Honeybee History: A Spring Preparation

A little history, a little mystery, a little practical advice

Honeybee History: A Spring Preparation

Reading Time: 7 minutes

By Tom Theobald As I said in the last article, we share a long and intimate history with the honeybee, much further back than most would ever imagine. There’s little doubt that the honeybee and its sweet treasure would have attracted the attention of our earliest ancestors and they most certainly endured many painful stings to exploit the bees’ resources. The earliest tangible record comes from a cave painting in eastern Spain from about 9,000 years ago. It shows and individual ascending vines to a colony of bees, a basket under one arm to hold the honeycomb. In some instances, colonies in hollow trunks or limbs may have been brought back to a seasonal camp to be protected from others and it’s quite likely that bees may have been our first venture into husbandry as we began to shift from hunting and gathering to agriculture.

Among the first beekeepers were the Egyptians. Their bees were kept in clay tiles and they were the first migratory beekeepers, loading their bees on rafts to follow the season as they floated down the Nile, selling their honey in Cairo at the end of their journey. On their own and through trade honeybees spread to Greece and then north into Europe and the British Isles. Honey was a delicacy reserved for the wealthy and powerful, with some no doubt diverted by the peasant class who were the actual keepers of the bees.

Honeybees aren’t native to North America, but it wasn’t long after settlement that they were brought across the North Atlantic. The first colonies arrived in 1622, and through swarming began moving across the continent just as they had spread out over Europe. While North America had a wide variety of native pollinators, many of the Old World crops failed to thrive in the absence of the honeybee, and in addition bees were an important source, the only source, of beeswax put to a variety of uses, primarily for high quality candles.

Swarming is the way bees divide and multiply. In the spring and early summer, as the population of the colonies grows, the bees become crowded and their response to that crowding is to begin raising new queens. Just before those new queens emerge the old queen will leave with a sizeable portion of the population, headed for a new home. In a really strong colony there may be multiple swarms. The first and largest is the “prime swarm” with the old queen, then one or more “after swarms,” smaller and each with one of the newly emerged queens.

There wasn’t much real management of the bees in those early days so nearly every healthy colony swarmed in the spring and often the spread of these swarms preceded settlement by many miles. Native Americans were closely attuned to everything in the natural environment so of course they noticed the arrival of this new insect and called it “the white man’s fly” because they soon learned that the appearance of the honeybee meant that settlement was not far behind.

Swarming is one of the fascinating mysteries of beekeeping, we think we understand it, but not completely. Before swarming takes place foragers are house hunting, checking out potential new homes. It is believed that they actually measure the volume of a cavity. The first flight of a swarm is usually short, I’ve always said that they will land on the first thing that sticks out of the ground, a tree, a post, your neighbor’s mail box. There’s a practical reason for this. The old queen has probably only flown once in her lifetime, and while she will stop laying eggs for the last few days to lighten her load, she isn’t a natural athlete. I picture her huffing and puffing after that first short flight and she needs a day to recover her strength. A swarm will typically spend the first night clustered in a mass and take off mid-morning the following day. Among the many potential sites the foragers have previously investigated, somehow this mass of bees decides which of those it will go to.

The bees moved west and north from those first colonies brought over from England and it took them 170 years to reach the Mississippi River. The first swarm on record to cross the Mississippi was in 1792 and it landed in the garden of Mme Choteau (of the Choteau family of fur trade fame) in St. Louis. By 1809 they were reported by British naturalist John Bradbury 900 miles up the Missouri River. Bradbury was a member of the Hunt Expedition, the first group up the Missouri after Lewis and Clark.

While the bees were moving up the Missouri River at a rapid pace, the Great Plains represented an insurmountable barrier, lacking in natural cavities for nest sites and dependable bloom throughout the season. It was up to man to take them further west. The first bees in California, 12 colonies, arrived in San Francisco by steamship in March of 1853, brought by botanist Christopher Shelton. Only one colony survived the first year, but the following spring it threw three swarms and that was the beginning of bees in California. In my home state of Colorado the first colony of bees was brought by ox cart across the plains in the early summer of 1861 by Isaac McBroom. McBroom’s bees died the first winter, but others were subsequently brought across the plains by early farmers who had the same experience as the first settlers on the east coast, without the familiar honey bee many of the crops they brought west failed to thrive.

I said in the last article that any of you considering beekeeping should hit the books and I hope you’ve done so, but let me sketch out some of the basics because now is the time to start making preparations if you plan to be a new beekeeper. There are two basic requirements, bees and something to put them in, a hive, that’s pretty obvious, but there are choices to be made. Back to the history for a minute. Up until the middle of the 18th century beekeeping was a pretty primitive affair and there wasn’t any real management, we provided the nest sites—hollow log “gums”, clay tiles, straw skeps – let the bees swarm as they would, and harvested the honey and beeswax at the end of the season, often destructive to the colony, akin to cleaning the seeds from a pumpkin.

Enter the Reverend L.L. Langstroth, a Yale educated gentleman farmer/philosopher of his time, who among his many interests was exploring better ways to manage bees. In 1851 as he was returning home from his beeyard he thought about what he had observed in his colonies, that when left to their own devices the bees maintain an even spacing between the combs, about 3/8ths of an inch, what I think of as the space required for two bees to work comfortably back to back on adjacent combs. Anyway, Langstroth reasoned that if he were to build a wooden frame to hold the honeycomb and designed a hive where all of the free space was 3/8ths of an inch, he should be able to take those frames out, examine them, move them around, and for the first time actually manage a colony of bees. In 1851 Langstroth designed such a hive and it worked beautifully, just as he thought, and that simple, elegant concept of the bee space was the foundation of all of modern beekeeping.

I know there are other types of hives, but for beginners I definitely recommend a Langstroth hive. Get your feet on the ground, understand what the dynamics of a colony are and what your role is in the husbandry of bees. You’ll have enough to learn in the first two or three years and once you feel comfortable with your beekeeping skills you can consider some of the alternatives, such as the top bar hive or the Warre hive. Although frequently touted as more natural, less intrusive ways to keep bees, in fact they require even more perceptive and involved beekeeping to be done properly. Save these novelty approaches for later.

So what will you need? The basic requirement is two hive bodies, also called deep supers, with 10 frames of honeycomb in each. If you start with a package (I’ll cover that in the next article), you need one hive body to start, and will most likely need the second by mid-summer. Those twohive bodies are the year ‘round home for the colony. In addition, you will need shallower boxes, called honey supers, to store surplus honey. They probably won’t be needed the first year, but should be on hand in case your bees are more successful than anticipated. In most regions we expect a new colony to fill out two hive bodies and make their winter stores the first year. A bottom and top are needed of course, and for each super 10 frames and foundation, the base for the comb which the bees will draw out and complete. There are many good suppliers of beekeeping equipment and most will give good exploded views of the hive parts. Go to some of their catalogs. You will also need a bee suit and veil, a hive tool and a smoker, plus assorted paraphernalia that you can figure out as you go. My advice would be to look at a number of suppliers, pick one and stick with them as you add woodenware over the years.

If you have a beekeepers’ association close by, join it, start going to their  meetings and make connections with established beekeepers. Subscribe to one or both of the national magazines, The American Bee Journal or Bee Culture. Another good one is The Small Beekeepers Journal published in Apple River, Illinois by Terry Ingram (300 E Hickory St., Apple River, IL 61001). As well, on the internet, there are a host of blogs and sites done by beekeepers for beekeepers.

Get your inventory of equipment figured out and ordered in January so you can start assembling the first hive body and frames, for what you will need next — bees.

There are basically three ways to get bees. The first is to buy an established colony from another beekeeper. This is a little like buying a used car and my recommendation would be that if you choose this course, take along a good friend who is an experienced beekeeper to help you kick the tires and honk the horn. A second option would be to catch a swarm. This is a chancy approach unless you live in an area where you know that swarms are common in the spring, and there are fewer and fewer of these. If you miss a swarm you’ve missed the season. The third approach is to purchase a “package.” A package of bees is a box about the size of a double shoe box, screened on two sides. Bees are sold by the pound (3,500 per pound). I would recommend a three-pound package, that will give a new colony a good start.

And where do you get these packages? There are queen breeders and package producers in the southeast, south and in California Getting them delivered may be problematical, but in most areas beekeepers get together and make a group order, often designating someone to make a trip to bring back a load of packages. Some beekeepers have specialized rigs and haul semi-loads of packages from California, making drops along the way at various points. Make arrangements early for any packages you plan to buy, with all the losses across the country the demand for packages is likely to be high, don’t procrastinate and miss out. Local beekeepers’ associations are often good sources of information on group orders.

Finally, in the last article I mentioned The Joys of Beekeeping by Richard Taylor, a book I think should be in every beekeeper’s library, but that has been out of print for years. Well, it has come back out by a publisher in England. It can be ordered through Amazon. Get it, read it. I’ll be back in two months to talk about installing packages and other spring things.

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