On a podcast episode of Stuff You Should Know, they discussed honey bees. They mentioned that there is mainly one species used for harvesting: apis mellifera. But there are various races of these bees. What defines a race and what distinguishes them as the same species?

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On a podcast episode of Stuff You Should Know, they discussed honey bees. They mentioned that there is mainly one species used for harvesting: apis mellifera. But there are various races of these bees. What defines a race and what distinguishes them as the same species?

In: Biology
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Race is a weird thing in taxonomy. It’s not really well defined. So I would say it’s more like a terminology beekeepers use rather than a scientifically well defined classification.

Honey bees refer to the genus *Apis* as a whole, which contains around 7-12 species depending on who you ask. The other species also make honey, and they are all native to Asia (such as the [giant honey bee](https://static.inaturalist.org/photos/14552745/original.jpg?1522233851) *Apis dorsata*, or the [red dwarf honey bee](https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/73/Apis_florea_worker_1.jpg) *Apis florea*). In contrast, the western honey bee (*Apis mellifera*) is native to Europe, the Middle East, and part of Africa, though it has now been introduced all over the world by humans. There are several differences among the various *Apis* species. Aside from obvious things like size and colouration, most of the species actually don’t live in enclosed hives, but rather just make [exposed honeycombs](https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/92/Natural_Beehive_and_Honeycombs.jpg/1920px-Natural_Beehive_and_Honeycombs.jpg). *Apis mellifera* is one of the only two species that nests in holes, which is part of the reason why it is able to live in much colder climates than the other species, (all of which are tropical; [source](https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780123741448000096)).

To address your question, it’s important to understand that the western honey bee, unlike other members of its genus, is a domesticated species. Though there are definitely some wild populations, many (probably most) *Apis mellifera* in the world live in hives that are built and maintained by humans. And, like any other domesticated species, they have been bred by humans over time to have characteristics we find desirable. [Weber 2012](https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/97006/UMURJ-Issue09_2012-EWeber.pdf?sequence=1) discusses how this process happened, and mentions some of the traits that humans have selected, including greater honey production, lower aggression, and increased resistance to diseases and starvation.

Breeding by humans has resulted in the creation of [different groups of *Apis mellifera* in different places](https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Peter_Neumann5/publication/232679054/figure/fig1/AS:[email protected]/Autochthonous-subspecies-of-A-mellifera-Data-from-Fuchs-1998a-b.png), which may be called races, subspecies, or just breeds. Some of the more prominent ones include the Italian honey bee (*Apis mellifera ligustica*) which is the most commonly found in commercial hives of the Americas, the European dark honey bee (*Apis mellifera mellifera*) common in Northern Europe, and the East African lowland honey bee (*Apis mellifera scutellata*), which produced africanized honey bees when hybridized with the Italian subspecies. The various subspecies have different features that make them more or less preferred by certain beekeepers; check out these [comparison](https://bees4life.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/bee-races1.jpg) [charts](https://bees4life.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/bee-races2.jpg) for example (disclaimer: I study bees but am not a beekeeper, so I don’t know how accurate those really are).

As for what actually defines these groups as being subspecies, the answer may disappoint you: it’s kind of arbitrary. There isn’t really any universally agreed upon consensus for how taxonomic levels beneath a species should be defined. In this case, the various *Apis mellifera* subspecies are mostly distinguished based on being associated with particular places of origin and certain traits as described above. If you really want to get into the weeds, they can also be told apart based on some very specific details like small differences in wing venation, or by comparing their DNA (see [Meixner et al. 2013](https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3896/IBRA.1.52.4.05)). As for why they are considered part of the same overall species (*Apis mellifera*), this is at least partly because all of the subspecies can be crossbred with each other fairly easily. This is one of the tests that is often used to decide if two things belong to the same species or not (specifically the [biological species concept](https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/article/side_0_0/biospecies_01), which is commonly used, but is certainly not free of problems).

Race isn’t an exact term, even bee keepers don’t have a consistent meaning, but the best comparison is dogs. all dogs are *Canis lupus familiaris*, a subspecies of wolf. However, he have different breeds that are visiually, behaviorally, and physically different. These breeds can be thought of as “races”. They are all the same species and subspecies, there’s not enough difference to reclassify them. There is enough to distinguish them though