What’s the correct colour of bees? In Austria, it’s a toxic topic

Darker colony queens face risk of eradication in law favouring light-grey ones

By Denise Hruby

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Some of beekeeper Sandro Huter’s bees in Stockenboi, Austria, on Nov. 30, 2022. Huter defied the state’s order to replace queen bees that were “too dark” in colour with light-grey substitutes. (Ciril Jazbec/The New York Times)
Some of beekeeper Sandro Huter’s bees in Stockenboi, Austria, on Nov. 30, 2022. Huter defied the state’s order to replace queen bees that were “too dark” in colour with light-grey substitutes. (Ciril Jazbec/The New York Times)

Published: Sun 12 Feb 2023, 8:00 PM

Sandro Huter was determined to defend his bees, which were facing a looming death sentence.

A beekeeper in the forested Austrian state of Carinthia, Huter was proud of his colonies. His insects were industrious, healthy and so docile that he told the visiting state bee inspector there was no need to wear a bee suit or hat and veil.


But the bees’ demeanour was not what interested the state inspector on that fall day in 2018. The official’s attention was trained instead on an entirely different characteristic: the bees’ colour.

“My bees were too dark,” Huter recalled being told. “Leather brown-orange,” the inspector wrote in the state’s report.


To conform with the law, Huter would have to replace his dark queens with light-grey ones.

Huter refused. “It’s racial fanaticism,” he said.

Across the world, pesticides, new diseases, climate change and habitat loss are killing bees and other pollinators, which play an essential role in agriculture, at an ominous speed, with the mass die-off putting many fruits and grains at risk.

Yet the mostly rural state of Carinthia, which borders Slovenia and Italy, doesn’t care only about the health of the bees pollinating its apple orchards and chestnut trees. It also insists that all of them be Carniolan honey bees, with their signature light-gray abdominal rings, the only subspecies that state law has allowed here since 2007.

As with all domesticated and semi-domesticated animals, bees have long been bred by their keepers for certain traits, and the Carniolan is considered well adapted for its alpine home, better than other honey bees at surviving the snowy winters and often capricious weather. And while Carniolans will aggressively defend their hives against parasites and honey thieves, they are known to be quite docile around their human handlers.

So Carinthia’s law has many supporters among the state’s apiarists, eager to keep unwelcome characteristics out of the local bee gene pool. The neighbouring state of Styria has a similar law, as does Slovenia.

But the law’s opponents see in it at least the echo of the area’s Nazi past — and cite Nazi history to further their point.

“It’s a racist dictatorship, just like under the Nazis,” said Gerhard Klinger, the head of a beekeeping association in the valley of Lavanttal, where there are 10 continuing legal proceedings against beekeepers accused of harbouring impure hives.

The Third Reich’s head beekeeper, Gottfried Götze, was a champion of Carniolan honey bees, and he was convinced that native bees should be the exclusive choice relied on to supply honey to the Wehrmacht as well as the beeswax used in bombs.

“What use is importing foreign breeds,” Götze wrote in a beekeeping magazine in 1938, “if our local German bee is lost?”

Beekeeper Sandro Huter tends to his bees in Stockenboi, Austria on Nov. 30, 2022. Huter and other beekeepers in the region insist that their bees are also Carniolans, and that some of them simply come in different colors. (Ciril Jazbec/The New York Times)
Beekeeper Sandro Huter tends to his bees in Stockenboi, Austria on Nov. 30, 2022. Huter and other beekeepers in the region insist that their bees are also Carniolans, and that some of them simply come in different colors. (Ciril Jazbec/The New York Times)

While Götze was obsessed with keeping the Carniolan honey bees genetically distinct, the bees themselves were indifferent to the colour of their mating partners. To try to control the bees’ reproduction, the Nazis instructed beekeepers to bring their queens to mating stations where pedigreed Carniolan drones awaited them.

But the fences that control the mating of cows or pigs can’t be erected for bees, and studies suggest that around a half-billion of Carinthia’s bees — or more than one-quarter of the total population in its estimated 45,000 bee colonies — are now too dark, too brown, too orange or too yellow to qualify as Carniolan.

Those in favour of keeping Carinthia a Carniolan-exclusive zone point to such numbers as both a threat and evidence that the law needs stricter enforcement.

“It is perfectly adapted to this region, over thousands of years,” said Kurt Strmljan, 67, surrounded by his apple and plum trees. “This is the ancestral home of the Carniolan,” he added. “That’s something worthy of being protected.”

He recalled how his father had placed him in charge of his first Carniolan colony when he was 8. At that time, he insists, “there were no foreign-race bees.”

Now a retiree, Strmljan sees his dreams of passing down his Carniolan bees to his 9-year-old granddaughter endangered.

Diluting the Carniolans’ genetic purity, he worries, “will make them aggressive, just like any mixed breed,” and they might attack his granddaughter, he worried.

The Carniolan question has led to an escalating conflict between the state’s apiarists, with some even chasing after wrong-coloured culprits and snapping photographs of the hives they return to as evidence used to inform on fellow beekeepers and get the state to open an investigation.

Both sides describe an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, in which the discourse is so toxic that many refuse to talk about their bees. The state councillor in charge of agriculture, Martin Gruber, said he would not give an interview on the issue before local elections in March.

Strmljan and others suspect that some of the state’s beekeepers have illegally imported other, potentially more productive subspecies to ramp up honey volume. Huter and others deny this accusation, insisting that their bees are also Carniolans, and that some of them simply come in different colours.

Indeed, colour alone is not a foolproof way to identify a Carniolan, according to scientists.

“It’s difficult to try and define it on color alone without investigating the genetic background in each one,” said Kirsten Traynor, the director of the institute for bee research at the University of Hohenheim in Stuttgart, Germany. Mixed mating can also improve a hive’s health and vitality, Traynor added. “Studies show that when you have genetically diverse drones that the queen mates with, the colony is actually more resistant against diseases,” she said.

Since Huter’s hives were investigated five years ago, the state has come to accept that color alone cannot be the only determining factor, so now when a hive is inspected, sample bees are sent for further analysis, where an expert examines the bees’ wings, the width of their abdominal rings and the length of their body hairs.

If the measurements of more than two of 50 collected specimens deviate from Carniolan characteristics, the entire colony is flagged and, under the current law, the queen bees must be replaced.

For now, Huter’s bees have eluded any executions.

After being ordered by the state to get rid of his dark queens, Huter appealed his case to the federal administrative court in Vienna — and he won, with the court calling the state’s approach “grossly unlawful,” in part because at the time it was relying solely on a bee’s colour.

Partly in response to that federal court ruling, which faulted the state for failing to say with more precision what makes a bee a true Carniolan, Carinthia is considering proposed amendments to the state law that would more explicitly define the subspecies — and would stiffen the penalties for both impure bees and the humans who raise them.

The maximum fine for keepers who harbour mixed bees would be raised to 7,500 euros (about $8,160) from 5,000 (about $5,440). (Some in the pro-Carniolan camp had pushed for prison sentences.)

But for bees, it’s much worse: Under the proposed law, which is subject to approval by the state’s parliament, if there’s an “imminent danger” of mixed mating — for example, with a neighbour’s hives — authorities can immediately seize and eradicate not only the colony’s queens, but the entire offending hive.

Although she supports the stricter law, the bee inspector who visited Huter’s colony in 2018, Barbara Kircher, said she did worry about the public outcry that would most likely follow state workers’ killing an entire colony, which typically has 40,000 to 80,000 bees.

“We’d be described as mass murderers,” Kircher said, shortly before she retired from her role in December.

Traynor, the bee expert, said the state’s urge to protect desirable traits in its bees was understandable. “Local breeding makes a lot of sense because those bees are adapted to a local region,” she said.

But she said the common focus in German-speaking countries in particular on the racial purity of a subspecies was misplaced.

“In other countries, you have more of a ‘let’s try to combine all the best characteristics in one bee, regardless of where those genetics come from,’” she said. “Race purity among human populations has been problematic, and I don’t know why we are trying to do the same thing for a managed piece of livestock.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times


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