Honey Bee Biology
Honey Bee Biology - March 2014
From Box-Hive Obscurity to Sailing the Sea with 150 Tons
of Honey: The True Bee-Dreams of R. Wilkin
In the 1850’s, J. S. Harbison began taking bees from Pennsylvania to California. Numerous hives were specially packed for the long trip. They were shipped first to the east coast, then loaded on a steamship and sent south to Panama. Across Panama, the hives rode the rails, the railroad being the great achievement back then, breaking through the jungle connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; a great canal would have been a far off dream at that time. On the west side, the hives had to be loaded on yet another steamship sailing north to the California coast. In all, the hives traveled west via a huge loop to the southern tropics. For his daring, Harbison became a famous California beekeeper accumulating several thousand hives, and he stunned the beekeeping community by shipping to eastern markets section comb honey by the boxcar loads, ushering in a new huge honey unit, honey by the “carload” (usually a 20 ton boxcar load).
With such a large job, Harbison had others helping him to prepare the bees for their long westward trip. R. Wilkin was one of Harbison’s helpers. He first started working with bees at this critical time in beekeeping history, helping Harbison ready his hives in Pennsylvania for shipment to California. This early beekeeping exposure would have a life-changing effect on Wilkin. He would become a lifelong beekeeper, author, and famous California beekeeper too. Wilkin began keeping his bees at Westminster College, Pennsylvania. Later on Wilkin gained notoriety at fairs in Northern Ohio publicly displaying what we would now call bee beards1. Back then such demonstrations, thousands of bees clustered under one’s chin and hat brim, were truly novel and mindboggling, the supposed craft of a “bee charmer.” The public probably did not know of the queen cage tucked under the chin among the bees to quiet them.
With all the notoriety and beekeeping questions, in 1871 while living in Cadiz, Ohio, Wilkin published his book Hand-Book in Bee-Culture (see Figures 1 and 2). Although I knew about Wilkin’s book for decades, it is a rare little book of just 96 pages. Moreover, the book is quite unusual in several respects as old beekeeping books go, which may reflect something about its author. A style of old beekeeping books begins with some basic bee biology then follows with promotion of a particular hive design or management system. Wilkin’s book does not really promote any hive design. Quite the reverse, much of it is on box-hive beekeeping. Moreover, given the book’s publication date (1871), that is indeed strange. Why?
Before the movable frame hive, based on the bee space, the common old technology in its simplistic form was a box hive. The hive was just four wide boards nailed together forming the sides. The top of the hive could be solid or it could have slits or holes for a wooden “cap,” where the bees stored the surplus honey. The bottom of the hive was left open since it sat upon another wide board. Notches cut in the bottom edge of the hive, on one side, served as small entrances. From a modern perspective, the combs of a box hive, attached to the top and sides, could not be easily examined for brood diseases, to find a queen, or numerous other colony conditions (see Figure 3).
The Reverend L. L. Langstroth discovered the bee space in the fall of 1851. Enclosing a comb in a wooden frame, not a new idea even then, but leaving that crucial gap between frame and hive body, the bee space, was the key. The bees use the gap as a passageway. The beekeeper could remove frames and combs with remarkable ease. No more messy comb cutting, destroying the brood nest just to examine it. In 1852, the Rev. Langstroth patented a hive based on the bee space. In 1853 his book Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee appeared. (The three events in the 1850’s are easy to remember. Look at the years: 1, 2, and 3.) Therefore, in the 1850’s the movable frame beehive, a revolutionary new technology, began to spread among the beekeeping community.
In contrast here came a book published 20 years after the conception of the movable frame recognizing the continued entrenchment of the common box hive. Or as Wilkin wrote in the beginning of his book, “As the greater proportion of bee-keepers yet use the common open bottom bee-hive, when I speak of any operation with the hive, reference is always had to this kind of hive, except where other kinds are expressly named.” Nevertheless, Wilkin does show a frame with comb (see Figure 4) and a hive with movable frames, although not fully based on the bee space (see Figure 5).
In those historical times, box-hive beekeeping was a matter of luck. After all, virtually all of the inner workings of the colony was effectively invisible. Think of it today as “black box” hive beekeeping. (Indeed, some box-hive beekeepers thought there was little need to see each comb, so movable frames were not worth the expense, and besides their ancestors got along well without them.) And as an extension, in stark times with no social safety nets, who in their sane minds would try to eke out a living to feed a family of dependent children from beekeeping, a luck-burdened endeavor fraught with eventual doom.
Moreover, America in the 1870’s was becoming an industrial power, and behind that movement was clear analytical thought and reason. To begin a book mostly on box-hive beekeeping, the first point to dispatch to oblivion was any notion of luck, chance, or other hocus-pocus like things. Reminding readers how far their collective intellect had progressed, Wilkin began the introduction of his book with
As the printing press has had the desirable effect of exterminating witches, fairies, and ghosts, so is it fast exterminating the idea of luck, and substituting … [the] true idea that every effect is produced by some cause.
The two pivotal words in this quote are: “luck” and “cause.” Because of its common association with box hives, “luck” is the old way of thinking. The new way of thinking, the “cause,” is where the beekeeper manages the bees, however limited with box hives, to achieve better results.
Before leaving Wilkin’s .....