The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Honey Bee Biology

Beekeeping History from the Pages of the W.T. Falconer Bee Supply Company

- September 1, 2015 - Dr. Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

In the history of apiculture in the United States, numerous bee supply factories appeared, beginning in the 1860’s to supply a growing honey industry. Most of these companies are out of business today, gone extinct, leaving as their fossil records mostly their bee supply catalogs and rarely special equipment they produced.

One supplier, high on my hunting list for most anything they made, was the W. T. Falconer Manufacturing Company of Jamestown, New York. Figure 1 shows the cover of their 1888 catalog. While the decorative artwork was modest with just a border and no pictures, the text of the banner, like newspaper headlines, told beekeepers 127 years ago the modern must-have bee equipment: Simplicity hives and one-piece sections. Both designs survive.

The Simplicity hive was originally called the Langstroth hive because the frame dimensions were close to the size the Reverend L. L. Langstroth had used, as the inventor in 1851 of the movable frame based on the bee space. By the late 1880’s, beekeepers used several different size hives with frames of varying dimensions, which complicated matters somewhat (see Figures 2 and 3). (For example, when ordering a honey extractor the beekeepers had to give the correct size frame. Eventually A. I. Root introduced ordering extractors by numbers that corresponded to different frame sizes. So a number painted over the honey gate told the frame size it took, or a size range. Other manufacturers adopted the practice including the Falconer Company.)

The one-piece section was the next banner on the 1888 cover (see Figure 4). Today we take it for granted, and just fold the section box and lock the finger joints. Even now the name section-box has shed the “one-piece “ part of the name when, long ago, it faded, because of the labor of nailing four pieces together to make – just one section box. The one-piece section must have been more than a four-fold reduction in the work of assembling sections, a blessing for beekeepers producing comb honey sections in the thousands.

In producing comb honey sections, the Simplicity hive looked like the modern hive, as was shown in Figure 2. Note again the cover, which resembled a telescoping cover of today in that the rim fits around the lower hive bodies, which were comb honey supers, as shown. Originally, the sides of the cover enclosed up to two comb honey supers. Generally, as best as I can tell, Figure 2 being an example, the wide sides of the cover may have evolved to the narrow rim we see today on the telescoping cover. Apparently a very “early” comb honey “super,” sometimes called a “case,” could not be exposed to the outside. No substantial hive body surrounded the section boxes to protect them from the elements. So the case needed the extra deep cover. In Figure 2, that honeysuper probably does not need to be covered. The extra deep cover was still needed to house the chaff over the bees for winter (see below). (From any bee supplier, finding that cover with the extra wide sides in good condition has been difficult. The sides were only one-eighth inch thick and subject to breakage and warping.)

Now let’s look at the “Falcon” Chaff hive, a special hive made by the W. T. Falconer Mfg. Co. (see Figure 5). This hive revealed some important beekeeping history and relevant confusions still prevalent today. Unlike so many complicated beehives of those times, the Falcon Chaff hive used only Simplicity frames in a permanent one-story hive, basically a standard ten-frame hive – familiar to modern beekeepers.

The beekeepers usually managed the Falcon hive for section comb honey, but extracted honey production was certainly possible. However, I would advise against imagining supers piled up high on this hive because the outer wall that fits around the hive could only accommodate what we would call a double deep hive (or equivalently two honey supers over a permanent brood chamber). Being able to step away from modern beekeeping mindsets is extremely important in studying historical bee management, and reveals techniques one might still encounter today. For extracted honey with a Falcon hive, beekeepers would probably need to conduct multiple harvests during the nectar flow, extract combs quickly, and replace the empty supers. That would be similar to some tropical bee management operations, which can be to the extreme like what I worked with in India: a hive with only one brood chamber, no supers, extracting from the edge combs, and from an apiary with some 100’s of hives – and no supers.

Section comb honey flourished in the late 1800’s, far more than extracted honey, the liquid thought adulterated with other cheap or dubious sugars. Not so with pristine honey in the comb – put there by the bees – a signature of purity. The Falcon Chaff hive was meant for comb honey and helping bees survive brutal winters. At the right time, a comb honey case went over the brood chamber (see Figure 6).

The outer wall held chaff around and against the lower hive body. The chaff was some kind of material meant to insulate the hive. Straw could be used for chaff. Once I found double-wall hives where the beekeeper filled the internal space with wheat husks. In the summer, the beekeeper may have left some chaff around the Falcon hive as a temperature buffer. (I do not know how common that was, but it is mentioned in the catalog. The double-walled hive filled with wheat chaff, a brood chamber, just mentioned, was like a modern one, and stayed on the bees all year. In Figure 2, that Simplicity hive looks like a double-walled chaff hive.)

However, the main use of chaff was for …

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