Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

Antique Miniature Hives Show the Development of American Hives

- May 1, 2021 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

antique miniature beehive

Documenting and studying old beehive designs are difficult endeavors. I always want to work with primary materials. For me, that primary material is the original hive and literature written by the beekeeper explaining the original design (before others may have changed that design).

To render matters more difficult, virtually all the hives I study are well over 100 years old. It is bewildering how an old beehive can survive for over a century. Even toward the end of its working life, assuming the hive has not been ruined, it must survive its “storage” life. The hive needs to remain in a protected place, when various owners move or pass away, and not be discarded or burned, considered not worth the space to store it. If forgotten in an old barn, the storage life of the hive can become limited by the life of the barn, or in particular the condition of its roof. Once the roof leaks badly, the structure will come down, and the hive is doomed.

One kind of hive was never meant for the outdoors, and always avoided the slow destruction of weather. This hive could never be condemned to an American foulbrood fire pit. Yet this kind of hive recorded, in rich detail, the original hive design. The difficulty is these hives are exceptionally rare and usually they never existed for most hive designs.

These hives were made in miniature, hives you could hold in one hand. Beehives were made in miniature for two main reasons: a patent model or a salesman sample model. When filing for a patent, in some years the patent office required a working model of the design to be filed with the patent. When selling door-to-door was a more general practice, which would have included farm-to-farm or business-to-business, the salesperson could have carried a portable model for visual demonstrations.

In my travels collecting apicultural antiques, I once met an antique dealer, who collected salesman samples of anything. His house was full of sample models, hundreds and hundreds of the little contraptions, like a horse-drawn wagon, maybe with some new kind of wheel brake, the entire thing held in one hand. Salesman samples were everywhere: washing machines, farm tractors, cast iron wood stoves, bicycles, coffee grinders, plows, windmills, wagons, clothes wringers, railroad cars, seed sowers, boot driers, and on and on, but just one beehive.

Yes, in all his vast and rich menagerie of ideas, made into models, he only had one beehive. He didn’t have it when I left, but that one meeting ended after over five years of phone negotiating before he finally agreed to sell the little beehive.

Let’s begin with that hive. Its appearance in the history of American hives was not crucially important in the development of the modern frame hive design. Its timing however was a vivid turning point, showing what hive designers were abandoning with the occurrence of the modern frame completely surrounded by a bee space. Figure 1 shows the front, or entrance side of the hive, known as the Ohio Combination Beehive, invented by E.W. Phelps. Figure 2 shows the rear of the hive. The hive resembles nothing like the familiar standard hive of today. Opening the hive, lifting up the horizontal top cover and folding down the long rear door reveals six boxes, each with a top or side window, and even a system of levers to control the horizontal flow of bees within the three lower boxes (see Figure 3). Conceived in the early 1850s, this hive appeared when the bee space was essentially unknown, yet that time was just about to end.

Even before the frame with a surrounding bee space, some innovative beekeepers sought more management control over the colony, at least to remove honey without killing the bees, a common practice held over from skep bee management. In the most simplistic form of skep beekeeping, the fall harvest consisted of choosing the heaviest skeps containing the most honey and the lightest ones whose colonies would starve in the winter. Placing the open-bottom skep over a pit of smoldering sulfur killed the bees. The method, though harsh and destructive, from the owner’s perspective may have been akin to slaughtering other livestock. The medium-weight skeps remained and were allowed to swarm in the following spring to replenish colony numbers. Unlike modern bee management with its goal of swarm prevention to increase honey production, skep bee management depended upon swarm production to sustain colony numbers. Even when skeps were abandoned in favor of using wide boards for simple box hives, the practice of killing bees for honey continued.

Beekeepers looked to hive design to solve another problem, some way to artificially swarm the hive, as it was called. If colonies were not killed for honey, and swarming was not needed for their replacement, then beekeepers needed a way to produce artificial swarms. While particular hive designs could become intensely complicated, here is the general plan, absent an understanding of the bee space. First, hive designers divided the hive volume into a part for the queen, brood, and nonsurplus honey below, and an upper part for the surplus honey. A horizontal board separated these two regions. The old beekeeping literature sometimes called this horizontal board a honey board. The honey board had holes in it, allowing bees to ascend into honey boxes above to store surplus honey. The honey boxes came in various sizes, holding from two to ten pounds of honey. A five-pound honey box seems to have been a fairly common size. Honey boxes usually had one or more windows, letting the beekeeper estimate when they were full. More elaborate honey boxes had four glass sides allowing the consumer to see the beautiful new honeycombs. (The honey board would eventually evolve into a queen excluder. The honey box eventually evolved into a comb honey section.)

In its simplest form, the brood nest region below the honey board had no internal structure. The bees built their combs freely in the volume as they would in a box hive. More elaborate hives partitioned the brood space into windowed boxes with connecting holes: Vertical ones matched the honey board, letting the bees go into the honey boxes, and side holes connected to adjacent brood boxes. The beekeeper could “artificially” swarm the hive by transferring a brood box to another case. The Phelps hive has three brood boxes, each one under a honey box. Instead of one large honey board partitioning the entire hive, the hive has three smaller honey boards, one for each honey and brood box pair.

Overall, without a movable frame and its bee space, the box (with honey or brood) was the mobile unit. For his beginning form of bee management, Phelps moved a set of combs in a box, rather than individual combs in a frame made mobile by a bee space. Of a more immediate concern for Phelps, he could harvest honey without killing the bees by removing only the honey boxes, a major advance over simple skeps or box hives, which lacked any internal chambers (see Figure 4). His hive design let Phelps do something innovative: In a simple bee culture of box hives, he could divide his hives, increase their number, and in principle avoid losing swarms to the woods (see Figures 5 and 6).

In my study of early hives, I maintain a set of beehive patents. The set is not complete, and it runs out somewhere in the 1890s. My digital files have about 1,300 patents, and almost 1,000 patents are in hard copies. Nevertheless, I found the Phelps patent in my files. Phelps patented the hive on April 6, 1852 (see Figure 7).

With only a beehive patent, whether working hives were built, held bees, tried for a few seasons, remains unknown. Working hives with bees are even doubted when propolis could impede the functionality of the design. For the Combination Hive though, I did manage to find an outer case, suggesting working hives once existed. The hive resembles a small blanket chest, and it probably survived as furniture. Even though it seems small, this size housed one colony (see Figure 8).

Fortune was kind to me, and I found a rare 96-page paperback book, my copy printed in 1855. It had a long title, typical of those times: “The Bee-keeper’s Chart: Being a Brief Practical Treatment on the Instincts, Habits, and Management of the Honey-Bee in All Its Various Branches.” E.W. Phelps wrote the book, the inventor of the Combination hive. Remarkably I had the hive designer’s beekeeping philosophy and the original management instructions for using the hive. Phelps first published “The Bee-keeper’s Chart” in 1853, a year after he secured his hive patent in the spring of 1852. If those two years seem familiar, you may be tempted to wonder what new hive ideas might have come to Phelps in 1851? Why? Because those years would match three years already sacred in our history of apiculture: 1851, 1852, and 1853.

By twin publications, patent and book, the Phelps hive and another little-known hive were emerging from obscurity. We know from the writings of Reverend L.L. Langstroth, the idea of applying the bee space all the way around the frame came to him in October of 1851. In 1852, Langstroth secured    ….