Author: Roger Sutherland
Did you know that Michigan used to be the center of honey bee queen rearing in this country? That
more clover honey was produced in the Thumb than anywhere else? That the Michigan Beekeepers’
Association is the oldest continuous bee association in the country? That much of the early honey
bee research was done at Michigan State University? That Michigan, which continually ranks in the
top ten honey-producing states, has played a major role in beekeeping history?
Beekeeping is perhaps the oldest form of agriculture in the United States and the world. In the
mid to late 1700s, the early pioneers and Native Americans in the Ypsilanti area and Southeastern
Michigan began to notice the arrival of a new kind of insect, one that was different from other bees
and insects. This new arrival made nests in cavities of trees or buildings. It stored quantities of
honey and wintered over in large numbers. Each spring the colonies swarmed and filled the air
creating a loud noise. Native Americans referred to these new arrivals as the “Lazy white man’s
flies.” Conventional wisdom at that time was that these insects signaled the impending arrival of
large numbers of white men and their families.
Scientifically the new arrival would be named Apis mellifera or honey bee to
differentiate it from the bumble bee or any other native bee. It is thought that Apis
mellifera originated in the Middle East or Northern Africa, the only one of the four known
honey bee species to make nests in cavities. The other three species make exposed wax comb nests
readily exploited by mammals (including man), birds, and insects.
In areas where there were large mature trees, honey bees made nests in hollow tree cavities.
Beekeepers would locate these trees, cut openings into the nest, remove the honey and maintain the
nest. To establish legal ownership of the nest, their initials were carved into the tree; this was
a common practice up through the late 1700s in the Michigan Territory and throughout the United
When maintaining these hives in trees away from home became less desirable, beekeepers would cut
the trees down and transport the logs containing hives to their homes. These hives became known as a
“log gum hives.” In areas where grains such as wheat and rye were raised, beekeepers would make
straw rope and weave it into a basket-shaped hives called skeps.
Honey was useful to mankind in many ways. It was the only sweetening used until granulated sugar
and maple syrup became available in the early 1600s. It served not only as a food, but also as a
medicine and a preservative. Some beekeepers added water to liquid honey and allowed it to ferment
to produce a wine called mead, probably the first wine known to mankind. In the middle ages, honey
wine was served as a ceremonial wine at weddings. It was common practice to give the new bride and
groom enough mead to last until the next full moon to insure a happy marriage and healthy offspring.
The name given to this period was the “honeymoon.” Beeswax, the empty cells in which honey is
stored, had a number of important uses: candles, sealant for canned goods, cosmetics and other uses
too numerous to address here.
After the arrival and establishment of honey bees in Virginia and Massachusetts, bees began to
move westward after swarming each year; it is estimated that they moved about 50 miles a year. The
first documented honey bee swarm in Southeast Michigan was reported in 1776. When Michigan
homesteaders began clearing the forest for cultivation, bee trees could be maintained on location,
split open for removal of the honey and bees, or cut apart and transported to a place where other
such nests had been established-an apiary.
In the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, many scientific experiments were conducted to learn
more about honey bee biology. Observations made in 1792 by Francois Huber, who was blind, and his
servant determined that queen bees were developed from worker bees, that the queen (not king) ruled
the hive, and that the cause of swarming was overcrowding. In 1851, Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth
developed the 10 frame movable frame hive which essentially did away with the skep and
revolutionized the beekeeping industry. The interior dimensions of the hive were based on the
principle of “bee space.” Langstroth realized that bees leave open a space of 5/16”, build
extra wax comb in spaces over 3/8” and deposit propolis (a gummy substance from plants) in spaces
of ¼” or less. Rev. Langstroth became known as the “Father of Modern Beekeeping.”
For the commercial beekeeper, who has hundreds of hives to move, his hives are trucked to Florida
in the fall to pollinate the citrus crop. Then in January, these hives are moved to California for
pollination of the almonds, a period of about two weeks, before returning to Florida. As spring
approaches, there are pollination contracts to fulfill in Georgia, Tennessee, and other southern
states before moving northward along the east coast, finally ending up in the blueberry fields in
Maine. This practice is very stressful to the bees themselves and often results in unhealthy
Black bears have become a problem to Michigan beekeepers especially in the northern part of the
state. While the bear has a bad reputation for destroying many colonies in Michigan as well as in
other states, the bear and honey have had a long positive relationship in marketing honey and this
is how it came about: It all started in Canada in 1914 when Harry Colebourn, a veterinarian from
Winnipeg, was drafted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force in charge of the Calvary horses being
sent to France to fight in World War I. When he arrived in White River, a mother black bear had been
killed leaving twin cubs. Harry Colebourn purchased one of the cubs and took it with him on the
train headed for Val Cartier, Quebec. When they sailed to England, the cub, now named Winnipeg (or
Winnie), became a tamed, welcome pet aboard ship. In England, the bear slept in the soldier’s tent
and was taught tricks and loved by all.
Soon Captain Colebourn received orders to be shipped to France. Knowing that Winnie could not
accompany him, he made arrangements with the London Zoo to look after the bear until he returned
from France. Winnie immediately became a favorite attraction for everyone. She would allow children
to ride on her back and would eat from their hands.
Two of the zoo visitors, A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin, were especially taken by
Winnie. Christopher added the name Pooh to the bear’s name and even had a birthday party at the
zoo with friends and Winnie as well. A.A. Milne started to write stories about a lovable
honey-loving bear in a book called Winnie-the-Pooh.
Harry Colebourn decided to leave the bear at the zoo when he went back to Canada. Winnie died in
May 1934 when she was twenty years old. By now millions of children had read about Winnie-the-Pooh
and her adventures with Christopher Robin and the other animals in the story.
Since 1966, my wife and I have been keeping bees in Superior Township. During those 46 years we
have witnessed major changes in maintaining viable hives. For the first 20 years our winter colony
losses were 10-15%. Colonies were strong early each spring and honey production averaged 100+ pounds
per hive. Mated queens could last 3 to 5 years before replacement; now queens last only 1 or 2
Since 1985, there has been one new problem after another affecting our colonies. Winter colony
losses now average 30 -50% and colonies that do survive are often very weak in the spring. Honey
yields are now in the range of 60-70 pounds per hive and in some years no honey can be removed
because 60 to 90 pounds of honey must be left in the hive for the bees to consume over the
The list of causes related to bee health and survival is too long to detail and new threats seem
to arise each year without the removal of past problems. Problems since 1985 include: two parasitic
mites which have built up immunity to the medications being used for control; the use of new
pesticides used in agriculture that affect the health of the honey bee; colony collapse disease; and
a fungus disease called Nosema.
Northern states like Michigan often have long cold winters which greatly stress honey bees. After
the long and cold winter of 2010-11, colony losses were more than 50% in Southeastern Michigan.
While the mild winter of 2011-12 favored winter survival, the early warm Michigan spring caused
blossoming in March of apple, peach and pear trees as well as locust and basswood, blossoms that
were frozen in April. As a result, there was no supply of nectar for bees when it was needed to
Making matters worse has been the drought of this summer which has dramatically reduced nectar
secretion in flowers. To make up for the loss of nectar, beekeepers must feed their bees sugar syrup
which will make them less likely to consume their winter honey stores. We can only hope that our
bees survive the winter of 2012-13.
In spite of all the problems, we still enjoy working with honey bees and continue to learn more
about this fascinating insect. One of our greatest joys is sharing honey bee information with
[Roger Sutherland, active in the local honey bee program, is a supporter of honey bee
1. Beekeeping is perhaps the oldest form of agriculture in the United States and the world
2. Beekeepers would locate bee nests in hollow tree cavities, cut openings into the nest and
remove the honey
3. In 1851, Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth developed the 10 frame movable frame hive which
revolutionized the beekeeping industry
4. Pooh Bear in the “Hunny Pot”