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

Shipping Bees a Century Ago

- May 1, 2020 - Wyatt A. Mangum (excerpt)

Old Package Bees Container

With the arrival of spring, my thoughts turn to shipping bees –– from a century ago, give or take a decade, maybe two.

Several years ago, I gave a brief historical beginning of the package bee industry in American Bee Journal, using my collection of old shipping packages as original artifacts, acquired after hunting them for years. Old shipping packages, built in discarded designs, are difficult to find. Most of them must have met their end by fire or rot. The lucky ones, forgotten and hidden, may be up in the loft of a barn, passing away the years until found by another generation.

Always on the hunt for old packages, I found some more, reported here. I also found another way to ship bees a century ago. I knew this method existed, but I had never seen this type of shipping device until recently. Let’s explore our way to that example with some historical events in the development of our package bee industry.

In May 1879, A. I. Root proposed a revolutionary idea, put forth as a challenge in Bee Culture (then called Gleanings in Bee Culture). Root was the founder of the A. I. Root Company and Bee Culture, both located in Medina, Ohio. At that time, queens were reared in the South and could be bought early in the season and reliably shipped to the North. Root wanted to start hives with bees from the South. Using Bee Culture, Root began challenging beekeepers to solve the problems with shipping Southern bees to the North. For example the bees needed a cage design to protect them from overheating and some device to feed them in transit. The next month, in the June issue, Root reported two beekeepers had sent him bees, but regrettably most died. Although not successful, these attempts were probably the first at shipping just bees by express to distant locations (Pellet, 1938).

In June 1881, Bee Culture ran an article and advertisements about “Bees by the Pound,” which was one of the old ways of saying package bees. The package bee industry was trying to take hold. Here is a bee shipping package design probably from near to that time. It is one of the oldest shipping packages in my collection. The package shape, like a peaked roof, would not permit other items being stacked on it during shipment (Figure 1). The package provided stiff candy for the bees to eat, typical of the late 1880s. On one end of the package is a large hole. A piece of a comb honey section box partly covers the hole across its middle, leaving two slits on either side large enough for bees to pass. On the outside of the package, around the hole, is a faint circular outline as if a shallow tin pan were once nailed on the outside of the package. And nail holes are present within the image of the shadow of the disk. The tin pan probably held a supply of stiff candy for the bees (Figure 2). The bees acquired the candy through the slits around the sides of the section box. The piece of the section covered most of the middle of the hole and would have kept the bulk of the candy from oozing through the hole and into the package. The bees could be installed in the shipping package through another hole at the other end of the package. (The package may have provided water, but I cannot tell that from what remains.)

Problems with the candy in the shipping package and a lack of consistent demand for bees, except when winter losses were severe, seemed to curtail the development of a package bee industry (Pellet, 1938). An unexpected occurrence fueled consistent demand for package bees –– the spread of sweet clover in the farming region of the west (Pellet, 1938). That was largely due to the persistence of Frank Cloverdale, who showed farmers that their cattle could gain weight on sweet clover, a soil-building plant, and clover should not be thought of as a noxious weed. Farmers began planting sweet clover, and beekeepers eventually had a new and huge honey crop that continues to the present (Pellet, 1938).

In the teens of the 1900s, beekeepers returned to the problem of shipping bees by express, namely how to package and feed them in transit. In April 1913, A. B. Marchant of Apalachicola, Florida, and D. D. Stover of Mississippi began advertising in American Bee Journal for “pound bees.” By 1917 at least a dozen businesses were shipping packages in large numbers (Pellet, 1938).

To the west from Mississippi in January 1918, The Beekeepers Item (in its newspaper form with very brittle and delicate brown paper), then published in New Braunfels, Texas, had that issue devoted to what we call package bees. Their terminology still sought a standard name along with trying out different package designs. Three article titles (starting as columns) splashed across the front page: “VENTILATION MOST NECESSARY,” “A YEAR OF SHIPPING POUND BEES,” and “A COMBLESS PACKAGE SYMPOSIUM.” The last article featured a symposium of beekeepers with pictures and cage dimensions below the fold of the front page. One cage was a modification of another cage that Root had been using on a limited basis for shipping small quantities of bees (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 5 shows a shipping package strikingly similar to the Root-Laws design shown in Figure 3. The package has the two main holes on top and numerous slats for the bees to cluster. This package is unusually thin, which would help the cluster lose heat. Perhaps that compensated for the wooden slats, which would reduce ventilation.

The general design of most of the other cages was to have more ventilation for the bees to survive the southern heat while still letting the cluster cling to something inside. Moreover, among the Texas shippers, we find early evidence of discarding the old way of using candy and water in favor of sugar syrup in a tin can with very small holes (see Figure 6).

From the 1920s to the 1940s the package bee industry seemed to have been established with mostly the four-sided screen packages (see Figures 7 and 8). Two-sided screens were also used and