The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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Bees & Beekeeping: Present & Past

J.S. Harbison and Moving Bees to California in the 1800s Part 1

- October 1, 2022 - Wyatt A. Mangum - (excerpt)

Moving beehives is a laborious job for most any beekeeper today even with modern trucks and paved roads. Imagine moving bee colonies in the 19th century. In 1857, J.S. Harbison began moving beehives from Pennsylvania to California, quite a bold move for those times.

At the beginning of this western migration, Harbison learned about arguably the greatest innovation in apiculture, the movable-frame hive. Although he started beekeeping with only primitive fixed-comb box hives, Harbison adapted the movable frame innovation to his hive design. And Harbison invented the once famous –– California hive. As the evolution of his hive design unfolded, Harbison invented section comb honey. This innovation allowed beekeepers to produce pure honey in pristine white combs taken intact from the hive to the table. The most modern incarnation of Harbison’s invention is the round plastic comb honey section, still gracing the pages of our bee supply catalogs today.

To really appreciate Harbison and his beekeeping, we need to understand three intertwined stories: a risky and monumental movement of bees from the East Coast to the West Coast, the development of section comb honey from honey produced in wooden boxes with glass windows, and his California hive.

Unlike typical episodes in apicultural history where one is left mostly wondering about the details of what happened, Harbison documented his progress and his problems in his book, “The Bee-Keeper’s Directory,” published in the tumultuous year of 1861 (the beginning of the Civil War). This text and another beekeeping book written by his brother W.C. Harbison (in 1860), along with articles in the old bee journals, help fill in other details about J.S. Harbison’s apicultural career. Both of these Harbison books are now extremely rare (see Figure 1). However, both books have been reprinted at a modest price. (I have both reprints and use them for reading and traveling copies, keeping the wear and tear off of the originals.)

Young Harbison started beekeeping well before Reverend L.L. Langstroth announced (by 1853) the movable frame based on the bee space. The common hive of the land at the time was the box or plank hive. It not only reflected considerable ignorance about bees, but this style of hive prevented learning about them (see Figure 2). Essentially a box with an entrance hole, the bees built their combs without any guidance from the beekeeper (see Figure 3). Bee management was virtually unknown, and swarming was rampant. The honey harvest was destructive and similar to European skep beekeeping.

In the fall, box hives were “taken up” by putting them over a small pit with matches of burning sulfur below. The poisonous fumes killed the bees. Then the combs were cut from the hives. In this primitive processing, the honey typically picked up bits of dirt and bee parts, and usually became mixed with pollen. Considered low quality, and rightly so, this honey brought a low price, and greatly reduced the profitability of beekeeping. Rather than trying to prevent swarming, a destructive honey harvest meant the beekeeper depended on swarming to replenish colony numbers. Large early swarms were the most valuable.

In the spring of 1844, Harbison learned of a different kind of hive, a chamber hive. This hive provided a clever step forward to produce cleaner honey without destroying the colony, yet well before the invention of removable frames. The chamber hive still resembled a plain old box hive from the outside. Its innovation was on the inside. A horizontal partition divided roughly the upper one-third of the interior from the lower portion. The queen, brood nest, and non-surplus honey resided below the partition. Above the partition were special honey boxes, made of thin wood with glass windows, where the bees stored surplus honey (see Figures 4 and 5). The honey boxes had holes on their lower sides that aligned with holes in the horizontal partition, allowing the bees access into the boxes.

With this simple innovation, the honey harvest now consisted of removing the honey boxes and leaving the rest of the colony intact. Since no standard existed, beekeepers made honey boxes in numerous sizes to fit their chamber hives. When full, the entire box was sold to the grocer –– honeycombs, wood, glass, and all. Essentially, the honey box played the same role as a jar does today. Figure 6 shows a pair of box hives converted to take external honey boxes on top of them.

In 1853, Harbison had an undisclosed number of chamber hives, his “improved hives.” He made 6,300 pounds of honey and sold the crop for an average of 18 cents per pound, which, reading between the lines a bit, I think was a good price. Then disaster struck. The drought of 1854 caused large starvation losses by the following spring. Harbison lost half of his colonies, still faring better than others who lost all of their bees.

Anticipating his monetary loss and to retrieve his fortune, Harbison set sail from New York to California in October of 1854. Harbison thought California would be a good place for bees, even though from another beekeeper’s failure there it seemed otherwise. In 1855 Harbison sent back east for one hive to be shipped to him. In February 1856, the colony arrived in poor condition. Most of the bees had died or escaped. Nevertheless, Harbison thought with careful handling, despite such a long distance, importation could be successful. To that end he returned home in 1857.

Even while in California, Harbison had heard “glowing accounts” of a new hive, and upon returning to Pennsylvania found that beekeeping technology was rapidly changing. From the library of another beekeeper, he read that most pivotal of beekeeping books, “Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee,” by Reverend L.L. Langstroth, published in 1853. The Langstroth hive had been introduced into Harbison’s apiaries and others nearby. Harbison had high expectations for the Langstroth hive with its marvelous removable frames, letting the beekeeper inspect combs without damaging them. Profound as it was, the frame, as originally conceived, needed some modifications (and new bee management) in order to fulfill all its potential.

Harbison tried out Langstroth’s new movable-frame hive, so full of hope and promise –– but the bees starved in the first winter to his deep disappointment. Ironically, honey remained in the hives, suggesting the bees could have survived. What was the problem?

In his patent, Langstroth proposed a 12-frame hive with a frame depth similar to the standard brood frame in use today. Adding what we would call supers to a hive with frames, that is, extending its honey storage capacity vertically, did not initially occur to most beekeepers. Their box or chamber hives had fixed volumes. With that mindset and from Harbison’s account, the first Langstroth hives were probably being wintered as single-story units, a prospect likely to fail in a long cold Pennsylvania winter. After consuming the honey in contact with the cluster, the honey remaining on adjacent frames was not easily reached in the cold. And the bees starved. Nevertheless, bees in the box and chamber hives did survive those winters. Why?

Harbison’s chamber hives had deeper combs. Most likely the winter cluster could ascend on the   ….