The Identification of Honeybee Subspecies

The African Honeybee and the Western Honeybee

African honeybees and Western honeybees cannot be easily identified. Testing methods have been based on morphology.

African or "Africanized" honeybees are hybrids. Difficulties arise when attempting to discriminate between honeybee subspecies. This task proves especially challenging since honeybee subspecies or races are continuously crossbreeding, creating an overlapping system of hybridity. As of yet, a morphological key for honeybee subspecies does not exist.

Two certified methods of identification:

  • FABIS (Fast Africanized Bee Identification System)

  • USDA-ID (Universal System for Detecting Africanization through Identification based on morphology)

Honey Bees

[COLOSS- Notes on Morphometry:  "There is no morphological "key" to honey bee subspecies, no simple logical tree based on a sequence of single discriminating characters. Instead, measurable morphometric characters show gradual changes and their ranges mostly overlap between subspecies. Thus, subspecies often differ only slightly in the mean values of several body characters, and therefore advanced statistical methods are required for discrimination of groups. The concept of numerical taxonomy was introduced into honey bee taxonomy by DuPraw (1964, 1965) and further elaborated by Ruttner et al. (1978)."

"Consequently, these subtle and gradual morphological differences lead to the questions of how many body characters should be measured and which ones should be chosen. Various body parts, falling into four main categories, have been used in morphometric analyses, starting with the first studies of Alpatov (1929): characters of body size, colouration patterns, wing venation characteristics, and characteristics of pilosity. Their descriptions are scattered over the literature, and the most commonly used characters are listed in Table 3. A core set of 36 characters selected for discriminative power is described in Ruttner (1988), containing the recognised measurements referred to as "classical morphometry".


A quick field test used for identification  

Fast Africanized Bee Identification System

FABIS is a quick, preliminary and low cost testing method used for screening a large number of honeybee colonies. The test requires measuring ten or more forewings of honeybee workers collected from a single colony. 

Other testing methods are preferred if you need a more complete characterization of a honeybee colony. In that case, you can use a combination of testing methods, including morphometric, mtDNA or micro satellites. 


A more extensive testing method  

Identification testing procedure using Classical Morphometric Analysis, as defined by Ruttner. This test is called USDA-ID, which stands for the Universal System for African Bee Identification. 

  • Developed at the USDA, ARS, Honey-Bee Breeding, Genetics & Physiology Research Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

  • Based on research done at the University of California at Berkeley by Dr. Howell V. Daly.

  • The probabilities are based on average measurements of groups of bees from a single source, rather than measurements of individual bees.

  • Test uses 35 morphological characters to distinguish between subspecies.

  • Baseline for program created by analyzing over 21,000 honey bee samples.Samples collected from USA, Mexico, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Argentina, Brazil and Australia.

Morphometrics are the measurement and analysis of form. As crossbreeding occurs among honeybee subspecies, gradual morphological changes can be tracked. (As honeybee subspecies crossbreed, gradual changes can be tracked morphologically.) The USDA-ID testing method has traditionally looked at five main honeybee body parts. The body parts used are the following: the forewing, the hindwing, the leg, which includes the femur, the tibia and the basitarsis, along with the hamuli, which are velcro-like hooks that bind the forewing and the hindwing together.  

*Note on Sampling

  • Each sample should come from one swarm, colony or hive and not be a composite sample.

  • Collect 30-40 bees from a single honey bee colony.

  • Collect worker bees from inside hive- brood area.

  • Avoid catching the queen.

Bees sample dish.jpg


Each sample should come from one swarm, colony or hive and not be a composite sample.

Collect 30-40 bees from a single honey bee colony.

Collect female worker bees from inside hive in the brood area.

Avoid catching the queen.

Excellent resource: COLOSS, "Standard methods for characterising subspecies and ecotypes of Apis mellifera"