A Taste of Beekeeping History

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Winter 2012,
Winter 2012

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 States.

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 bees.

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 months.

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 winter.

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 produce honey.

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 others.

[Roger Sutherland, active in the local honey bee program, is a supporter of honey bee restoration efforts.]


Photo Captions:

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”