All That Buzz About Bees
A History of Honeybees
by Dorothy Rieke Honeybees have played an important role in the history of our country. Down through the years, farmers have been raising bees to pollinate fruits and vegetables and provide honey and other bee products for our use.
Perhaps the only association most of us have had with honeybees is a fear of a sting. How often have we moved quickly to avoid a confrontation with a bee that probably is just going about its business?
One of our neighbors had beehives. These were always “off-limits” to me. However, I was not averse to eating peanut butter sandwiches thickly spread with sweet, rich honey.
Problems in Great Britain
Centuries ago in Great Britain, economic conditions were deteriorating. Some people had no jobs and no hope of getting one. Great Britain actually seemed over-populated for its resources. The queen and her advisors spent hours trying to solve this economic problem.
Some in that group were evidently aware of the organization of beehives. Why not pattern their political and social systems after the bees’ organization? After all, there were the queen, workers, and the drones. Did not society have the same? The hive was ruled by the queen; the country of Great Britain was ruled by a queen. The hive had the workers so did Great Britain have employed workers. And, of course, the hive had the drones whose job was to mate with the queen. It seemed that Great Britain, at that time, had an overload of drones who had no jobs. During hard times, hives ejected the drones. Why not do the same with those who are unemployed? At that time, emigration seemed the answer to a difficult problem.
As it turned out, many were willing to leave Great Britain in search of better futures. Thousands boarded ships with few possessions and much hope.
Honeybees in America
Of course, honeybees were also transported to America, and unique kinds of beekeeping began.
Though there were over 20,000 species of wild bees in the Americas before Europeans brought the honeybee over in the early-1600s, most did not produce honey. The species of bee that produced honey were mostly found in the western and southern regions near and in Mexico and farther south.
The lack of an Algonquin word for “honeybee” gave rise to the myth that Native Americans named the bee “White Man’s Fly.” Of course, it is a myth; the Indigenous peoples had lived here thousands of years and had certainly encountered bees.
Uses for honey during colonial days
Honey was in great demand once honeybees were imported. Throughout history, honey has been used for sore throats, digestive disorders, skin problems, hay fever, and as an antiseptic in poultices to treat cuts and burns. Honey has been used as a salve to heal burns and prevent infections as an antibacterial for thousands of years. Recent medical news reports that honey sterilizes wounds and promotes healing and also reduces pain, odor, and wound size.
Colonial Beekeeping Methods
Colonial beekeeping was accomplished in several ways. Often the colonists waited until the winter months when bees were too sleepy to harvest honey. Using smoke to distract the bees, they cut the comb out and drained the honey.
One of the first types of bees brought to the colonies were the Black Russians, smaller than today’s honeybees. They were shipped to the Colonies in skeps or woven baskets. Later the colonists made tree hives. They cut down trees and utilized some parts of the trunk as hives with removable tops.
The Colonists liked gum trees because of the quick-rotting centers. These hives were called “bee gums.”
Later, the bees were housed in box hives, clay jars, or straw skeps. Some people made honeybees build nests in glass jars. They could then see how the hive worked.
Bees during the Revolutionary War
By the time the Revolutionary War broke out, honeybees had been in America for 133 years. Amazing but true, bees played roles in the American Revolution. The “Battle of the Bees” occurred in October of 1780 on McIntyre’s Farm in North Carolina.
Loyalists, led by Capt. John Doyle were traveling with sixty wagons to be filled with bags of corn and oats that they would steal from farmers because they needed to replenish their supplies.
A young boy told the McIntyre family that the enemies were coming to take their crops. The patriots hid on the farm and waited for the arrival of the British. As the British gathered the stock and began bagging the grain, some beehives were accidentally tipped over. As the bees attacked, so did the colonists. Eight loyalists were killed; 12 were wounded. Yelling, stinging, and confusion reigned until the British retreated.
Another story is about Charity Crabtree, a Philadelphia beekeeper. She kept soldiers busy by beating her bee skeps with a stick. Angry bees stung the Redcoats making them retreat. Then, she left to warn George Washington of an attack. Another version of this legend is that Charity, a Quaker young girl, was trying to leave to tell Washington of an attack on the fort when the British soldiers arrived. The story is that she upset her beehives and escaped on her horse to warn Washington.
Of course, in defense, honeybees will attack. Because of these incidents during the Revolutionary War, bees have earned a place in America’s history.
It is said that Washington commented, “Neither you nor your bees shall be forgotten when our country is at peace again. It was the cackling geese that saved Rome, but it was the bees that saved America.” This quote was in regard to Charity’s actions.
It is also recorded that on Christmas night, December 25, 1796, George Washington and his troops were crossing the ice-clad Delaware River during a winter storm. According to reports, George sat on an empty box once used as a beehive. Of course, it was winter. His mind was undoubtedly upon the coming fight. We assume that box was now empty; or if it was not, the bees were inactive during that cold winter weather. Evidently, he was not stung that cold winter evening.
Bees in recent days
Down through the years, bees have been especially beneficial. For some time, honey has been used in place of sugar. Many of us had experience with that during World War II. Beeswax is used for making shoe polishes, lipsticks, candles, and even to coat the insides of wine bottles. Years ago, and perhaps today in some locations, mead, an alcoholic beverage, was made with honey. Because of the popularity of bees and honey, a beehive was featured on coins.
Of course, beekeeping has changed since the Colonial days. Modern hives are easier and safer when harvesting honey, and the bees survive. Today, also, bees generally live through the winter with adequate food. Years ago, the hives would be cleared of honey, leaving the bees to starve.
Today, honey continues to be a valued item used in many ways. The enzymes, minerals, and vitamins in honey are especially healthful. It is the only food source that contains Pinocembrin, an antioxidant associated with improving brain function.
Yes, honeybees and honey have invaded our lives to assist in better living and better ways. However, honeybees are in danger today perhaps because of Colony Collapse Disorder. Because honeybees pollinate over one hundred different crops, they are extremely important to worldwide agriculture. One-third of what is eaten is pollinated by bees. Unfortunately, the most delicious crops adding “a special taste” will disappear if the bees aren’t active. The USDA recently announced that they will be supplying a subsidy toward saving honeybees. Let’s do all we can to see that bees are protected in our country.
HISTORY OF BEES — HOW BEES HELPED SAVE AMERICA. BUG SQUAD-Happenings in the insect world Kathy Keatley Garvey (Raid at McIntyre’s farm-/Charity Crabtree’s experience)Also, the experience with the soldiers and George Washington
HISTORY OF HONEY BEES. by Weebly Washington’s quote The Hive as a Colonization Model Early beekeeping Charity’s experience
HONEY BEES IN COLONIAL DAYS Buzz Beekeeping Suppiies
HONEY BEES IN AMERICA: WHITE MAN’S FLIES Fact or Fiction REVOLUTIONARY WAR JOURNAL
HISTORICAL BEEKEEPING ARTICLES; BEEKEEPING HISTORY Skeps, gums, or Bee Boxes
DOROTHY RIEKE, living in southeast Nebraska, is married to Kenneth and has one daughter. She has lived on farms all her life and has raised both chickens and turkeys.
Originally published in the March/April 2022 issue of Countryside and Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.