How many honey bees are there? A 2019 update.

Two trillion. That’s the estimated number of honey bees that are kept in hives around the world. The following piece is reblogged from Emily Scott’s Adventures in Beeland. Now we know that the number of bee hives in the world went up again – now at 91 million kept hives and millions of feral colonies! Thanks, Emily!

Adventuresinbeeland's Blog

A year ago I wrote a post titled ‘How many honey bees are there?‘, after a question on Quora got me intrigued about whether any kind of data exists on worldwide honey bee numbers. Would anyone really have counted?

Well, it turns out they have… sort of.

At the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization website, FAOSTAT, you can now download the latest 2017 data on the number of managed bee hives worldwide across 125 countries (though not my own country, the UK!). The individual country data can be downloaded as a juicy detailed spreadsheet or the data can be visualised in interactive attractive graphs for you in the Visualize data section – this tells us that there was a worldwide total of 90,999,730 hives (up slightly from 90,564,654 hives in 2016).

© FAO, Production of Beehives world total 1961-2017, Web address: http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/#data/QA/visualize, Accessed: 14/01/19

These graphs on…

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Is bee-talk keeping you awake?

So, you’re hauling bees across the country – and you’re drowsy. Or having trouble staying awake while doing the dull, repetitive manual labour we call extracting. What do you do? A lot of people keep their eyes open by listening to a good podcast or audiobook.

Over the past year, I’ve written about two of my favourite bee podcasts.  Kiwimana, recorded by Gary and Margaret Fawcett in New Zealand, has a nice mix of news and interviews with beekeepers. They talk to bee folk all over the world, making it a truly international podcast. A while ago, Gary caught up with me for about an hour – you can listen to that interview here: KM113 with Ron Miksha.

Another podcast which I enjoy is PolliNation, from Oregon State’s Andony Melathopoulos. Andony, a fellow Calgarian whom I’ve known for years, does bee and pollinator extension work in the USA at Oregon State. He interviews people active in pollination with all sorts of pollinators (especially bees) and in all sorts of habitats. Last year, I chatted with Andony for his 54th podcast, Ron Miksha – Crop Pollination: Past, Present and Future. My interview was largely a look back on how we used to pollinate with honey bees, in the old days though I made some predictions about the future of pollination that are bound to be wrong.

Podcasts are one way to make use of otherwise boring trucking and extracting time. But a few days ago, a member of our local bee club (Calgary and District Beekeepers) mentioned that some old bee books are available as free audiobooks. These free recordings are readings from books that are older than 1923, which means the copyrights have expired. As such, any of us can copy, annotate, post, and publish or record any bits we like without infringing on anyone’s legal rights. This includes reading them for an audiobook site.

One such free audiobook site is LibriVox which carries the tag Free public domain audiobooks read by volunteers from around the world. If you have a pleasant voice, some free time, and an old bee book, you could contribute, too. I’m not a great reader, often tripping up words and mispronouncing some of them, but if I ever find myself with a few extra hours, I’ll volunteer.

Langstroth's Hive and Honey-Bee, first published in 1853

Langstroth’s Hive and Honey-Bee, first published in 1853

The site has a search option, so you will find a few classics such as Langstroth’s  Hive and the Honey Bee. What would Reverend Langstroth think if he knew that his book, written back in 1853,  was ‘recorded’ by someone else’s voice, then enjoyed on a small gadget by beekeepers using automatic whirling machines to sling honey from Langstroth frames? It’s  amazing to think of the new things we use everyday – cell phones, electricity, and big flatbed trucks, all of which he wouldn’t recognize – yet the basic hive and frame that Langstroth developed is largely unchanged.

To enjoy audio clips of bee classics, go to the LibriVox site. There, you can listen on your computer without downloading. You may also link into iTunes and park the audio files there.  Below are some of the bee books available from LibriVox. These books are pretty old, so the modern reader is cautioned to ignore a lot of the advice, or at least use a sieve to filter out the bees knees from the honey. But for a quaint historical perspective, they are good. Enjoy!

Burroughs: Birds and Bees, Sharp Eyes, and Other Papers

Casteel: The Behavior of the Honey Bee in Pollen Collecting

Clark: Constructive Beekeeping

Edwardes: The Lore of the Honey-Bee

Fabre: The Mason-Bees

Langstroth: The Hive and Honey Bee

Lockard: Bee Hunting

Saunders: Wild Bees, Wasps and Ants and Other Stinging Insects

Wolf: Apis Mellifica

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, Culture, or lack thereof, History | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Cats catch up with bees

This Twitter tweet is cute as a kitten. It’s nice, but we all know that bees are way smarter than cats. Bees have been behaving like this for years. Nevertheless, it is reassuring to see vertebrates are learning what some inverts have known for a long, long time.

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2018 a little recap of interesting posts from Ron Miksha

I’m giving thanks this morning to Stefan, a beekeeper/blogger in San Jose, who has decided to take a a year-long break from blogging to travel the world. My gratitude is for Stefan’s blog (which I hope he’ll continue after his sabbatical) and because Stefan has surprised me by listing my most popular Bad Beekeeping Blog posts of 2018 as a farewell note to his readers. Thank you, Stefan!

Meanwhile, I think everyone would enjoy revisiting his posts about getting started with backyard beekeeping. Also, send him a note if you live somewhere interesting and maybe he can drop by and say hello to you and your bees. I’m in Calgary. Maybe he’ll visit us this summer!

A Jar of Honey San Jose

Ron is a Canadian Beekeeper and active Blogger, trainer and a real asset to the beekeeping world to me. His Blog: https://badbeekeepingblog.com/

I am taking a one year break from Beekeeping in 2019 as I will travel for a year. Here is the list of really interesting topics

  1. Rotten: Lawyers, Guns, and Honey
  2. Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet?
  3. Kicked out of a farmer’s market
  4. Dr Warwick Kerr, the “Man Who Created Killer Bees”, has died
  5. Crazy Russian Hacker lost all his bees!
  6. Why your honey gets hard
  7. Causes of winter losses
  8. Should you feed s tired bee?
  9. Nuisance-free beekeeping
  10. How to predict a honey flow

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Hot Bee Topics in 2018

Well, what a year for the friends of bees! I give thanks. First, for the bees. Then, my family. I’m also grateful that my body held out for another year. I feel privileged to have readers for this blog, too. (I’m looking at you. Thanks for looking at me.) This blog had over 100,000 views in 2018 and even made it into Feedspot’s top five bee sites. Readers dropped by from 176 different countries.  Knowing that I have readers makes me want to write.

So, I’m sorry that I didn’t post more often. It’s not for lack of stories – I’ve got dozens of pieces queued up. There’s a lot happening in bee culture these days. My problem is the short days we have – just 24 hours isn’t enough to do the writing I need to do.  I’ve been working on a graduate degree at the University of Calgary and have been busy with some volunteer activities in other areas.  Also during 2018, I participated in a podcast interview with Andony Melathopoulos, wrote articles for American Bee Journal, BeesCene, and the Czech beekeeping journal. I somehow found time to teach beekeeping workshops with the Calgary & District Beekeepers Association, I went looking for bumble bees in Iceland, and I  presented at the United Beekeepers of Alberta conference.  But I didn’t find enough time to write much for the readers of this blog.

If you have been as busy as me, you probably missed some of my posts this year. So, here are my top-ten most-viewed blog posts from 2018, with the most popular at the top:

  1. Rotten: Lawyers, Guns, and Honey
  2. Have you lithium-chlorided your bees yet?
  3. Kicked out of a farmer’s market
  4. Dr Warwick Kerr, the “Man Who Created Killer Bees”, has died
  5. Crazy Russian Hacker lost all his bees!
  6. Why your honey gets hard
  7. Causes of winter losses
  8. Should you feed s tired bee?
  9. Nuisance-free beekeeping
  10. How to predict a honey flow

Those are the top ten out of 73 posts that I published in 2018.  I won’t predict how much I’ll post in 2019, nor will I hazard any predictions about what the year will bring. Together, we’ll see what happens. Meanwhile, hold on tight – the new year begins in just a few hours!

Posted in Culture, or lack thereof | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Give a Gift of Bees – for $35?

Do you have $35 to give to a family so that they can have their own bees? You can bring honey and pollination to someone who needs it. Donate before 2018 calls it a day. Don’t ask me how this charity can provide “a hive, honeybees, training and all of the essentials for pollinating a buzzing family business”  for $35.

Plan International has a good reputation with 69% of donations ending up in the right place according to a reputable independent monitor. A couple of years ago, my kids chipped in to buy a few pigs for a family in central America through Plan International. The piglets cost $90. I suspect that those little squealers have crossed to the other side by now. A hive of bees, on the other hand, might live for generations.

Go ahead. Buy someone some bees. Plan International.

Posted in Outreach | Tagged | 2 Comments

Beekeeping Barbie

My 12-year-old daughter never cared a lot about Barbie dolls but if this had been around a few years ago, she probably would have liked it. Nice to see that Mattel, Inc. finally made a realistic role model!  Here is a reblog from The Honey Bee Queen Blog:

She got her very first Barbie from her Great Aunt Jane. This Barbie is a super cool beekeeping babe with her own bee hive and honey stand complete with an honor system cash register. 

7CF3329A-AA35-4291-87D3-6557E27EAE33.jpeg

I wasn’t sure if we were going to introduce Barbie dolls to our kiddos, but this the coolest one I’ve ever seen.

XO

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A Year of Backyard Beekeeping

Regular readers of this blog know that I once kept hundreds of hives in Florida and Saskatchewan. That was a long time ago. Now that I’m all grown up, I’ve got just two colonies in my Calgary backyard. Much more fun.

I teach a lot of beekeeping workshops. Some are advanced courses, but the most challenging are our beginning beekeeping programs. That’s because beginners begin at the beginning, but as we age and gain experience (I’ve done both) we become removed from the spirit and green freshness of the enthusiastic newbie’s blank slate. To be a better – and ‘more connected’ – instructor, I figured that I should try to practice what I teach. I decided to start as a beginner beekeeper would start – with a couple of backyard hives.

During the past year, my 16-year-old and I started hobby beekeeping with two packages in new equipment. We had some of the same problems that beginners have, nevertheless, we made some honey – just as most beginners do. Today, I am posting a photo essay of our year of backyard beekeeping.

I instruct new beekeepers to start with two colonies. S0, we also started with two. That was a wise choice, as we would discover a few weeks into our project.  More on that in a moment. I also instruct new beekeepers about the perfect apiary location – an aspiration seldom achieved. More about that later, too.

Since this was a fresh start, I decided to try something different with our backyard hives. We live in a short-season, cold-climate, high-elevation locality, so we wrap hives with insulation each fall. I’ve thrown winter-long-johns on hives each autumn for many years, but never enjoyed the chore. I’d grown tired of handling sheets of asbestos, or whatever it was I used, to protect bees from arctic winds. I heard about thick-walled polystyrene hives. So, I bought four new brood chambers made of the stuff from the local Apihex store. The boxes came in the traditional beehive colour. We masked the white with a durable exterior latex camouflage colour.  Since the bees would be in our backyard, surrounded by a million Calgarians, it seemed prudent to hide the hives so that our neighbours wouldn’t sneak over at night and steal honey from the hives. The earth-tone paint blends into the backyard (except in winter) and keeps pesky neighbours away.

Before receiving the packages, I figured my son should have a bee suit. When Daniel was young, we let him traipse amongst the bees without bee gear. Now that he has grown to be an intelligent, hard-working young man, we can see he has some economic value. So why risk a bad bee sting?  We took him to a bee suit tailor who properly attired him. You can see the transformation from ten years ago to today.

OK. Hives painted, boy properly suited. Time to get some packages.  Here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a lot of beekeepers start with packages from New Zealand. So, we did, too. Usually the bees arrive through  commercial beekeepers (in our case, Reece and Echo Chandler of Scandia Honey). They have the skill it takes to haul bees from afar. Our Calgary and District Beekeepers’ Association worked with the Chandlers, who imported bees from New Zealand.  Here are  packages of bees arriving in the city, being distributed by the bee club.

Two package cages became ours. At home, we pulled apart the cages, which were aggressively stapled together back in New Zealand, where the bees were reared.

In the picture above, you can see a hive in the background. Before installing the bees, we prepared their new homes with combs, new foundation, and a feeder. You can start a package on totally new combs of foundation, but it helps enormously if you can get a few clean drawn combs from a reliable, inspected source. Our choice was again the Chandlers at Scandia Honey. We knew that they sold safe, disease-free equipment.

Below, you can see one of the boxes, ready for installing bees. From the top left are the division-board feeder (filled with sugar water), two drawn frames, a gap, one drawn frame, and two black-coloured new frames of foundation. Bees from the package will be released into the gap. Once the bees are in, we add three more drawn combs in the gap.

If this is all new to you, here’s a look at one of the frames of foundation. We could have bought white frames but I wanted black so we could spot the eggs and young larvae more easily. Other than the colour, there’s no difference.

All of this took place this year, April 27, 2018, at 9 in the evening. The sun was setting, it was becoming dark. Time to release the bees.

Daniel holds the package cage (above) and releases the bees. I reach in and retrieve the caged queen. As soon as most of the bees are freed, I lower my hand just above the mass of bees in the gap, open the queen cage, and release the queen among the workers. Since it is evening, most of the bees don’t fly but instead settle into the box with the queen.

We give the bees a few minutes to get comfortable in their new home, then gently place three drawn combs to fill the gap. At this point, we have 6,500 workers and one mated queen in a big empty box. I installed my first packages over 40 years ago, have done this procedure thousands of times, yet every single time I suffer doubt that a small cluster of bees can become a honey-making hive. It’s April 27th. Do I really expect to harvest honey in about two or three months? That seems highly improbable. But the bees usually surprise me. Nevertheless, take a look at the next picture. You may be able to see Daniel’s expression. This will make honey? Are you kidding?

So, we have installed two packages. The queen would likely begin to lay eggs the next day. It takes three weeks from egg-laying to fully-developed adult worker bees. So, from Friday, April 27 until perhaps Saturday, May 19, the new hives will lose population everyday as the New Zealand workers age and die. The colonies will become weaker and look even less promising until new bees emerge. For now, though, we let the bees get used to their new home. The feeder holds about a gallon (4 litres) of sugar syrup. The food is so the bees won’t starve if it turns cold and wet. For the next few days, we don’t touch the hives. Unexpected disturbances at this critical adaptation time might stir the bees into attacking and killing their new queen. So, we stifle our curiosity and allow nature to run her course for a bit. The next morning, as if to welcome the bees, nature wandered into our yard. You can spot the yearling.

We left the package cages near the hives for the next morning so that stray bees would find their way into their new homes. Later, we cleaned up the yard, careful not to touch the hives, lest we disturb them and make the bees anxious. This location is not bad for bees, but there are things going on here which we usually advise against. The hives are heavily shaded most of the day. The entrances are tight against juniper bushes. But our yard slopes southward and has good air drainage. The bees are close to the house, so that’s easy access for me. Since they are close to the house, I’ve faced the entrances into the brush so bees don’t buzz our ankles when we mow the grass or walk nearby. Hive placement is always a trade-off. Not every location is perfect. But our goal with these bees was to learn and have fun, without being a nuisance to neighbours and family. We don’t need a ton of honey. Although the spot isn’t perfect, we were thrilled to see pollen arriving the day after installing the bees.

A week after giving the bees their new home, we couldn’t contain our curiosity any longer. We opened the hives – quickly, gently, with little disturbance – and checked for brood. Or, as Richard Taylor put it, beekeeping success demands “a certain demeanor. It is not so much slow motion that is wanted, but a controlled approach.”  With Tayloresque finesse, we opened the hives and viewed plump larvae on Saturday, May 5th!

… and on May 8th, just eleven days after the bees arrived, the first sealed brood:

We were not intentionally looking for the queens – it’s enough to see eggs and larvae. But, here is one of the queens, surrounded by her courtly entourage. Notice how the workers’ antennae are stretched toward her:

Things were going along rather well. There was lots of pollen in the newly established hives by May 11:

Unfortunately, our first disaster struck. Near the middle of the pollen frame, above, you can see a queen cell plug. Most colonies have these, but it’s sometimes a sign of trouble. The bees may be considering supercedure. Or the queen may be dead. There were still eggs in this hive, but we checked again three days later and found only pearl brood. The queen had died.

These days, this happens too often with packages. During the 1970s, when I reared my own queens in Florida and drove truckloads of packages to western Canada, I would have nearly one-hundred percent of my queens leading good colonies all summer. In 2010, with 500 hives in Alberta, I was buying packages from New Zealand and finding one-third had lost their queens within a month. Other beekeepers have reported the same problem. I don’t know if it’s due to the way those queens were reared in New Zealand or some local environmental issue, but losing a queen these days isn’t unexpected. It’s disappointing, but not surprising.

Anticipating the possibility of queen loss, we started the year with two hives. The second colony had a fine queen and four frames. I moved a frame of young brood from the good hive and put it into the queenless one to see if they would raise a new queen on their own. We could have purchased a new queen, but this beekeeping was pedagogical. My 16-year-old was learning. Weakening a good hive early in the season while hoping that the queenless one would sprout a new egg-layer is risky. Atop that, we were drawing mostly foundation – the second brood chamber and all honey supers would be entirely new wax. Still, I was hoping that we’d make a little honey. I convinced myself that the season was early and bees are resilient. We forged ahead.

Now some good news. Probably one of the most awe-inspiring sights for any beekeeper comes with the arrival of fuzzy new bees emerging from their cells. It’s especially exciting when the new workers are the first bees in a package hive. Until May 19, every bee in the hive was a New Zealand citizen. But the Kiwis were getting old. Many were past their best-before date. But along came the Canadian newborns. Below, you can see fuzzy, whitish workers that are just a few minutes old. And, looking closely, you will also see a couple of cells being opened by youngsters, their eyes and antennae greeting the world:

On May 23rd, we added second brood chambers. The good hive filled the entire first box. It needed a second. Our second brood chambers were entirely foundation so we pulled a couple of drawn combs from the lower box to help the bees occupy the second storey.

The queenless unit now had a few nice queen cells. (I removed the ones that were not so nice.) We stole one more frame with brood from the queenright colony and gave it to the queenless one. I put a second brood chamber atop the queenless hive. This isn’t recommended, but I felt that the hive, though weak, would eventually use the space. The dandelion flow was just starting. The thick-walled styro boxes conserve broodnest heat. And, I would not be looking at the queenless hive for a month, allowing the new queen to develop, emerge, mate, and begin egg-laying without my oversight. So, I gave both hives space.

Second brood chambers are on the hives:

Then, June 10, we did something really fun. Again, not standard procedure. But our good hive was really good. Below is a frame that was just a sheet of foundation a  month earlier. We brought it into the house.

This solid one-piece plastic frame has a wax-coated plastic base to which bees added comb. It’s possible to scrape honey from the frame without wrecking the foundation. That’s what we did.

We ended up with a few pounds of very nice spring honey. This harvest system was tedious and messy but it satisfied the household sweet-tooth until the main crop would be harvested in August.

July 10th, we added honey supers. Our queenless colony, left, produced its own queen but wasn’t very strong. It received one honey super. We gave our good hive two supers.

Things progressed normally through July. The bees gained strength. The bees were drawing out combs and filling them with honey. But now we had another problem. Wasps. Large carnivorous wasps can destroy a colony. The carnivores eat bees. I bought some wasp traps and we hung them near the hives. The wasps quickly disappeared. Here are the sort of wasps we battled. At least, this is what they seemed like to us:

And here are the traps that we used. These traps worked really well. They attracted wasps but not bees or other pollinators.

It became rather dry and hot in early August. In fact, on August 10, the city of Calgary hit a record-high. Partly as a joke, and partly out of sincere bee-welfare concern, Daniel set up a garden hose and drenched the hives with ice-cold glacier water from the nearby Rockies:

By mid-August, it was apparent that the honey season was ending. Beekeepers across Alberta reported a ‘nice’ July for honey production, but August was too hot and too dry. On August 17, one week after the record-breaking heatwave, we removed the surplus honey.

We pulled honey right after lunch. If you have just a few hives, use a bee brush to remove the honey. On a warm day, bees are active and a brush is a harmless way to separate bees from honey. We kept everything covered to prevent robbing. Taking honey from two hives, brushing one comb at time, took less than one hour. Daniel carried all the frames to the garage where we’d set up the extractor in the morning.

If at all possible, remove surplus honey and extract the same day. The honey will be warm from the hive and much more willing to fling from the combs and flow to the buckets.

Daniel carried the honey, one bucket at a time, into the kitchen and carefully poured it into our honey tank. Although extracting is preferably done quickly after harvesting, bottling should wait a few days. That’s so pollen, air bubbles (churned into the honey during extracting), and bees’ knees have time to float to the top of the tank. On August 20, three days after extracting, we bottled the honey.

Making lots of honey was not our main motivation. Experiencing the joy of beekeeping was the objective. But we ended up with over seventy pounds of beautiful honey. Admittedly, that was a joy, too.

Our joy was short-lived. Skunks arrived to inspect our mini-apiary. They stayed for supper. Meanwhile, I was out of the country, checking out bees in Iceland. Daniel and our daughter Helen were with me, but my wife had stayed in Calgary. We Skyped from Reykjavik. She and our dog had spotted an entire family of skunks – a mum and a bunch of kits – pawing at the hives and eating bees. What should she do?

It was late afternoon in Calgary so I suggested that she go out in the evening and completely close the lower entrances – a relatively easy task that required removing the entrance reducer and flipping it over. Unfortunately, the skunks had irritated the bees so much that our normally placid charges were rather defensive. Eszter did what she needed to do but bees followed her all the back to the house. She didn’t get stung and the trick worked. The skunks could scratch the ground, trying to draw out bees to eat, but the upper entrances were 25 inches above ground level and that was now the bees’ only way out. A skunk’s tongue isn’t long enough to reach the upper entrance and the bees wouldn’t crawl down the front of the hive en masse to check out the skunk’s nocturnal pawing. Unfortunately, when she got home from work the next day, Eszter discovered another problem. The hive tops were covered with bees. We had confused them and the warm late-August weather made the bees cluster around the top entrance. They were no longer being gobbled up by skunks, but they were a bit hot.

My suggestion was that the bees should have a bigger upper entrance, so my wife brushed aside the bees and opened more air vents. It worked. The bees soon disappeared into their homes. Below, you can see the upper entrances. Most of the bees had gone inside.

Also, notice how the skunks had scratched the grass, hoping to entice bees to come out and be eaten. Some folks place their hives on tall stands to keep skunks from reaching the entrances. That would work, too, but now the hives weighed about 150 pounds each, so they stayed on the ground.

Well, that was our year with two hobby hives in the backyard. It was a great learning experience and helped me connect to novice beekeepers. Our adventure included queen loss, wasps, heat, and skunks as well as harvesting 70 pounds (35 kilos), drawing out 50 new combs from foundation, and leaving enough honey for the bees to survive the winter.

And speaking of winter, here is one last photo of our backyard apiary where the bees are as snug as bugs in polystyrene hives.  Have a nice winter, everyone. The bees will.

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Celebrating the Gifts of Langstroth

I’m repeating a blog which I post each Christmas Day, Langstroth’s birthday. With his movable frames and his brilliant beekeeping book, Langstroth was one of the founders of modern beekeeping.

Langstroth

Langstroth, 1810-1895

He invented the modern beehive, making it easier, more productive, and less stressful for bees. However, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth earned nothing from his invention and suffered severely from self-doubt, melancholy, and clinical depression. Yet, he changed beekeeping to its core. On his birthday anniversary (Christmas Day!), we give homage to the most important beekeeper America ever produced.

Langstroth was born December 25, 1810. That was some Christmas gift to the world, wasn’t it? His childhood seems to have been typical for a kid who spent a lot of time on his hands and knees on the streets of Philadelphia, trapping bugs and ants with table scraps. “I was once whipped because I had worn holes in my pants by too much kneeling on the gravel walkways in my eagerness to learn all that I could about ant life,” Langstroth wrote.

He built paper traps for beetles and flies, leading to a traumatic experience when his grammar school teacher – fed up with six-year-old Lorenzo’s ‘wasted’ bug time – smashed his paper cages and freed his flies. Lorenzo was sent to cry himself to sleep inside a dark cupboard at the school. The teacher’s reform strategy worked. Langstroth gave up his passion for insects and became a preacher instead.

Langstroth's Andover church

Langstroth’s Andover church

Langstroth studied theology at Yale. At 25, he was offered a job as pastor at the South Church in Andover, Massachusetts. Even in Langstroth’s day, it was an old prestigious church. In 2011 it celebrated its 300th anniversary. The plum assignment as pastor at South Church was a recognition of the young man’s abilities.

While visiting a parish member, Langstroth noticed a bowl of comb honey. He said that it was the most beautiful food he had ever seen. He asked to visit his new friend’s bees. Langstroth was led to the fellow’s attic where the hives were arranged near an open window. “In a moment,” Langstroth remembered, “the enthusiasm of my boyish days seemed, like a pent-up fire, to burst out in full flame. Before I went home I bought two stocks of bees in common box hives, and thus my apiarian career began.” Langstroth had been infected by the bee bug.

Head troubles

Throughout his lifetime, Langstroth suffered badly from manic-depression. In the mid-nineteenth century, there was little anyone could do to help a person afflicted with mental illness. The only solace was temporary and usually came to Langstroth when he was with his bees.

The young minister felt that he wasn’t an effective parson because of his recurring dark days, so he quit preaching and became principal of a women’s school instead. By all accounts, he was a empathetic minister and a dedicated teacher, but bouts of depression forced him to cancel sermons and classes. He needed a change. Bees were the only thing he knew that could give him peace, comfort, and meaningful work while fitting into a life disrupted by debilitating illness. But sometimes not even bees could stop what he called his “head trouble” when darkness crept upon him.

He built an apiary and hoped to make his living from bees. But during his first beekeeping summer, severe depression returned and lasted for weeks. He sold all his colonies in the fall. Then he started with the bees again. His life would turn over again and again with periods of manic enthusiasm and productivity followed by gloomy months of despondency. During his depressed phases, Langstroth took shelter in a bed in a dark room. He would remain there, immobile, for days. “I asked that my books be hidden from my sight. Even the letter “B” would remind me of my bees and instill a deep sadness that wouldn’t leave.”

When he was finally able to return to his bees, Langstroth made great strives at increasing efficiency in his apiary. He made his tasks more effective. He never knew when depression would return, so he worked day and night during productive manic periods.

Eureka!

The major inefficiency in his apiary was the design of the boxes which held his bees. The boxes were usually simple wooden crates with solid walls and small holes which the bees used as entrances. During harvest of a hive, the lid was lifted from the crate. Attached to the lid were wax combs that the bees had built in haphazard jumbles. The combs cracked and broke during the beekeeper’s excavation, causing a sticky mess and disturbing the excited bees. It was a messy, nasty way to inspect bees and harvest honey.

Langstroth noticed that bees often left a small space around the edge of their combs. Sometimes, upon lifting the lids, he would find wax attached to both the lid and the walls inside the hive, while at other times the hanging combs were not stuck to the hive walls at all. Langstroth’s brilliant insight (his Eureka! moment) was noticing that the space was about 3/8 of an inch when the combs hung freely. If a comb were closer than that to a wall, the bees would attach it to the walls. But at 3/8 inch (actually, between 6.35 and 9.53 mm), the bees always left a space. He had discovered “bee space”.

Langstroth’s next step was brilliant. He made wooden frames that held the wax combs, designing them so they dangled within the hive’s box with their wooden edges always 3/8 of an inch from anything that might touch them: the lid, the interior box walls, the box bottom, other frames. Positioned like this, the bees neither waxed the frames together nor stuck them to the sides or bottom of the hive. The result was a beehive with movable frames. Combs could be lifted, examined, and manipulated. It was 1851 and modern beekeeping had begun.

Langstroth frames, the heart of his invention

Langstroth frames, the heart of his invention (Source: R. Engelhard)

Colonies could be handled more gently. Frames could be inspected for disease, queen quality, and honey and pollen reserves. Movable frames meant queen bees could be produced and strong hives split (by sharing frames between two or more new hives), thus increasing colony numbers while preventing swarming. It was a new era in beekeeping. The next few decades were “The Golden Age of Beekeeping“.

Easy to use, easy to make, easy to copy

L.L. Langstroth was not alone in figuring out bee space and inventing applications for it. About the same time, some European beekeepers (Huber, in Switzerland and Dzierzon in Poland/Germany, Prokopovich in the Ukraine) had made similar discoveries. But Langstroth created a simpler hive. His Langstroth beehive was a fine example of North American utilitarian craftsmanship. Efficient, practical, and cheap.

Langstroth’s invention was so simple and inexpensive that his patent was readily violated. Minor modifications were touted as significant improvements to Langstroth’s original design, circumventing the patent. Langstroth began a number of lawsuits against the more flagrant violators, but when the court cases began, his “head troubles” returned.

He dropped the litigation when he realized he could not win and when his illness prevented a spirited defense. Realistically, it was impossible to stop imitations and adaptations. Beekeepers – who were often handy farmers and carpenters – quickly built one or two hives with frames for themselves. Langstroth sought one dollar to license each box, which was a huge price in those days. But his real discovery was “bee space” which could not be patented. His position was like trying to patent sails for ships after discovering wind. Even Langstroth’s supporters wrote that Langstroth should have simply allowed the idea to flourish in the public domain. Trying to enforce the patent was expensive. It left Langstroth nearly bankrupt.

Frames, dangling in a hive. (Source:

Frames, dangling in a hive. (Source: D. Feliciano)

With a plethora of modifications and similar boxes being designed in Europe, Langstroth’s great contribution may have entered the world anyway and without credit to him. But the retired minister had one other major contribution to society. It earned him much-deserved praise and even a bit of money. In one feverish six-month manic spell, Langstroth wrote the greatest beekeeping book ever published.

Hive and Honey Bee

Langstroth's Hive and Honey-Bee, first published in 1853

Modern copy of Langstroth’s 1853
Hive and Honey-Bee

In 1852, working for six hectic months with almost no sleep, Langstroth wrote The Hive and the Honey-Bee. This book, revised and expanded in more than 40 subsequent editions, is still a reliable source for beekeepers. When Langstroth wrote it, there were other good bee primers on the market, but his book moved to the top spot. You may read the original 1853 book on-line. I’ve read and re-read my 1859 copy with its 409 pages of fading text protected by orange hardboard covers. It earned its place in my library. Within the book are chapters on Loss of the Queen (and what to do about it), Swarming, Feeding, Wintering, and Enemies of the Bees. It’s a very practical guide to keeping bees and much of it is still relevant today.

Langstroth never found lasting peace from his cycles of manic depression, though in his 60s he travelled to Mexico and discovered that the stimulation and change of scenery gave him an unexpected respite from depression. The illness returned when he returned to his home, but he remembered the break from head troubles with great appreciation. He lived long enough (85 years!) to see his work appreciated, his name honored, and his book sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Despite his life-long disability, he had a long, full life, three children, and interesting work. And he made a phenomenal contribution to beekeeping.

Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday,
Lorenzo Loraine Langstroth!

Posted in Beekeeping, Books, History, Hives and Combs, People | Tagged | 3 Comments

David Attenborough and the tired bumblebee

Back in July, I posted about some cute stories which were filling social media. Vignettes described people rescuing tired, hungry-looking (how can you tell?) bumblebees by giving them a spoonful of sugar water. I have reposted that July blog piece just below. I understand the urge to be nice (I’m Canadian) – but seriously, aren’t you playing God with nature? What if the bumblebee is sick, laden with viruses or parasites, and you’re helping it get home to die among its comrades and infect them?

On Facebook, some of those social media pleas featured Sir David Attenborough, the documentarian specializing in films about amazing wonders of nature. I doubted that the 92-year-old nature expert would have urged anyone to stuff the face of a bee. He’s smarter than that. Well, BBC, which derives its name from two bees and an ocean, and hires Attenborough, has forced Facebook to “remove fake news which claimed Sir David Attenborough advised feeding bees a spoonful of water and sugar.”  Attenborough never said anything of the sort. According to UK’s Telegram:

The fake post encouraged good samaritans to help tired bees, but experts quickly dispelled the advice revealing it can be harmful and reduce pollination.

The now deleted post quoted the naturalist [Attenborough] as saying: “If bees were to disappear from the face of the earth, humans would have just four years to live. [Hey, didn’t Einstein say that?]

“If you find a tired bee in your home, a simple solution of sugar and water will help revive an exhausted bee.”

Atteborough never offered that advice. So, we learn that fake news on Facebook can be removed. And maybe that bumblebee doesn’t need our sugary handouts.

🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝 🐝

From my July posting:

Feeding bumblebees that are resting in a garden has become a thing. I’ve seen some twitter tweets with concerned citizens gallantly virtue signalling their good deed – giving a bee a drink of sugar water. Here’s a sample:

You can find tweets and posts like this all over the place. Kindly folks want to help tired/sick bees. A bit of sugar water might indeed revive a hungry bee. But should we?

Should you feed tired bees? Is that interfering with wildlife? Are you changing the evolved social fabric which will result in advantages to bees willing to hang out with humans? That’s how wolves became dogs. And, it’s the way Carniolan bees became docile – the strain was kept on porches and in gardens for centuries. Mean bees were destroyed and mellow ones thrived, creating gentle Carniolans through human selection.

Should you feed wild bumblebees? Let’s ignore your inadvertent genetic manipulation and look at something more serious. What if the bee looks tired and hungry but is actually infested with viruses or parasites? Are you doing a favour if you help a sick bee return to her colony where she spreads her malady to all her friends?

Good or bad? I’m not sure, but I don’t like seeing any animal in distress. I might be tempted to whip out some highly processed white sugar, dissolve it in chlorinated tap water, and feed it to a suffering bee. But is it really the right thing to do?

 

Posted in Humour, Reblogs, Save the Bees | Tagged , | 1 Comment