Tuesday, July 9, 2013

American Honey

I recently read "Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation" by Tammy Horn, for research on a story I've been working on. Though this book didn't explain how to be a beekeeper, it did detail, extensively, the history of beekeeping.

Bees have had a significance in history since biblical days. "...I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt...unto a land flowing with milk and honey."-- Exodus 3:17. But reading this book, I was amazed by how significant bees have been to American history alone. Bees shaped our nation alongside our founding fathers, and I'd like to share with you some of what I've learned.

Bees Before the New World
England flourished under Queen Elizabeth I. During this time, the honey bee image was used as a symbol of stability, responsibility, and industry. But after the queen's death, the economy tanked. Weather disasters played a part, along with overpopulation and land transfers due to federal policies. The queen's beekeeper, Charles Butler, defined the male honey bee as a drone in 1609. Drones are male bees who wait around until summoned by the queen...
From then on, the poor people of England were labeled as drones and encouraged to "hive off" to the Americas by political leaders and ministers. They believed that if the poor migrated to The New World, England's economy would flourish again, so ministers began preaching of America being the poor and destitute's "land of milk and honey."

When colonist's arrived, they realized this to not be the case. If they wanted America to be the land of milk and honey, they were going to have to work for it. Luckily, the colonist's brought their beekeeping skills with them. Bees provided sweeteners, wax for candles and waterproofing and honey for bartering with the Indians. These "drones" from England soon became "busy as bees."

Revolutionary Bees
Images of beehives were printed on currency, certificates, and wax seals (to prevent counterfeiting) after the Revolutionary War to symbolize a commitment to order, moderation, and knowledge. The skeps (man made hives made with wicker, straw, wood, etc.) in these images had thirteen rings, symbolizing the thirteen colonies.  
Civil War Bees
Many women became prominent beekeepers during the Civil War, taking over the duty while their men were fighting, wounded, or dead. Beekeeping was the only "respectable" outdoor job for women to do during that time and into the early 20th century, and the exposure to nature lessened many women's weak spells and ailments.
Bee Platoons
After both World Wars, beekeeping was used by the government to help soldiers transition back into normal everyday life. The job provided a wage, got the soldier outdoors, and provided their country with a needed commodity. Since beekeeping could be done alone, this gave the soldiers time to heal and ease themselves back into society.
Buzzing Advertisements
Bees and honey have graced the advertising world for years. Hopalong Cassidy was very popular in promoting Spun Honey in the 1930's, and Brigham Bottling Works thrived with their Beehive Beverages--made with honey--promising energy, health, and mobility.
Modern Bees
The 1970's brought the attacks of killer bees, along with Irwin Allen's The Swarm.
In 1980, a terrible mite epidemic plagued bees, the keepers, and bee farms.
Mites, federal quarantines, African honey bees, and even El Nino, brought threats to American beekeepers in the 1990's.
What will bees bring to the 21st century?
Though I write romantic fiction, and I generally only read fiction, my stories require non-fiction reading material. In reading about the wonderful world of bees, I've become fascinated by the winged creatures. They work hard, are extremely sanitary, produce a delicious golden liquid that holds many health benefits, as well as vital to crop production--they pollinate the blooms of fruit trees and vegetables. I now stop to watch them when I'm outside, especially when they're on our peach and apple trees. My kids now have a new found respect for them as well and have signed up for beekeeping through our local 4-H fairgrounds.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves history--the book is full of interesting historical facts I didn't mention!--is interested in beekeeping, or just loves bees!
Next time you cross paths with a bee, stop and watch them, listen to their song. God made an amazing insect.


  1. Thanks for this well written article, Candice.

  2. Thanks for sharing about fascinating bees!

  3. A couple of years ago I watched a swarm of bees, roughly half the size of my Ford F-150 truck, move across my back yard. It was so loud that I heard it from the barn and came out to investigate. Bee are most dangerous when the swarm like that, so I stayed well back in the barn and out of their way!

    They settled in a willow tree that was only 12' from our house. Unfortunately, a local bee keeper wasn't able to extract them and we had to destroy the hive. Hated to do that with the shortage of honey bees in our area, but left alone that close to the house was a risk we didn't want.

    If they move into a house, they can do a lot of damage. I remember my great-grandmother's house when they stripped off the outside boards (the old house never had insulation) and removed hundreds of pounds of honeycomb. The walls of her house vibrated with their constant activity!

  4. Thanks for sharing your story, Pegg!
    A swarm that big would scare me too. :)

  5. Thanks for stopping by, Dicky and Jericha!

  6. Fascinating stuff, Candice. I wish I had your skill for research.

    1. Thanks, Robin. I'm not normally a big fan of research, but this time I'm having a blast!

  7. Enjoyed reading this. Tweeted the link.