Gretchen Bee Ranch
Inside a Gretchen Bee Ranch Bee Hive
Brief History of Beekeeping

Man of Bicor Cave painting Ancient cave paintings found in Spain date the practice of beekeeping, or at least honey gathering, to the Paleolithic Era, 15,000 B.C. The paintings depict men climbing ropes to rob honeycomb from cliff-dwelling bees. The Egyptians, around 3,000 B.C., are credited with the practice of placing bees in hives, and also of moving those hives to different locations to secure honey from seasonally blooming flowers. They did this by placing the hivEgyptian Bee Hieroglyphes on rafts that floated up and down the Nile to take advantage of the sources of nectar that occurred in different areas and at different times. This practice, called migratory beekeeping, is still used today by large commercial beekeepers that carry their beehives by truck to pollinate crops or produce honey at multiple locations according to the season.

Aristotle was among the first of the early scientists to study bees. He based his scientific analysis of many subjects, including bees, on experience and observation. For example, Aristotle observed that adult bees grow from larvae that are placed in honeycomb cells, disputing the belief of early Greek writers that bees were generated from dead oxen. Aristotle also observed that there is a caste system within a bee colony and that honey is carried in the bees’ stomachs. He was among the first to note that when gathering nectar, bees visit only one type of flower during their flight. The works of Aristotle were the chief source of information about bees until the Middle Ages, and many of his observations and theories about bees are accepted as fact today.

Stand of Bee GumsHoneybees are not native to North America and likely were brought to the New World by explorers, perhaps the Norwegians as early as 800 A.D. Records of beehives imported to Virginia date to 1621, and by 1650 honey and beeswax were said to be abundant in that colony. One hundred years later, honeybees were as far south as Georgia and by 1800 they had reached the Mississippi River. Bees were sent by ship from eastern states to California. Settlers often kept bees in “bee gums,” or hollowed-out logs, which usually required damaging or destroying the colony to harvest the honey.

Rev. Langstroth and His New Bee HiveAround 1851, Philadelphia clergyman and beekeeper Lorenzo Langstroth revolutionized the practice of beekeeping by devising a hive built with removable frames. Known as the “father of modern apiculture,” Langstroth designed the hive around the concept of “bee space;” that is, the space that is left open inside the hive that allows the bees to move around and between the combs. By experimentation, he learned that the proper bee space was 5/16 of an inch. Any space inside the hive smaller than 5/16 of an inch is plugged by the bees with a sticky substance called propolis. A larger space is filled with honeycomb. Therefore, the frames in his new hive were spaced 5/16 of an inch on all sides, allowing him to remove and inspect the frames freely without damaging the hive. Beehives today are still based on his design.

Other inventions followed the “Langstroth hive,” including wax comb foundation, the honey extractor for harvesting, the bee smoker and protective clothing. A strain of bees developed in Italy were imported in the 1860s and, because of its gentle nature and resistance to diseases, is still the predominant race of honeybee in the country. These developments set the stage for both the rise of both widespread hobby beekeeping, as well as, today’s large commercial apiaries, some operating as many as 30,000 bee colonies.

Sources: Information in this essay was compiled from The ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, published by Mr. A.I. Root, a beekeeping pioneer and entrepreneur, and from an essay titled “History of Beekeeping in the United States” by Everett Oertel that can be found at this web address:

Image credits: 1.) Egyptian Bee Hieroglyph Photo by Kieth Schengili-Roberts, 2.) Rev. Langstroth and His New Hive, from D.H. Coggeshell Papers, UMASS Amherst
Illustration of a Langstroth Hive
Illustration of a Langstroth Hive

------- Outer Cover
------- Inner Cover  
------- Super for making Comb Honey

------- Shallow Supers

------- Queen Excluder  
------- Deep Super  
------- Bottom Board  

------- Hive Stand

  Anatomy of a Honey Bee and the Types of Adult Bees
Anotomy of a Honey Bee

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