Honey Bee Biology


  Honey Bee Biology  - September 2014

The Exotic Equipment of Comb Honey Production

by Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum


Before the pure food laws, back in the 1880’s, consumers did not trust liquid honey, what today we call extracted honey. Like other things back then, for example beeswax, consumers assumed liquid honey was adulterated. Adulteration increased the volume of honey with cheap sugars, but sold at a higher honey price. And a larger profit. Building consumer confidence in liquid honey took years. Today that trust should be held in high esteem by beekeepers, lest we get catapulted back to the bad old days because of honey contaminated with modern chemicals.

So how did consumers buy honey, well over a hundred years ago, without eating cheap syrup that somebody scrounged up and poured into the mixing tank? They bought honey in the comb. Honey in the comb was the signature of purity. Early on, honeycombs may have also been a practicable way to distribute honey since small inexpensive liquid containers were not readily available.

Various size wooden boxes held the honeycomb, starting out weighing about 2 - 5 pounds. The boxes had glass windows to help beekeepers see when they were full. The customer purchased the entire box full of honeycombs. The size evolved to become smaller from a box to what was once called a “comb honey section box,” a little wide frame holding a single comb. Now we drop from the name “box” and call it a “comb honey section” or sometimes just “comb honey.” It depends on how old-school you are. But beware if you are used to calling them comb honey section boxes, you ain’t no young whipper-snapper ‘cause you grew up in the late 1880’s (unless you are an apicultural historian).

J. S. Harbison is credited with inventing the comb honey section in 1857. For some years the section boxes were made of four separate wood pieces nailed together. This was an immense amount of work for say building 5,000 sections taking 20,000 pieces of wood. These four-piece sections must be very rare because I cannot find any surviving examples. As a “consumed” item, easily burned up in a stove after the honey was gone, and not being pretty like an old honey jar, all my hunting since the 1970’s has not netted even one four-piece section box.

Skipping ahead to the one-piece section box, in the mid 1870’s, Figure 1 shows one-piece sections in the flat, similar to the way beekeepers get their sections today. Three “V” cuts partway through the flexible wood grain allow folding, without breaking, to form three corners. Letting the wood grain of sections absorb moisture before folding the corners helped make them flexible so the corners would not break. The last corner locked in place with its little finger joints pressed together. The folded section box formed a four and a quarter inch square, the most common size. A bloom of creative beekeeping inventions followed close after the one-piece section box as shown in the equipment below.
Folding sections and locking the finger-joint corner was a repetitive job. It needed to be done quickly, using an efficient machine, considering a beekeeper could have 5,000 or more sections to start preparing during the winter to be ready for spring. A section folder or section press locked together the finger joints of the last corner of the section box. Numerous designs appeared on the market, usually worked with the hands, sometimes the feet, freeing the hands to handle sections.

Figure 2 shows the Hubbard section press, in three versions from the 1890’s on the left to the 1920’s on the right. Figure 3 shows a close up of the presses. A Hubbard press was a fast machine. From the flat, the operator put the partly formed section in the square form, lined up the finger-jointed corner under the upside down “V” and merely pushed the section forward a little. The two long pieces, holding the section below, and the “V” piece above, pressed the finger joints into one tight square corner. Springs behind the lower piece pushed the press back open for the next section. The 1890’s version had an all-wood square form as Hubbard originally made it. After A. I. Root bought the rights to the machine, the form became metal, more durable, and the machine became sleeker.

Figure 4 shows a roller press, another fast machine with a close up in Figure 5. Again the partly folded section went into the form and the finger-jointed corner lined up to the groove in the roller. The operator pushed the section forward. The finger joints went together so the section could fit under the roller groove. A spring behind the lower board quickly pushed the press back open for the next section. I knew a comb honey producer who made crops by the ton, that is, tons of comb honey sections. This was the style of press he used, and he claimed it was the fastest.

Figure 6 shows a foot-operated press, mostly I think for beekeepers not needing thousands of sections, maybe a few hundred. With foot lever action the operator opened and closed the press on the section in the form. The upside down “V” came straight down and pushed the finger joints together.

Figures 7 and 8 show the rarest and a most mesmerizing section press to watch, with all the cast iron gearing. The section started flat, not partly folded, like the other presses above. The section laid horizontally in the press. When the operator lifted the handle, the press itself ...

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