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 third place was Hailey Ordal, from Medford, Oregon with her essay entitled "This Land of Milk and Honey: How the Honey Bee Shaped America." Hailey Ordal is a 16 year old sophomore who attends St. Mary's School in Medford, OR. She has played the piano for eleven years, competes on her school's tennis team, and is president of her dog 4-H club, with which she competes with her adorable corgi, Corky. At school, she particularly enjoys her foreign language classes, and hopes to work as an economist or in foreign relations someday. She lives in Medford, OR with her parents, her dog, and her cat, Kayo.

This Land of Milk and Honey: How the Honey Bee Shaped America

America: a land of freedom and dreams, a land flowing with milk and honey. Nearly every food put on the table has been impacted in some way by the creature that makes honey, the honey bee. Yet the honey bee is not native to North America.1 Honey bees first landed in North America in 1622, when the Virginia Company of London sent some bees to the governor of Jamestown with a note that said "the preservation and encrease (sic) whereof we recommend to you".2  Eighty years later, the honey bee population in Virginia was thriving.2  One hundred and fifty-four years later, America became a nation. And in building that nation, the honey bee was there, every step of the way.

Many different peoples came to the New World in the 17th and 18th centuries-the British, the French, the Dutch, the Swedes and slaves from Africa, to name a few, each culture bringing over its very own beekeeping techniques and turning the American colonies into an apicultural melting pot. But the trip to the New World was no easy task, for men or bees. The first attempt to transport bees to the colonies, for example, was a failure; the ship carrying them, the Sea Venture, was blown off course in 1609 and ended up lost in the Bermudas.3  Ships frequently got lost at sea, and/or passengers died during the long voyage.4

 Transporting the bees involved great care on the part of the beekeepers. Honey bees were typically transported in a skep hive, a lightweight hive made of coiled rope that kept the bees cool in the summer and warm in the winter.3  While at sea, the skeps were placed in crates that were stored away from livestock and people to minimize bee stings.3  Feeding the bees would have been a challenge, but Samuel Hartlib suggested in 1655 that "Bees may be fed with their own honey mixed with three times its quantity of rainwater…".5  Perhaps this is how the bees were fed while at sea.

If the colonists and their insect companions did make it to shore alive, both became subject to new challenges such as disease, crop failure, and, in the case of the bees, pests. Many hives were destroyed in the New World by pests such as the foulbrood, which killed bee larvae, and the wax moth, which ate up the wax combs and left sticky white remains behind.6  It was a risky decision for a beekeeper to decide to come to the New World, but many chose to come anyway.

Honey bees spread out from Jamestown to the rest of the eastern seaboard.7  Although the second wave of honey bees didn't come until 1638, by then the feral honey bee population had already begun to thrive.7  The bees pushed outward into the Middle Colonies and up into New England, where beeswax had become "plentiful, cheap, and a considerable Commerce".7 Thomas Jefferson also noted that "The bees have generally extended themselves into the country, a little in advance of the white settlers" and that the Indians recognized the honey bee as a sign of coming settlers, calling the little insect the "White Man's Fly".2

The colonists kept honey bees for a variety of reasons. Honey bees could be found pollinating England's orchards, and so the Puritans wanted them in the New World as well.3 Before sugar from the Caribbean became popular, honey was the sweetener of choice for colonists, and some workers were even paid their wages in honey.2  Because hard money was in short supply, honey also became a form of currency known as "country pay", a way to barter for essential commodities with goods from the farm.3  During the hungry times when crops had failed, honey was a quick and easy way to get energy.3  Another honey bee crop, beeswax, was an inexpensive and plentiful commodity that could be used for making candles and waterproofing fabric.2  It was also one of the colonies' primary exports; in the 18th century, Virginia was regularly exporting beeswax to Portugal and the island of Madeira.7  Compact yet productive, the honey bee supported the livelihood of the American colonies.

The honey bee is of cultural significance as well. As the English colonized the New World, they adopted the hive as a metaphor for an ideal and well-organized society, a motif that would carry on into America's early days as an independent nation.3  Bee skep images were placed on currency by the Continental Congress, images that promoted the messages of stability and national authority.3  It is also said that the honey bee helped win the American Revolution. The story goes that a young Quaker girl was given a message that the British general Cornwallis planned to attack the Revolutionaries that next Monday, and that the message had to be sent to General Washington immediately. The girl mounted her horse and began to ride, only to realize she was being followed by Redcoats. Cleverly, she overturned bee skeps as she rode, unleashing angry honey bees to sting the Redcoats while she galloped away.3  And the rest is history.

The beekeepers of colonial America relied on the industrious honey bee for pollination, honey and beeswax, as do modern beekeepers. Today's beekeepers no longer use skep hives, but use improved hives that allow harvest of beeswax and honey without damaging colonies. Like their forebears, beekeepers today have challenges, too, as pesticides, insecticides, the varroa mite, and Colony Collapse Disorder threaten the honey bee.6  Beekeepers work year-round combating these threats in order to keep their colonies alive to pollinate America's crops.6  With their dedication to the life and health of the honey bee, it is hoped that the near 400 year legacy of beekeeping in America will continue to keep this land a "land of milk and honey". 

Works Cited

1Honey Bees and Beekeepers. (n.d.). Retrieved January 25, 14

2Robinson, D. (2014). The Bugs that Bugged the Colonists: The weevil wrought evil, but the bee brought sweetness and light. Retrieved January 25, 14, from The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation website

3Horn, T. (2005). Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky.

4The Colonial Period. (n.d.). Retrieved 2012, from University of Groningen website

5Hartlib, S. (1655). The Reformed Common-wealth of Bees: Presented in Severall Letters and Observations to Samel Hartlib, esq. London, England: The-Black-Spread-Eagle at the West end of Pauls.

6Nordhaus, H. (2010). The Beekeepers Lament: How One Man and Half a Billion Honey Bees Help Feed America. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

7Kellar, B. (n.d.). Honey Bees Across America. Retrieved January 11, 14, from Oregon State Beekeepers Association website








Learn more about the Foundation