only exist in Asia, so it’s a good bet the honey bee has some distant roots in that region. But the various races/stocks/subspecies of honey bee, Apis mellifera, are now naturalized on every single continent except Antarctica.
(Somewhere in the world, a beekeeper just learned this and elbowed her friend: “Here. Hold my beer.”)
So… yeah. The honey bee has been around, and wherever it didn’t spread on its own, humans have helped it out. The end result is that this amazing little insect has spread to so many places that trying to chart that family tree back to its roots requires the use of molecular biology. The paper I’ve linked above tracks honey bee lineages using genetic markers called SNPs (pronounced “snips”). SNPs are tiny changes in the alphabet of our DNA that are usually invsible — that is, they don’t make a difference in how the organism turns out. (How many of you noticed the missing “i” in “invisible”? It’s sort of like that. Even if you did notice the change, you still knew what I meant, right? The change in the spelling did not change the outcome.) But, like a misspelled word on a page, once a SNP occurs, it persists every time the page is photocopied. With the right tools, you can track this copy error all the way back to the typist (who probably only took typing once).
Snips of bees everywhere! …and we are still arguing about what’s right.
This post took me longer than I intended, because in writing it, I almost did an entire literature review of bee genetics and evolution by accident. As it is, I have stopped woefully short of understanding this issue and all its various twists and turns as well as I would like, so if I learn I’ve gotten something wrong, I’ll come back to that later. (Meanwhile, if you happen to be reading this blog and you’re a honey bee geneticist, please jump into the comments and set the record straight!) The short version (too late) is this:
- Apis mellifera, the problematically-named** European or western honey bee, has over two dozen subspecies. (“Over two dozen” is the best official count I can give you. I suspect nobody likes to claim an exact number for some of the same reasons people are still arguing about whether or not Pluto is a planet.)
- Subspecies, race, and stock are all roughly similar but technically not-at-all-the-same terms for what amounts to different characteristics within groups of related honey bees. These terms often get thrown around interchangeably and not correctly, largely because lots of people disagree on what constitutes “correctly.”
- We tend to call different stocks of bees after the region in which those desirable traits were developed. The really popular ones I’ve heard a lot about around here are Italian bees, Russian bees, and Carniolan bees.
- Bee lineages are groups of honey bee subspecies that generally occupy the same modern range in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. Lineages have very exciting names like M, Y, and A. If it sounds like I’m not saying much about lineages it’s because there are people whose entire careers are focused around figuring out what to say about honey bee lineages. I have to draw the line somewhere.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that bees don’t weigh enough to type their logins into Ancestry.com. So “pure” bee stocks largely…. aren’t. For the most part, what we’re doing is identifying the predominant stock anytime we say something like “these are Russian bees.” Queens mate with multiple drones before they shuffle off to lay eggs for the rest of their lives, and they aren’t checking ID papers on the fly.
In fact, all of this very long post is pretty much setup to tell you that after much debate about which stock of honey bee I wanted to keep… I’m getting mutt bees. The apiary from which I’ve ordered my bees has deliberately selected for the best traits of a few stocks, and doesn’t try to call them anything in particular.
So this was a very long post about the naming of bees, as a prelude to telling you that my bees aren’t called anything at all. Wow. I just did that.
And this post didn’t even have any pictures in it!
I am so sorry.
To apologize, here is a link to a PowerPoint presentation from LSU, full of pictures of some popular bee stocks and a brief summary of some of their characteristics.
Here’s the punchline: We already knew all this, didn’t we? I mean, we knew the thing about honey bees not all being the same. I didn’t really need to write any of this. Before I ever heard of an Italian bee or a Russian bee, I knew this. And so did you. Because we’ve all heard of Apis mellifera scutellata, the African bee – or, as it is known in its introduced range, the Africanized honey bee or “killer bee.”
But that is definitely a story for another day.
*On the subjects of bee stock and really random knowledge, I was delighted to learn that BEE is the actual stock symbol for Bee Vectoring Technologies, International, a Canadian company trying to use honeybees and bumblebees to deliver disease and pest control compounds to crops.
**Neither European, nor exclusively western, nor the only bee that makes honey. Like the starfish, the dragonfly, and many other animals with misleading names, the common names we use for Apis mellifera are disappointingly inaccurate if you think about them for too long.***
***And I have.
1Richard Grinnell. Shakespeare’s Keeping of Bees. ISLE (2016) 23 (4): 835-854. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment online at: https://academic.oup.com/isle/article/23/4/835/2740728 For permissions please email: email@example.com
2Cridland, J. M., Tsutsui, N. D., & Ramírez, S. R. (2017). The Complex Demographic History and Evolutionary Origin of the Western Honey Bee, Apis Mellifera. Genome biology and evolution, 9(2), 457-472. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution online at: https://academic.oup.com/gbe/article/9/2/457/2970293