I have been a beekeeper for a number of years and originally obtained my first colonies from a guy in my neighbourhood. However, when I sell bees to someone else, they typically ask what species of the European/Western honeybee (Apis mellifera) I have/they're buying. Technically, they're after the subspecies or breed (like Italian, Carniolan, Buckfast, ...), but I don't know what to tell them. I just call them local (or locally-adapted) bees.

Is there a way that one can find out the subspecies/breed I currently have? Perhaps through DNA analysis/sequencing or some other kind of scientific analysis? Regardless, is such subspecies identification available/accessible to the hobby beekeeper (should read as being relatively inexpensive)?

Images like the following are circulated to estimate one's breed:

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However, traits are hardly a definitive assessment of a breed, especially if you consider how close some of the breeds are listed above. For example, what's the difference in a trait ranked 5 and 6, say.


I am not sure about apiculture, but in academic research it is typical that people use microsatellite markers for identifying subspecies of bees. Microsatellite are repetitive regions of the genome that are useful in at identifying different species/subspecies, as well as for generating pedigrees and paternity analysis. Different species/subspecies have different numbers of repeats in a particular microsatellites, and these differing number of repeats are heritable. People use microsatellites because they are cheap, easy to run and reliable for identifying species/subspecies. Because there can be many different alleles (or different numbers of repeats) at a given microsatellite locus, so you only need relatively few microsatellites in total to identify individuals.

An example can be found in this paper. They used 7 microsatellite loci and could reliably identify between different African and European sub-species. It is worth a read of the intro:

Recent population genetic surveys in human (Bow- COCK et al. 1994;DIRIENZO et al. 1994) and other mammals (GOTTELLE et al. 1994; TAEOR et al. 1994) and in bumble bees (A. ESTOUP,M. SOLIGNAJC. ,M. CORNUET and A. SCHOLL unpublished results) have shown that microsatellites are highly efficient at differentiating populations or groups of populations. In this paper, we investigate their usefulness for honey bee population studies by adressing the following specific questions: Are the three evolutionary branches inferred from morphometry and mtDNA confirmed by microsatellite data? Are microsatellites useful for differentiating sub-species and populations within subspecies? How does the pattern of variability of these markers vary between branches/subspecies/populations and which factors may be invoked to explain it? Is it possible to assign a given colony to its population of origin from microsatellite data and how do the individuals from this colony cluster within the population?


Estoup A, Garnery L, Solignac M, Cornuet JM. Microsatellite variation in honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) populations: hierarchical genetic structure and test of the infinite allele and stepwise mutation models. Genetics. 1995 Jun;140(2):679-95. PMID: 7498746; PMCID: PMC1206644.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you using the first word in your post, "typically", in an indirect generalized way or from a perspective of insider knowledge/awareness of apiculture? I ask because the paper you quote only cites a single additional study of unpublished results, which doesn't support the interpretation of "typically" to mean widespread as I think is implied from your post's wording. I don't know one way or the other, but I think it'd be good to clarify your wording and possibly explicitly indicate your knowledge of the subject so that future readers know how to frame your response. thanks. $\endgroup$ – theforestecologist Dec 11 '20 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ I slightly misunderstood the post and didn't notice it was talking about bee keepers in particular - I said 'typically' since microsats are (most likely - I don't have direct evidence) used in research to identify different Hymenoptera species/subspecies. I've got a reasonable amount of experience in population genetics of Hymenoptera, so that's what I'm going off. That paper is old, so the citations are out of data, but having a look here shows it is still common. Will amend the post to make it clear. $\endgroup$ – user438383 Dec 13 '20 at 17:07
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! I had a hunch that was the case. Again, I personally don't know one way or the other, and I just wanted to make sure your post was clear to others. Thanks for the update! $\endgroup$ – theforestecologist Dec 13 '20 at 17:26
  • $\begingroup$ @user438383: You mention "cheap [and] easy to run." Can you elaborate? I'm a beekeeper without any lab access, but I'm interested in this as a side-project. Are there tools available to the laymen to perform identify these microsatellite markers? $\endgroup$ – Werner Dec 14 '20 at 23:19
  • $\begingroup$ @Werner - good question - ill edit in the answer to my post soon. $\endgroup$ – user438383 Dec 17 '20 at 0:37

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