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Honey Bee Conquest
Materials from my recent talk at Boyertown Historical Society
It was a lot of fun talking to the folks from Boyertown Historical Society. Really happy with the turnout (including my own family!) and the questions were excellent. The St. Columbkill chapel was a great place to speak. I’ve never had a stained glass backdrop before. And shoutout to the Boyertown Bulletin for advertising the event!
THE HIVING OF AMERICA
A portion of the talk had to do with the introduced status of honey bees in America. Historical accounts of the introduction of native species fascinates me for a few reasons. In the case of the honey bee, we’re talking about a barely domesticated species that produced surplus valuable to the people at the time. And given today’s struggles with bee survival, how we got to where we are today is interesting in itself.
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A Eurasian species, honey bees weren’t present before European colonization. According to the USDA1, honeybees mostly arrived in the 17th century, often purposely brought to the Americas by those looking to them as livestock: honey was an incredible sweetener for people used to tough, coarse, and salted food, and beeswax makes for good candlemaking, burning cleaner than tallow and easier to get at than whale blubber.
What hasn’t been examined adequately, partly due to the difficulty of recovering the historical record about it, is how honey bees interacted with their environment.
Feral swarms are a fact of beekeeping. As a beekeeper, I’ve watched plenty of swarms leave my hives, and probably missed many more. Where the feral bees go is a source of frustration for the beekeeper. We know in a general sense that honey bees are cavity-nesters, along with all kinds of other species. Imagine a neighbor’s reaction when the bees start to build comb in the wall of their garage, for instance.
When feral bees hit the forests of Penn’s Woods here in PA, they’d find themselves in competition. Chickadees, barred owls, even black bears nest in cavities in trees. Honey bees would have certainly been at odds with them over the objectively best spaces: south facing, close to water, and so on. Given the honey bee preference for cavities with a particular volume (you can attract a swarm with a container around 12” cubed2), it was probably songbird species most affected by honey bee swarming.
The bees would have spread fast, like any other invasive species. People in Boyertown knew well the spotted lantern fly outbreak going on in PA3. Like the SLF, the new bees in town, without natural predators or parasites, must have moved fast. Thomas Jefferson reported that bees moved in advance of colonists, a sort of vanguard for westward expansion:
“The bees have generally extended themselves into the country, a little in advance of the white settlers. The Indians therefore call them the white man's fly, and consider their approach as indicating the approach of the settlements of the whites.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia4
If the bees could settle the American hinterland faster than Europeans, it indicates that the pattern for invasive species spread5 was consistent in the case of bees. We already know that honey bees are notorious for their ability to displace native bees from flowers in a given ecosystem,6 and that’s after several hundred years of coexistence. It’s probable that honey bees were a major disrupting force, especially with human support for their spread.
There’s more work to be done, including looking at primary sources of the period, to understand what else might have been displaced by honey bee introduction. When I get some time, I intend to write a longer piece about this and see if I can get it published. In the meantime, feel free to consult this reading list and the footnotes if you want to take up this subject.
HISTORY OF BEES AND BEEKEEPING
•Bees in America, Tammy Horn, 2005
•Langstroth’s Hive and the Honey-Bee, LL Langstroth, 1856
•Bees, by Von Frisch, 1950
•The Reshaping of Everyday Life, Jack Larkin, 1988
GENERALLY ABOUT BEES
•The Buzz About Bees, Jurgen Tautz, 2008
•Beekeeping at Buckfast Abbey, Brother Adam, 1975
•Following the Wild Bees, and Honeybee Democracy, by Thomas Seeley
•The Backyard Beekeeper by Kim Flottum 2005
Everett Oertel, “History of Beekeeping in the United States,” US Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Handbook 335, https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/64133000/PDFFiles/1-100/093-Oertel--History%20of%20Beekeeping%20in%20the%20U.S..pdf.
Tom Seeley, “Bait Hives for Honey Bees,” https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/2653.
Penn State Extension on SLF: https://extension.psu.edu/spotted-lanternfly.
Peden, ed., Notes, 71-72. https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/bees-and-honey/#fn-3.
Spread dynamics of invasive species, Matías Arim, Sebastián R. Abades, Paula E. Neill, +1 , and Pablo A. MarquetAuthors Info & Affiliations December 30, 2005, 103 (2) 374-378, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.05042721.
Will Putting Honey Bees on Public Lands Threaten Native Bees? by Jennifer Oldham, September 15, 2020, https://e360.yale.edu/features/will-putting-honey-bees-on-public-lands-threaten-native-bees.