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A Honeybee History

bee_pollinating_applesAs spring has finally come into full swing here on the 1900 farm, the cherry, pear, and apple blossoms in the orchard and fresh shoots of clover emerging in the hayfields have reminded me of the importance of bees to the farm.  Despite spending most of my life being terrified of all stinging insects, I have come to have a great respect, appreciation, and love for honeybees. 

Honeybees are one of nature’s most important helpers and are essential to the human food supply.  As much as one third of crops grown for human consumption rely on insect pollination, and of that one third, honeybees are responsible for 80%.  It’s not only human crops that depend on bees, though.  Clover and other animal feed crops also depend on these tiny insects.  These statistics make the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder particularly disturbing.  I’ve seen several news stories lately detailing the decline of the honeybee worldwide.  While modern beekeepers — or apiarists — are working hard to ensure their colonies continue to thrive, I thought I’d give you a little history on beekeeping.

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Humans have been keeping honeybees in artificial hives since antiquity, beginning in ancient Egypt where bees were kept in pottery vessels and woven straw baskets called skeps.  These skeps are what whimsical beehive motifs are often based on, and they are still made today.  This is a picture of a skep with bees on it.

Pictures dating as far back as 2422 BCE show workers blowing smoke  into hives and collecting honeycombs on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini, an Egyptian Pharaoh from the Fifth Dynasty.  Sealed jars of honey have also been found in the tombs of pharaohs such as Tutankhamun.

In the United States, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth is widely accepted as the “father of American beekeeping.  He published a classic book regarding the subject in 1853 called The Hive and Honey-bee.  The American Bee Journal came into publication in January of 1861 and continues to be published today.  It is an excellent periodical resource on keeping bees.  The May 24, 1900 issue of the American Bee Journal includes an article titled Pollination the Best Work of the Honey-Bees.

A poignant quote from this article states, “Nature abhors close fertilization,” emphasizing nature’s design for cross-pollination and the role bees play in making that possible.  Furthermore, it notes that even though many fruits such as apples and pears have a pistil and stamen in very close proximity to one another within the same flower, the fruits are sterile to their own pollen, and thus must be cross-pollinated for full fruitage.  Some plants even insist on cross-pollination or they will produce no crop at all.  The article goes on to say that when good trees produce many flowers and no fruit, one should first suspect a lack of pollination.

The author of this article, Prof. A J Cook, tells a story about visiting his sister on the Sacramento River in 1891.  She was distressed by an orchard that had formerly been producing heavy crops but had declined that year.  She said the trees had bloomed heavily but the fruit had not set.  Prof. Cook asked her if there had been less bees than in previous years and she noted that this was the case.  She arranged for a local apiarist to move his bees to her orchard and received great benefit from having the bees there right away.

It’s important to remember, though, that in 1900 bees were being kept for honey as much or more so than for their pollination benefits.  Many articles in the American Bee Journal deal with issues regarding the harvesting of honey.  There are articles on equipment such as smokers and techniques such as removing supers full of rich honey and beeswax.  The June 7, 1900 even features a front page article on Marketing Honey–Carton Suggestions. 

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It seems, in fact, that by 1900, beekeeping had become much more of a business than in years past.  One article in the June 14, 1900 issue examines the advantages of bees on the farm.  The author notes that years ago it was common to see a group of beehives near the farm house, but by 1900 they were much more sparse.  It’s stated that, “one may travel many miles without even the sight of a hive.”  The specialization of honey production did a double disservice to farmers, though, as it left many areas of the country out of the reach of the bees.  This meant that honey wasn’t as readily available across the country, nor was the pollination service of the bees.  The author says if asked, the average farmer would likely say the double duty expected of bees is, “making honey and stinging.”  He goes on to say that if no bees are kept within two miles of a farm, the farm would do well to keep a hive – even if they never harvest a drop of honey from them.

It’s funny for me to think that farmers wouldn’t know the benefits of keeping bees for the health of their plants.  Keep in mind, however, the next time you enjoy a delicious spoonful of honey, that the honey is merely a delicious byproduct of the wonderful work of bees.  Rather, the next time you bite into a crisp, ripe apple, think of the bee that pollinated that flower.  They truly are magnificent creatures.

The Hive and the Honeybee – Historical resources on beekeeping

The American Bee Journal

Iowa Honey Producers Association est. 1912

Written by Kelly Clime, 1900 Farm Manager