The honeybee (Apis mellifera,) also known as the European honey bee or the Western honeybee, is not a native species to North America. As their name suggests, they were imported to this continent by European settlers. In a letter from the Council of the Virginia Company in London, dated December 5, 1622 we find the first mention of beehives being shipped by the Virginia Company aboard The Discovery. The letter reads: “Wee haue… sent you diurs [diverse] sortes of seedes, and fruit trees, as also Pidgeons, Connies, Peacockes Maistiues [Mastiffs], and Beehives, as you shall by the invoice pceiue [perceive]; the preservation & encrease whereof we respond vnto you…” (Goodwin 1956; Kingsbury 1906:532).” Honeybees perhaps arrived in North America a year or more prior to the arrival of The Discovery. Some historians believe they were also transported on The Hopewell, but there are no definitive records (from my research at least) that confirm this assumption.
Upon the bees arrival in the Virginia colony, they did indeed increase, and with great rapidity. Abundant flora, long pollinated by native bees, in addition to the trees and plant species carried over from from the Old World, helped the honeybee to flourish. Often, swarming honeybees arrived in unsettled regions before the settlers could make the same journey. Native Americans took notice of them, dubbing them the “white man’s fly.”
Prior to the middle of the 1800’s, most bee hives in North America were simple and in some instances quite rustic. Commonly used in Europe (and therefore in the early days of American history as well,) the skep was a woven basket in which the bees took residence, building their combs directly onto the walls, starting from the top and working their way down. Many early American beekeepers constructed box hives to house the bees instead of skeps, since there was an abundance of wood and a lack of skilled basket weavers in rural regions. These box hives ranged from very primitive shelters to elaborate, decorative structures. My own great-grandfather kept bees in log “gums” throughout the hills of eastern Kentucky. These sorts of bee hives were known as “fixed-comb hives.” The main issue with using fixed-comb hives was that in order to harvest honey the entire colony must be disrupted and oftentimes completely destroyed.
Seeing the flaw in this method, beekeepers began experimenting with different configurations of housing for their bees. For some, that meant a hive box with side and top compartments with passageways for the bees. Others added removable sections of boxes or skeps in order to prevent colony destruction during honey harvesting.
“Were we to kill a hen for her egg, the cow for her milk, or the sheep for the fleece it bears, everyone would instantly see how much we should act contrary to our own interests; and yet this is practised every year, in our inhuman and impolitic slaughter of the bees.” -Thomas Wildman
Such innovation continued into the 19th century when Reverend Lorenzo L. Langstroth was credited with the invention of the first bee hive designed with fully removable frames and was granted a patent for his design. In addition to the ingenuity of removable frames, Rev. Langstroth was the first American credited with the discovery of “bee space;” the concept that bees need 3/8″ space between surfaces to travel within the hive, lest these voids be filled with either propolis or comb. His book “The Hive and the Honeybee” was published for the first time in 1853 and is still in print today, more than 40 editions later. Rev. Langstroth’s hive design is what most modern American beekeepers are familiar with.
In 1869, an Ohioan named Amos Ives Root founded the A. I. Root company: the first to mass manufacture Langstroth’s design. At the height of production, the A. I. Root company was shipping four railroad cars full of beekeeping equipment to be sold each day. Like Rev. Langstroth before him, Root also published a book, titled “ABC of Bee Culture” in 1879. His periodical “Gleanings in Bee Culture,” more commonly known by modern beekeepers as its successor entitled “Bee Culture,” is still an active publication today.
Since the days of Langstroth and Root, much in the beekeeping world has changed. Before their era, it was common for most folks in rural areas to keep a hive or two of honeybees, utilizing them for their honey and wax. Over time, the tradition and necessity of keeping bees diminished as many rural dwellers traded their farms and country homes for more urban and industrialized lives; bees became less commonplace in daily life. That trend began to shift as a result of Langstroth’s ingenuity doubled with the entepreneurial abilities of Root; their advancements made beekeeping simpler and more feasible for a greater number of individuals than ever before. Now honey could be extracted faster and in larger quantities without harming the colonies, and beehives could be transported from place to place with relative ease, setting the stage for the age of commercial beekeeping as we have come to know it.
These improvements and commercialization of the trade have in turn had a substantial impact on the American food system and therefore our economy as well. Take for example the almond groves of California. Each February, millions of hives (2.6 hives roughly) are brought into the almond groves of Southern California’s central valley for the sole purpose of pollination. Without these honeybees to pollinate the blossoms, the number and quality of almonds produced would be negligible. When their short time with the almonds is complete, these migratory hives travel from California to pollinate various crops around the country, being packed by the pallet load onto 18-wheelers, driven hundreds and thousands of miles to pollinate more crops. These bees will visit blueberries and apples in Michigan, cranberries in Wisconsin, cantaloupes, watermelon, and cucumbers in Texas. In fact, one out of every three bites of food that humans consume is dependent upon these fascinating little insects. From apples, cherries, and lettuce, to the alfalfa eaten by the cattle that will become beef, our very food supply relies heavily on pollination. Honey production itself, while profitable, is a small portion of the benefits that we reap from the humble honeybee.
As modern American beekeepers, we face challenges that the keepers of the past did not. The first of these threats appeared in the United States on July 3, 1984: the tracheal mite. These mites spread quickly from the location of their primary detection in Weslaco, TX through the nation by means of transport and sale of colonies. Though these parasites still pose a danger to honeybees, chemical and holistic treatment in addition to selective breeding techniques have greatly diminished this threat. Only three short years after the discovery of tracheal mites on U.S. soil, Varroa destructor was detected in American bee colonies. To this moment, Varroa is the arch nemesis of the bees, and henceforth their keepers, wreaking havoc in colonies nationwide. There is no silver bullet for the treatment of varroa, as they adapt and become unaffected by repetitive chemical and all-natural treatments. The Darwinian approach of “survival of the fittest” while in theory seems to be a fitting solution to some, it does not curtail the immediate issue at hand faced by commercial and backyard beekeepers alike. Still other maladies faced by the bees include pesticide exposure and lack of habitat due to monoculture farming and lack of biodiversity in many areas. But the bees are resilient, and always find a way to survive and thrive with or without the help of the beekeeper.
The honeybee’s rich history is woven through by-gone eras of time, preceding America and their establishment here. Their story continues to grow and transform as the beekeepers of today continue to learn and expand upon the ways in which we can be better stewards of our colonies, to keep them healthy, and allow them every opportunity to thrive. Even if you aren’t a beekeeper, you can appreciate the heritage of American beekeeping and the wondrous impact that this occupation has on the world in which live. Plant some extra flowers on your patio this year. Let the dandelions grow in your lawn. Consider where your food comes from. Buy some honey from your local beekeeper. And if you’re very brave, take the plunge and join us on this fantastic and chaotic journey and become a “keeper of the bees;” it will be a time in your own history that will never be forgotten.
For more detailed information on the honeybee’s history in North America, feel free to visit any of these links.