The Bee-Keeping Industry in America.

Botanical name: 

(From the Leader. Reprinted from the Tropical Agriculturist, August 1, 1884.)


In nothing has there been greater progress displayed throughout America during the past half-dozen years than in the keeping of bees. Formerly success in bee-keeping was attributed largely to "luck," and the variety of systems practised by different bee-keepers was only equalled by the multiplicity of designs adopted in the construction of the hives. A specialty of the American farm, as seen to-day, is its apiary, as the rows of hives are called, which are marshalled along at distances of from five to seven feet from each other in some convenient situation near the garden or orchard. And what arrests attention is the similarity of pattern in these square white painted hives. From California to Massachusetts one would think that the keepers of bees had obtained their hives from one maker. You find, however, that nearly every State has its own special make of beehives, but the differences are only in detail, and do not interfere with the general plan that seems to govern these square boxes. We eventually discover that bee-keeping in America is now everywhere reduced to principles that are as much distinguished for their certainty of operation as formerly the occupation was noted for being one essentially of guess-work.

Although bee-keeping to the extent of apiaries comprising from a dozen hives or so up to about fifty is general among the farms and orchards, the big bee ranche, whose proprietor devotes his whole attention to the industry, is also quite an established American concern. It is estimated that for the year 1882 there were 70,000 bee-keepers in the United States, possessing among them a total of 2,000,000 hives, averaging 20 lbs. of honey each, which at the low average of 10 cents per lb. represented a total of $4,000,000, besides 20,000,000 lbs. of wax, worth $6,000,000, or a total for the year's crop of $10,000,000. Of these amounts, honey and wax to the value of $1,200,000 and $700,000 respectively were exported for the same year. Among the bee-keepers in the Eastern States the work of what is called "wintering the colonies" is a very serious portion of the bee-keepers responsibility; but in the more genial and Australian-like climate prevailing along the Pacific Coast, between San Francisco and Mexico, the bee industry is carried on under the most favorable conditions. In Los Angeles County, Southern California, there are two hundred apiaries, aggregating 12,000 hives, from which it is estimated that an average of 500,000 lbs. of honey is taken annually; and one large producer, Mr. J. S. Harbison, sent through to New York on one occasion a consignment of honey and wax amounting to ten car loads of 20,000 lbs. each, or 200,000 pounds in all. Among individual yields vouched for at Los Angeles is one where from a single hive during the season 566 lbs. of honey was taken, some of which, owing to its purity and the superior manner in which it was got up for market, reached 50 cents per lb.

The square box form of the hives that has already been alluded to, was adopted as far back as 1851, almost about the same time by the American and German bee-keepers, Langstroth and Dzeron respectively, to admit of working their movable comb improvement, an invention which has led the way to all the recent bee-keeping improvements. It is strange that the complete revolution in bee management effected by the early discoveries of these two men should only have taken place within the past few years; and it is no less notable that in 1883 the Langstroth hives are making their way all over America with little alteration in their design to those first submitted by Mr. Langstroth in 1851. Instead of the old straw hive, in which the bees were smothered previous to the honey being promiscuously tumbled out, all mixed up with larvae, wax and broken comb, the modern hive is fitted with square frames, which can be lifted out and dropped in again at will, just as panes of glass are handled in a glazier's box. These frames are what the bees build their comb upon, and set to work at filling with "extracted" or "box" honey respectively, just as their owner may desire.

Extracted honey is that which is separated from the comb, and box honey the kind that is sold in boxes holding a pound or so of honey, and in the form that it comes from the hive. For extracted honey, full sized frames are used in the hive, but for box honey the frames are subdivided into the boxes within which the bees are to construct the honey-filled comb in the shape intended for market. When the full frames are charged with honey, another achievement in the new bee-keeping system is brought into operation, viz., the honey extractor. This is an ingenious contrivance, resembling in appearance the square frame of a street lamp, the sides of which are fitted with honey-charged frames from the hives, and the whole then inserted within an enclosure like an oil drum, fitted with a tap. The apparatus, with its frames of honey, is fitted into pivots above and below, and is then swiftly rotated by a tooth and pinion attachment. The honey, by centrifugal force, is thus thrown from the frames, and is drawn off by the tap in the enclosing drum.

"Comb foundation" is another of the improvements. The bees, it appears, if left to themselves, not only occupy too much of the honey-making season in comb building, but also work up too much valuable material to suit the commercial notions of the modern bee manager. Honeycomb is made of pure wax, which the working bees exude from minute folds of their bodies in the shape of thin flakes or scales. It is estimated that every square inch of comb built by the bees is done at the expense of from fifteen to twenty times its weight in honey. Thus the bee-keeper resorts to comb foundation, and by saving the bee the work of making it, obtains the extra honey. A little machine with iron rollers, resembling in form the wringer in a clothes washer, is used to roll out beeswax into thin sheets of comb foundation. These are fastened on the frames, and the frames dropped into their places in the hive, when the bee proceeds at once to business.

At first, comb foundation was not a success, and it was discovered that the hitch occurred in the sheets being rolled out plain. The bees would not work because they could find no trace of cells. Then an enterprising inventor engraved his rollers, so as to stamp the sheets of beeswax with a perfect imitation of the bees' cells, when, thenceforth, the busy little insects buckled down to work with as much satisfaction as if they had made the sheets themselves. Some bee-keepers roll out their own foundation, but most obtain it from one of the many suppliers of bee-keeping requisites that are to be found all over the United States. Here is one of their advertisements:—"We are prepared to promptly fill all comb foundation orders at the following prices—one to ten lb., 55 cents per lb.; fifty lb. or over, 50 cents per lb.; 100 lb. or over, 45 cents per lb. Our largest sheets are 12 X 12 inches, and run from 5 to 8 square feet to the pound. In ordering give inside dimensions of frames. If ordered by mail add 25 cents per pound to above charges for postage and extra packing; samples by mail, post paid, 5 cents."

Another triumph of the new system is the "smoker," by which the most nervous person can handle and work among the bees with the utmost safety. Formerly a few individuals in a locality were regarded with considerable veneration, owing to their possession of a supposed mysterious influence that prevented bees from stinging. The whole art of bee taming is now found to consist in the fact that bees will not sting when filled with honey; that to get them to fill themselves it is necessary to frighten them, and that the necessary frightening is effected by puffing a little smoke into their hives. For this purpose the smoker, which is a painted tin funnel filled with smouldering rags and having a small bellows attached, forms one of the bee-keeper's indispensable tools of trade. The handy manner in which the bees can be inspected by puffing a little smoke into the hive, and then lifting out any section of the movable combs, enables the condition of the colonies to be constantly noted.

The first step on the part of new beginners in bee-keeping is to post themselves in the interesting study of bee physiology by obtaining one of the numerous books on the subject. The best works among American publications are:—King's "Bee-Keeper's Text-Book," Langstroth's "Bee Book," Quinby's "New Bee-Keeping," Root's "A. B. C. of Bee Culture," and Cook's "Bee-Keeper's Guide." A prosperous hive or colony of bees consists of a fertile queen, a few hundred drones and about 40,000 workers. The queen is the prolific parent of the whole colony, and laying eggs is the sole end of her existence. In the height of the honey gathering season, and under favorable circumstances, the queen will deposit about three thousand eggs per day. She is distinguished from the other bees by being larger and having smaller wings. The drones are bulkier than the queens, but shorter, and have large wings, but are destitute of a sac for carrying honey and incapable of performing the duties of the workers. Their business is the fertilization of the queens, and as impregnation is effected while on the wing, the drones leave the hives in considerable numbers about noon on fine days, and are followed by the young queens. When the service of fertilization is supposed to be accomplished, the workers drive out the drones and keep them out till they die of starvation.

One of the many advantages of working the movable comb hive is that all excess of drone comb (which differs from the honeycomb) can be removed, and the production of useless consumers thus kept in check. The workers are the smallest in size of the three classes of bees, and, although females, are incapable of fertilization by the drones, so that, although they occasionally lay eggs, these never produce working bees. Upon the workers devolve all the labor of building comb, collecting the honey and feeding the queen and brood. Their average age varies from a few weeks in summer to from six to nine months during the remainder of the year. The queen's average age is, from three to four years, and should her death occur the workers construct large cells, supplying them with what is described as "royal jelly," so that the eggs or larvae that otherwise would have produced worker bees are developed into queens. Only one queen is allowed to remain in each hive. The queen usually leaves the hive when about five days old to meet the drones in the air for fertilization, which being accomplished, serves her for life, as she seldom afterwards leaves the hive, excepting in company with her first swarm.

The average time from the laying of the egg to the appearance of the perfect insect is for the queen sixteen, for the worker twenty-one, and for the drone twenty-four days respectively. The cells in which the workers are reared are the smallest in size; those for the drones nearly one-third larger, and for the queen still larger and of peculiar form, requiring as much material for their construction as fifty worker cells. In strong colonies, having plenty of stores, the queen will often deposit eggs during every month in the year, the least brood being during the three winter months. On the approach of spring an increase of brood rapidly sets in, and the bee-keepers prepare for their annual harvest of swarms and surplus honey. From three to ten queen cells are generally constructed in each hive, and in about eight days after the first queen leaves with the first swarm the next queen is ready to emerge from her cell.

An important feature in connection with the movable comb system of bee management consists in the old chance method of swarming being supplanted by what is called artificial swarming. Instead of the bees being left to swarm naturally, with the risk of being lost, the swarming is conducted at the will of the operator by the removal of the queen to a new hive, where she is followed in a most docile manner by the swarming bees. Another important advantage that the new system of bee-keeping affords consists in what is called nucleous swarming, by which a queen is reared amid a small cluster of bees in a separate hive until she matures and becomes fertilized, when the hive that is to be swarmed is shifted, and the nucleous hive put in its place. In this way the surplus bees from the shifted hive go out as usual, to their work of honey gathering, and according to the law which directs them back to the exact spot of their old habitations, take possession of the new hive and continue their operations under the new queen that they found established there to receive them. The chief gain made by this expedient is one of time, a commodity that is of special value during the honey season.

The introduction of a fertile queen to a colony is often in this way effected a fortnight earlier than they would swarm naturally, and this in a large apiary amounts to a very considerable aggregate gain. Sometimes the facilities presented by the movable comb system are called into requisition for quite a contrary operation, viz., the prevention of swarming when an increased amount of honey may be desired instead of multiplied stocks. When this is the case the frames are lifted out until the queen is found, when one of her wings is clipped, thus preventing her from flying away, and consequently putting a stop to the swarming. In preparing for wintering the bees also it is a common practice to join two colonies, so as to get through the non-producing season upon the most economical terms; a full hive, owing to being able to maintain the proper degree of warmth, requiring less food. All such handlings as these various processes involve are enabled to be carried out under the movable comb system with the utmost certainty and exactness of operation. Further details with respect to varieties of bees, bee pasturage, and other matters, will have to be dealt with in another paper.—Phar. Jour. and Trans., September 27, 1884, p. 249.

The American Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. 56, 1884, was edited by John M. Maisch.