2014 National 4-H Essay Contest Winners
sponsored by the Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees, Inc.

For the 2014 essay contest, the topic was Beekeeping in Colonial Times.

To the earliest European settlers in the New World, honey bees were an important part of their existence. Cargo manifests show that honey bees were among the first shipments of animals. How were they shipped? Why were they important? Why were they so important to the colonists? How does that differ from today?

In first place was Hannah Falcone from Plainfield, New Hampshire with her essay entitled "Honey Bees: Colonizing the New World." Hannah Falcone lives in Plainfield, NH, where she attends seventh grade at Plainfield Elementary School.  She lives on a small farm, Five Sisters Farm, where she has alpacas, sheep, chickens, dogs, cats, gerbils, fish, and a hive of bees.  She is planning to get another hive in the spring.  She loves to run, paint, babysit, cook, and take care of her many animals and sisters.  She plans to be a veterinarian when she graduates.


Honey bees: Colonizing the New World

"Nothing but money is sweeter than honey!"- Benjamin Franklin.

 Honey bees are familiar to every American today, but surprisingly they are not native to the Western Hemisphere.  The first honey bees arrived in 1622.3,13  English settlers realized the importance of the honey bee for pollinating crops.  They brought them over from England, where they were plentiful, in woven straw baskets called skeps1. The journeys were long, taking up to eight weeks.   Honey bees were an essential part of colonial life because they provided precious honey and beeswax, in addition to pollinating crops.  According to a long-standing beekeeper, Richard Brewster, the type of bees imported originally were Black Russian bees, which were "miserable as the devil."10   They were much smaller than the bees we have today, and they no longer exist in the United States.  Native Americans called honey bees the White Man's fly3, and knew that white men were coming to the area when they were spotted.  People transported honey bees by horse wagon (with a few stings along the way!).  Honey bees also spread across the United States by swarming, and made it to the West Coast 231 years after bees arrived in America1.  The settlers would seek out honey bees by tracking them from their water hole to their tree hive.5 They would then cut the tree down and use part of the trunk as a hive with a removable top for harvesting honey.  Gum trees were preferred for this, as the insides rotted out faster than any other trees, leaving space for bees to inhabit.  These modified hives therefore became known as "bee gums." 

Later, bees were kept in straw skeps1, clay jars, box hives, or anything else at hand, such as a coil of rope!  To observe bees and learn more about them, some people forced bees to build their hive inside of a glass vase.  By doing this and similar experiments, people learned how the hive worked. Sometimes, the colonists added sticks to the insides of the skeps so that the bees could build comb on them.  Box hives were wooden boxes with sticks inside for building wax foundation.  But honey and honeycomb couldn't be removed from any of these containers, so in harvesting honey and wax, the colony would be completely killed off.  Furthermore, it was impossible to tell if the queen was dead or if there were parasites, because the beekeeper could not lift the frames from the hives for inspection.  

To harvest the hard-earned honey, people waited until winter when the bees were sleepy, and distracted them with smoke.  They had to cut the comb out, and drain the honey from inside. They also got stung many times, even when the bees were drowsy and cold.   Sometimes, to extract the bees from the hive, a technique called drumming was used11.  An empty box was placed on top of the hive, and the farmer would bang it with sticks.  The bees would exit the hive, and there would be fewer bees left to defend the honey.  

Some smart beekeepers even designed hives to encourage the queen to not lay in certain areas, or the opposite.1  They figured out that the queen only likes to lay in one part of the hive, and they hollowed out a space in the middle for her, including passageways for the other bees.  This improved the quality of their hives, the health in general, and their honey!

Bees were very useful in Colonial times.   During England's taxation upon America, honey was used instead of the highly-taxed sugar3.  Colonists were able to provide themselves and neighbors with honey and beeswax.  Additionally, these resources became an important source of income.  Beeswax was used for candles, lipstick, shoe polishes, and even to coat the inside of wine bottles, so it sold well.  Colonial beekeepers also drank and sold mead, an alcoholic beverage made with honey.  On some early currencies, beehives were featured on the coins, showing how important honey was to the colonies and the economy. 

There are many ways in which modern beekeeping is different from colonial beekeeping.  Today we are able to order bees online in a very short amount of time, along with a hive and all equipment, whereas the colonial beekeepers took a great deal of time to track down swarms of bees nestled away in trees.  Colonists had to fashion a bee gum out of the trunk with angry bees to deal with.  When we go to harvest honey out of our modern hives, the bees and hive are not ruined, but the colonial beekeepers only had their hives until the winter when they killed all the bees and took their honey5.  Finally, we have bee suits, which prevent us from being stung.  But the colonial beekeepers had only veils to protect them, if they were lucky. 12  Colonists used honey as their main source of sweetener for food.  Today, we might put some on our oatmeal or in a cup of tea, but we use sugar and other processed sweeteners more.  People needed beeswax to make candles. In the days before electricity it was the only way to see in the dark3.  A few centuries later, we use candles primarily for decoration or festivities, not as our only source of light.  By contrasting beekeeping today and in Colonial times, it is easy to understand why honey bees were so important in the early days of America. 

Honey bees have a rich and beautiful history in America, as sweet as the delicious honey they produce every day.  It appears that Benjamin Franklin certainly understood their value…and he's on the $100 bill! 

1  "Martinatnewton - SKEP BEEHIVES." Martinatnewton - SKEP BEEHIVES. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2014.

2  "Popular Topics." ARS : Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.

3  "Bees in the Colonies - Past & Present Podcast : Colonial Williamsburg Official Site." Past Present Podcast. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2014. 

4  "Brece Honeycutt." Brece Honeycutt. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Jan. 2014.

5  "History - Bee Hives." History - Bee Hives. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

6  "GloryBee Foods Natural Foods, Crafts and Gifts, Glory Bee Beekeeping, by GloryBee." GloryBee Foods Natural Foods, Crafts and Gifts, Glory Bee Beekeeping, by GloryBee. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

7  "Colonial Beekeepers Association." Colonial Beekeepers Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

8  "Journalpatriot: Blazing the Trail of Progress in the State of Wilkes since 1906." Journalpatriot. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

9  "Colonial Beekeeping." Interview by Richard Brewster, Plainfield, NH, 20 Jan. 2014.

10  "Beekeeping." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 20 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2014.

11  "Guide.Net, Inc. - Interactive Website Development & Hosting, Honolulu Hawaii."Guide.Net, Inc. - Interactive Website Development & Hosting, Honolulu Hawaii. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.

12  "Purdue Agriculture." Purdue Agriculture. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2014.

13  "Colonial Williamsburg." Visual Resources, Subject Headings. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Jan. 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learn more about the Foundation