Cover Story

August 2014

Beekeeping and Its Impact on World War II


Seventy years ago this past June 6, the world watched as Allied Forces invaded the beaches of Normandy, France to liberate the areas of Europe overrun by the Axis powers of Germany and Italy. The commemoration this year opened our eyes to the part that beekeepers and honey bees played in winning that war!
“Beekeepers?” you might ask. “What did bees and beekeepers have to do with the war?”
“Actually, quite a lot.” is the answer.

Since the Japanese occupied some of the countries where the United States had been purchasing part of their sugar supply, it was not available in abundance. Thus, honey was in great demand. Sugar was rationed and honey was a perfect substitute for a sweetener. It was also difficult to transport sugar to the United States across seas occupied by opposing forces.

The sugar rationing made it difficult for beekeepers who were often in need of additional sugar for supplemental feeding. According to the Illinois State Beekeepers’ Association bulletin of March-April, 1943, the North Central States Entomologists resolved (at their conference in March of 1943) that an additional fifteen pounds of sugar be allowed to beekeepers for feeding in addition to the fifteen pounds already available per hive. Carl E. Killion, secretary-treasurer of the North Central States Apiarists, submitted this resolution to the War Production Board and to the Food Production and Distribution Administration. Why was supplemental feeding needed? The honey crop either nearly or completely failed in the summer of 1942 in the north central states. The need to save and build up colonies to serve as pollinators and as producers of honey and beeswax was paramount.

The Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. also placed honey under the commodity loan program to increase production since the honey industry was deemed ‘essential’ in wartime. In 1942, the industry was requested to make a 20% increase in production since both honey and beeswax were urgently needed. It was stated, “The individual beekeeper, debating the high wages of industry or the duty of service in the armed forces against the project of expanding his apiaries, must give thought to the future of the industry, accepting the hazards of weather and consequent crop failure, the shortage of bee range, the incidence of bee disease, and the menace of bees to the use of poisonous insecticides.”
Need For More Pollination

It was also necessary to increase all legume seeds for additional production of dairy and beef cattle forage. Thus, bees were needed to pollinate the alsike clover. In the early 1940s, yellow and white sweet clover were used to add nitrogen to the soil when corn was planted every couple of years. The legumes in the roots provided that nitrogen fixation and the flowers were wonderful forage for the bees. As a result, our armed forces were well fed. Today that same yellow and white sweet clover is deemed a ‘nuisance.’

Beekeepers Enlist or Get Drafted
Gene Killion was keeping 400 hives back in 1942, but enlisted in the Air Force. He was sent to Barrackpoor, India during the war where he flew the Aluminum Trail over the Hump into China from India. When asked if he had any experience with beekeeping in India, his reply was that he saw no Apis dorsata - the giant honey bee most common in India - in the two years he was there. Yet, he was able to provide much information about beekeeping back in the states during that time. His father, Carl E. Killion, was an advocate for the beekeeping industry during the war. He went to Washington D.C. with the Director of Agriculture to get that extra needed sugar for the beekeepers to feed their bees. He even wrote to D.C. to get two commercial beekeeper brothers from Illinois deferred. They were needed on the home front to produce the honey and pollinate the crops. They surely were not the only ones who were needed to keep agriculture functioning at home to feed both the armed services and the families ‘back home.’

The Dire Need For Wax
The War Production Board also listed over 350 uses for beeswax in wartime military operations and industries. Officials in Washington were concerned about whether there would be sufficient beeswax to supply the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The real ‘stock pile’ of beeswax was in the hands of the beekeepers in the United States and it was the government’s intent to enlist the aid of the beekeepers in collecting and supplying the needed wax. The goal, however, was not to devastate the hive, but to ...