Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

More Early 19th Century American Beehives

- October 1, 2018 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

early 19th century beehives in America

In the last article, we explored the rarely seen historical beehives in the era when they were built like fancy elegant furniture. The oversized windows of the hives let intrigued minds wonder about the esoteric working of a bee colony. Beekeeping in those days provided a choice sweet at the table and so it remained a common endeavor.

I began the brief description of historical American beehives with the skep, bee gum, and box hive. The latter two became typical on farms. And following the ways of skep beekeeping, the bees were killed to harvest the honey as described in the last article.

In Europe and in America, numerous beekeepers were against killing bees to harvest honey. Others saw the slaughter of bees as perfectly acceptable, a completely natural way to take honey. Their fathers and grandfathers had done it, like the slaughter of hogs for pork, or cattle for beef. Indeed, those who argued for the old ways could hardly conceive a farm without the slaughter of bees for honey.

While the argument was fiendishly clever in its sophistry, the defenders of the bees were not convinced. Because bees remade their honey each season, farm animals for slaughter were not the logical equivalent of bees. Advocates for the bees argued, bees were more like the trees of an apple orchard, where obviously the farmer picks the apples and leaves the trees. To drive home the point, one asked, who would be so foolish to chop down the trees to get the apples?

Without knowledge of bee space enabling the movement of individual combs, some hive designs allowed for the movement of small groups of honeycombs. Although the workings of a colony were virtually a mystery to skep beekeepers, and others with similar fixed-comb hives, it would have been obvious to them upon removing the combs at harvest that the bees stored the honey away from the entrances. The combs at the top of the hive would be virtually full of honey during late fall. Lower on the combs, and near the bottom, the combs would be either empty or just containing pollen, if the colony were in its brood pause. Otherwise the colony might have a greatly reduced amount of brood. Or they might have an excessive amount of brood, which would make them feel lighter because worker brood weighs much less than honey. For someone with a very limited knowledge of bee culture, both situations point to the same conclusion, the honey is in the top of the hive.

Consequently, to remove surplus honey and spare the bees, a modified skep had a smaller woven compartment on top (see Figure 1). From what I have seen and read of American hives before the frame hive, a box holding about five pounds of honey was common, but other sizes were used depending on the dimensions of the hive. Adapting a box hive for it to store surplus honey could be simply cutting a set of slits in its roof and covering them with a “cap” as shown in Figure 2. While the honey “cap” was exposed, another design enclosed the space for surplus honey within the hive as several honey boxes. The honey boxes rested on a horizontal partition with holes leading below to the brood nest and non-surplus honey. Matching holes in the horizontal partition and honey boxes allowed access to the honey boxes by the bees when the colony was strong enough.

Typically, from the side opposite the entrances, a door gave access to the honey boxes away from the bee flight. Usually small windows at one end of the honey boxes gave a limited view of their interiors, enough viewing area to discern at least when they might be full (see Figure 3). It seems obvious that once a beekeeper removed a honey box from the hive, immediately its weight would be known. And if too light, the honey box could be returned, provided the bees were still in a nectar flow.

One way to remove a honey box was to insert a piece of tin between it and the horizontal partition. The tin severed propolis attachments and burr comb in the matching holes without releasing bees. The honey box and tin were removed together, preventing premature release of the bees. With the honey boxes left by a well-lit window, the light would attract the bees out of them. The bees could fly back to the hive. Even after the advent of the frames, honey boxes persisted and apparently became the forerunner of the comb honey section box. The beekeeper sold the wooden box, glass window and all, to the customer, where the container for the free-built combs inside played the role of a jar for liquid honey today. Various hive designs had honey boxes.

Figures 4 and 5 show a hive with a gable roof and the entrance direction marked with arrows. Up near the peak of the roof, a door opened down revealing a pair of honey boxes (see Figure 6). This arrangement, a honey-box door and the entrance on the same side of the hive are unusual from the hives I have seen. At the back of the hive, things become surprising.

Figure 7 shows the entire rear side of the hive was covered by one very wide door, 17 inches (48.2 cm) wide, cut from one board. Try finding a 17-inch wide board today without gluing pieces together. It is not impossible, but those boards are rare. When this hive was built, those larger trees were more common.

To reduce warping, a problem with wide boards, at the top and bottom of the door, the carpenter attached stiffeners. These pieces are small wood strips with their grain running in a different direction relative to the wide board. The door maintained its seal quite well for what could be over 100 years. Opening the wide door revealed two more honey boxes, four in all. I could hardly believe it, when I first opened the door. This hive had its full complement of honey boxes, the most disposable part.

Pieces of wood attached strategically to the horizontal partition made the honey boxes stop with their holes lined up to holes in the partition. The matching holes let bees from the brood nest enter the honey boxes, a common feature of these hives. It seemed this hive was a box hive for a brood nest with honey boxes above. And yes it was, but with a curious twist.

Unlike a regular box hive where the bees attached the combs to the outer case, with this hive the entire brood nest and non-surplus honey under the horizontal partition were built in one removable chamber. That chamber slid out the rear of the hive as shown in Figure 5. I have seen this part of the hive divided up into boxes, with matching holes so the bees could circulate through them. Advocates for this design “artificially swarmed” the hive by putting some of the boxes into another case.

The difficulty becomes how to explain the use of this movable one-chamber design. In explaining how beekeepers of the past used their hives, I try to work with primary sources: original books, pamphlets or articles written by the hive’s designers. I want them to explain their intent, rather than use guesswork, which could obscure how the hives worked. I think from a modern point of view, it becomes easy to use too much later information that may not have been….