Apis Mellifera: the BEE-ginnings Part II - Apis Mercantile

Apis Mellifera: the BEE-ginnings Part II

This is the second in a series of blogs about Apis mellifera, the Western honeybee and our company’s namesake.  If you’ve not read the first blog in this series, we encourage you to go back and start at the very bee-gining by following this link.


Apis mellifera originated on the continent of Africa and spread rapidly throughout Eurasia, aided by humankind that kept and maintained beehives in exchange for the promise of the sweet liquid gold inside: honey.  Although honey bees were found all over Eurasia and North Africa, they were not found thousands of miles across the Atlantic ocean on the North or South American continents.  The Americas had pollinators and other native bee species; however, they differed greatly from the Apis mellifera that we know so well today.  


It wasn’t until the early 1600s that European settlers brought honey bees to North America for honey production.  In 1622, honey bees arrived at the Jamestown colony having traveled for months across the Atlantic ocean. The beehives were sent by the Virginia Company of London to the Governor of Jamestown with a note that read, “the preservation and encrease (sic) whereof we recommend to you."   Having established the Jamestown colony in 1607, the supply ship that arrived in 1622 was not the first attempt at bringing beehives to the New World.  In 1609, a supply ship named the Sea Venture was sent from England carrying a multitude of supplies including several honey bee hives. However, a terrible storm blew the ship off course and the crew and all of the supplies ended up in Bermuda.  It wasn’t until 1638 that a second ship carrying honeybees successfully transported the hives to the fledgling colonies. By that time, a feral bee population in the mid-Atlantic had been firmly established.  


From their introduction to the mid-Atlantic region, honeybees spread North into New England and West into the American heartland.  By the early 18th century, beeswax in New England had become “cheap and plentiful” and a “significant source of commerce.” Later, Thomas Jefferson would comment 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.”  Before the Caribbean sugar trade, honey was the predominant sweetener employed by colonists and beekeepers could be found throughout the colonies. During the colonial period, most beekeepers employed the use of a skep hive, which looked like an overturned woven basket.  While the skep is still used in places around the world, beekeeping practices started to change significantly with the advent of new practices and equipment in the mid-nineteenth century.


 In the 1800s, several advances in beekeeping and beekeeping equipment allowed for the dawn of commercial and migratory beekeeping in the United States.  In 1851, Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth discovered “bee space.”  While observing his hives, Langstroth noted that when honey bees are provided with between 6 - 9 mm of space, they will neither build honeycomb nor fill the space with propolis.  This space has been termed “bee space” and led to the design of a new hive, called the Langstroth hive.  The Langstroth hive employed the concept of bee space in its design and was the first design to effectively prevent honey bees from connecting honeycomb to the hive walls, a common problem of other hive designs at the time.  Langstroth patented his design in 1852 and continued to contribute to the industrialization of beekeeping in the United States. Today, the Langstroth hive continues to be the predominant hive used by beekeepers around the world.  The contributions of Reverend Langstroth allowed commercial beekeeping to blossom into the extensive agricultural industry that it is today.


Stay tuned for part three of the Apis mellifera series! 

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