By Brenda Kellar
The creation of the
Their greatest advantage was each other. The honey bee provided honey, wax, and propolis for human consumption and market, they pollinated the European seeds and saplings that the immigrants brought with them, and they changed the environment (many times in advance of the human immigrants) making it more acceptable to the imported livestock by helping to spread white clover and other English grasses. Christopher Gist wrote in 1751 when near the present site of Circleville “all the way from Licking Creek to this Place is fine rich level Land, with large Meadows, Clover Bottoms & spacious Plains covered with Wild Rye” and west of the Alleghenies “the first arrivals found white clover and Kentucky bluegrass” (Bidwell and Falconer 1925:157). In return the humans provided shelter, encouraged swarming, planted large tracts of plants that are highly utilized by honey bees, and aided the honey bees’ travels over barriers like treeless plains and mountain ranges.
Historical archaeology, with its interdisciplinary approach and incorporation of historic materials with artifacts, is the discipline most suited to discovering the long-term processes that produce changes in both culture and the environment. Honey bees, and I could argue all insect species, leave traces of their impact on the environment and on human cultures that historic archaeology is uniquely designed to uncover.
Changes in plant species populations can be traced through
the pollen left in the soil as well as in the diaries and letters colonists and
travelers have left behind. The fact that the
Pieces of honey bee anatomy can also be found in the soil. Those most likely to survive deposition are the thicker, tougher pieces of chitin like mandibles and stingers. Under some circumstances (anaerobic environments are one example) the more delicate pieces like wings would probably be found. As these soils can often be dated through stratigraphy, magnetic changes, or association the honey bees’ physical remains could also be dated.
The honey bees left more than just their bodies for us to discover. They left behind an entire economic industry with all of its attendant tools, advertising, and monetary records. Human cultures for thousands of years have used the honey bee and her products as symbols for industry, social structure, cleanliness, holiness, chastity, and much more. These symbols can be found in all forms of material culture produced by human populations. Native American languages, diet, art, technologies, and oral histories also changed with the arrival of the honey bee. John Eliot, who in 1661 translated the New Testament into a Native American language and in 1663 completed the entire Bible, both of which he published in Massachusetts, found there was no Native American word for wax or honey and claimed that the Indians used the term ‘White Man’s fly’ (Pellett 1938:2).
The only evidence we have of the initial importation of
honey bees to North America is a letter written December 5, 1621 by the Council
of the Virginia Company in London and addressed to the Governor and Council in
Virginia, “Wee haue by this Shipp and the Discouerie sent you diurs [divers]
sortes of seedes, and fruit trees, as also Pidgeons, Connies, Peacockes
Maistiues [Mastiffs], and Beehives, as you shall by the invoice pceiue
[perceive]; the preservation & encrease whereof we respond vnto you…” (Goodwin 1956; Kingsbury 1906:532). The Discovery (60 tons, Thomas Jones,
captain, and twenty persons) left
Historical documentary sources tell us that from
The first 17th century
“For bees there is in the country which thrive and prosper very well there; one Mr. George Pelton, alias, Strayton, a ancient planter of twenty-five years’ standing that had store of them, he made thirty pounds a year profit of them; but by misfortune his house was burnt down, and many of his hives perished, he makes excellent good metheglin, a pleasant and strong drink, and it serves him and his family for good liquor: If men would endeavour to increase this kind of creature, there would be here in a short time abundance of wax and honey, for there is all the country over delicate food for bees, and there is also bees naturally in the land, though we account not of them” [Goodwin 1956; Maxwell 1849:76; Riley 1956].
By the last quarter of the 17th century the honey
bee had spread northward into all areas of New England although the “Bees seem
to have been more common in the Middle Colonies than in New England” (Bidwell
and Falconer 1925: 32). In
In the 18th
century the interest in beekeeping continued to expand and five American bee
books were published (Mason: 34-649). Previously all such single subject books
were published in
James Tew claims there were two distinct bee industry epochs:
(1) 1700-1800 when honey bee colonies are wild, and honey hunters occasionally rob honey.
(2) 1800s when honey bees are kept as farm animals to provide honey for personal use
Although I agree with Bidwell and Falconer (1925: 69) when they say that there were “two sharply contrasted types of farming and of rural life: (a) pioneering, the agriculture of the new settlements on the frontier, and (b) the agriculture of the older communities along the seacoast and in the river valleys” in New England and the Middle Colonies of the 18th century, they nor I can agree with Tew’s claim. “Honey was another substitute for cane sugar, bees being considered an important adjunct of every well-managed [18th century] farm” (Bidwell and Falconer 1925: 127).
The lack of information about honey bees and apiaries in the
documentary record for the 18th century gives the impression that
honey bee populations were mostly feral and that their products were
supplemental to the settlers’ diet. This is disputed by the fact that beeswax
was an important 18th century
The total amount of beeswax exported from Virginia in 1730
(just over one hundred years since the first import of honey bees to North
America) was 156 quintals, equal to 156,000 kilograms, or about 343,900 pounds
(Pryor 1983:20). Beers (1804:29) claimed that the average managed hive yielded
20 pounds of honey and 2 pounds of wax. If this is correct then there had to be
171,950 hives harvested that year just for export purposes. There would have
been many more hives harvested for domestic use. This booming
There are extensive legal records for Augusta Co, VA from the years 1745 to 1826. According to these records the honey bees themselves were valuable. Out of 748 inventories 37 included honey bees and the average price of those honey bees was 0-5-3 per swarm/hive. This was similar to the value of a sheep (0-6-0) or a calf (0-5-0) and more than a hog (0-3-2) from the same set of inventory records (Beekeeping Bibliography).
It was only with the help of humans that the honey bees
managed to cross the last geographic barrier – the
There are several instances of
people commenting on the lack of honey bees in the
Although some claim that Tabitha ‘Grandma’ Brown, who owned and ran a school and orphanage in Forest Grove, Oregon, had a honey bee tree at the school in 1849 (Williams 1975:34) the first evidence I could find of honey bees in Oregon was the August 1, 1854 Oregon Statesman, which included a story about John Davenport of Marion county who brought home a hive of honey bees from back east. These were considered the first in the area. Unfortunately, it was later reported that this first hive of honey bees did not do well (Williams 1975:34).
Honey bees came to
According to documentary evidence it took the honey bee more
than 200 years to cross the continental
By incorporating historic archaeology and entomology we can
uncover the path of the honey bee as it crossed the future
Adams, George W. “Some Early Beekeeping History.” American Bee Journal. July 1921.
for Preservation of
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 Ransome suggested this was where the term ‘beeline’ came from (Ransome 1937:272).
 “The produce or commodities of the growth of Virginia and Maryland are pitch, tar, turpentine, plank, clapboard and barrel staves, shingles, wheat flour, biscuit, Indian corn, beef, pork, fallow, wax, butter and liye stock, such as hogs, geese and turkeys” (Tyler 1966:1:215, XIV:87).