It’s May 20. If he were alive today, we’d be celebrating Charles Dadant in a big way. Not just because he’d be exactly 200 years old today. (Though that would get some attention.) Instead, we’d want to recognize Charles Dadant as a pioneer of modern beekeeping.
Dadant was an unlikely hero in America’s bee history. Imagine a mid-life crisis as colossal as this: Your business fails and you go broke. You’ve got a big family, you are well into your 40s, you move to a new country where you can’t speak the language. You buy a farm which isn’t working, and you’re new business idea fails. That was Charles Dadant in 1863, age 46, shortly after arriving in Illinois from France. His vineyards of Champagne stock weren’t suited for America’s midwest prairies. But his bees were. They performed magnificently.
Dabbling in revolution
Charles had started working bees at age 12 in his native village of Vaux-Sous-Aubigny, France, about 100 kilometres from Switzerland. His first bee task was scraping combs and honey from skeps for the village priest. We’re not sure what happened, but Charles soon renounced his faith and became an idealist who dabbled in socialism. But the bees stuck. He was a hobby beekeeper in France and supported himself as a traveling salesman. As his horse and he roamed the country roads, Dadant sat at the reins, consuming books by evolutionary biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and utopian socialist Charles Fourier.
I suspect that Dadant’s politics and religious views were influenced by the failed 1848 European revolutions. He would have been 31 at that time. Strikes swept central Europe and spread through France and Germany. People had grown weary of the autocracy of the aristocrats, hereditary monarchs, the old system of apprenticeships and (within the Hapsburg Empire) feudal serfdom. Riots, strikes, and some blood on the streets were quickly crushed by the soldiers of repressive governments. Young people fled. Hundreds of thousands went to America. For example, following the unrest, 57,000 young Germans settled around Cincinnati. Other parts of the US also welcomed thousands of similar refugees. These were educated, progressive people – a brain-drain for Europe which drove an economic collapse there. The ensuing depression contributed to the failure of Dadant’s business in France while the idealism of the revolution encouraged his move to America. At mid-age, Charles Dadant showed up in western Illinois.
Utopia in America
His first task in Illinois was to take over a farm owned by a French acquaintance. Dadant built a small log cabin and planted his vineyard, making things ready for his wife and kids who had stayed behind in France. As you might guess, vineyards don’t do well in western Illinois. Before he was bankrupted by the scheme, Charles Dadant saw the potential for his lifelong hobby. Bees in America’s midlands could make 200 pounds per hive in those days. By 1865, his family had joined him from France, he had nine hives of bees, and more honey than they could eat.
At the time, his plan might have been to create a utopian community similar to several dozen others in the USA: New Harmony, Brook Farm, and the Phalanx and Harmonite groups. He didn’t, but he structured his business with his employees in mind, sharing in profits and working alongside them.
I think that Charles Dadant’s business fortunes really improved when his son, Camille Pierre (C.P.) Dadant, took over management of the family affairs. While the elder Charles was an idealistic dreamer, his son C.P. was a practical businessman. As a child, the younger Dadant was crossing the Mississippi alone on a ferry to sell honey. By age 20, C.P. was essentially running the business. He helped grow the honey farm to thousands of colonies, added a wax works and bee supply factory. Dozens of men were given jobs, important products were created for thousands of beekeepers across the country, and millions of pounds of honey were produced. And that was the real promise of utopia in America.
The visionary Charles Dadant
Meanwhile, the elder Charles Dadant continued to work with the bees and adapted the recently-invented Langstroth hive, redesigned with a larger brood cavity. It’s the Dadant design that most people use today. Charles invented a better way of making wax foundation for the frames which the Dadant factory produced. Charles realized that the European bees which the first settlers brought from northern Europe were not as easy to manage as Italian stock he’d seen in his younger days in Europe. So he imported queens from Italy.
But Charles Dadant’s real passion seemed to be his books and the science of beekeeping. His contributions to the American bee literature were significant. Although he never learned to speak English fluently, he became a great writer in his adopted language. He learned to write in English by using a French-English dictionary to translate the New York Tribune every day. As early as 1869 – just six years in America – he was a regular contributor to American Bee Journal, a magazine he eventually bought and moved to Hamilton, Illinois, where it is still published.
Charles Dadant freely shared his beekeeping experience, insights, and ideas in the journals. Here is just one excerpt, from August 1869, from among his thousands of contributions. Here he writes about the need for lots of space in a hive. Before Dadant’s time, it was common for beekeepers to use small boxes, produce small crops, and (because of the congestion) expect regular swarms. Here are Dadant’s thoughts on that:
Many writers have suggested that the size of the hives should be proportionate to the pasturage of the district in which they are used ; small sized hives, being best adapted to poor honey countries, and larger hives for sections yielding honey more abundantly.
My opinion differs widely from these ideas; for I think, whatever be the honey-yielding quality of the country, the capacity of the hives should be in relative proportion to the fecundity of the queens.
I have ascertained that, in the height of the brooding season, the normal fecundity of a healthy prolific queen enables her to lay three thousand eggs daily, if she is supplied with empty worker comb. We know, also, that twenty-one or twenty-two days are required for the development of the worker bee, from the time the egg is hatched until she leaves the cell. If we now multiply 3,000 by 22, we shall have 64,000 as the number of empty cells required for the accommodation of a queen ordinarily prolific.
But there is, besides, some room required in the combs for the provisions—honey and beebread; and if we allow 20,000 cells for this purpose, we shall have the area of 84,000 cells as the necessary room inside of the frames in movable comb hives. – Charles Dadant, August 1869, American Bee Journal
If you are in the USA or Canada, you know the Dadant company. Dadant & Sons, Inc is now in its seventh generation and is managed by descendants of Charles Dadant. The company manufactures beekeeping equipment, candles and wax products, and various woodenware supplies. And, true to the spirit of its founder, the company continues to spread the best beekeeping information via seminars, websites, and books – and, after 150 years, Dadant still publishes the world’s best bee magazine – the American Bee Journal.