Can Different Species of Bees Mate?

Ask the Expert!

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Bill asks: Can different species of bees mate? For example, will an Italian queen mate with a New World Carniolan drone? Or visa versa? 

Rusty Burlew replies:

Different species of honey bees cannot successfully mate with each other. Although exceptions exist in the animal world, the ability to mate and produce viable offspring is what defines a species. An interesting example of an exception is the mule, which results from crossing a male donkey with a female horse. The mule survives but is nearly always sterile because the chromosomes are not compatible. To get another mule, you would need to make another cross.

More to the point, Apis dorsata cannot mate with Apis mellifera, and Apis cerana cannot mate with Apis florea because they are all different species. But that’s not what you’re asking. Instead, you are asking about sub-species, sometimes referred to as races. An Italian queen and a New World Carniolan are merely different races of one species, Apis mellifera, and they are completely capable of interbreeding.

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In fact, they cross so easily and so often, that most taxonomists do not believe we still have any true sub-species of Apis mellifera in the Americas. In Europe, they can still be found in certain regions. Italians belong to the subspecies Apis mellifera ligustica and Carniolans are Apis mellifera carnica. Many, many years ago both of these subspecies, as well as several others, were imported to North American from Europe.

However, the Honey Bee Act of 1922, enacted during an influx of tracheal mites, closed US borders to the further importation of bees into this country in an effort to stem the flow of diseases and pathogens. The Honey Bee act is still enforced, so all the bees in North America today are descendants of bees that arrived before 1922. Those bees have crossed and re-crossed so many times that it is virtually impossible that the subspecies are any longer separate.

Although we still talk about (and buy) certain breeding lines, they are usually just yellow bees, which we call Italians, and black bees, which we call Carniolans. It’s a marketing thing more than a real thing. In fact, several recent DNA studies have shown that we can’t separate these bees based on genetics because their populations have become totally intermixed. Beekeepers still ascribe all sorts of characteristics to these lines, while taxonomists just shake their heads. Like with climate change and other controversial subjects, you will find those who believe the subspecies still exist and those who don’t.

To be totally fair, there have been some incursions of new DNA since 1922. One was the influx of African genes from Apis mellifera scutellata into Brazil in 1956. They hybridized with local bees and their progeny arrived in Texas in 1990. Also, in recent years, some bee researchers were allowed to import a small amount of sperm (no live bees) from Europe to use in breeding programs.

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