Here in North America, we believe that modern beekeeping began with Langstroth, who discovered bee-space and movable frames. But Europeans are celebrating the Polish beekeeper, Johannes Dzierzon, for the same accomplishments. On the continent, it’s Dzierzon, Dzierzon, Dzierzon, everywhere you go. Especially today, on Dzierzon’s 210th birthday.
Johannes Dzierzon was from a Polish family in Silesia. Trained in theology, he combined research and practical work in beekeeping with his duties as a Roman Catholic priest, before being compulsorily retired by the Church and eventually excommunicated. Luckily, it was the 1800s – he wasn’t executed for his lack of conformity. More on that in a moment.
During his 50 years as a priest, Dzierzon oversaw a rural parish where he spent much of his time beekeeping. In 1838, he devised the first practical movable-comb beehive, which allowed manipulation of individual honey combs without destroying the structure of the hive. But three years before that, at age 24 (!) Father Johannes Dzierzon flipped biology upside down by discovering that some creatures (male honey bees) develop from unfertilized eggs. It took scientists a few years to accept this remarkable finding.
The American entomologist Everett Phillips wrote about Dzierzon’s discovery of parthenogenesis in the 1903 72-page Review of Parthenogenesis:
The parthenogenetic development of the male eggs of the bee, Apis mellifica, was first observed by Johannes Dzierzon, a priest at Karlsmarkt, Germany. He was a bee-keeper of many years’ experience and a good observer. The theory was first announced in the Eichstadt Bienenzeitung in I845, and in 1852 was published in book form. His arguments were briefly as follows:
(1) A queen to be of any value must be fertilized by a drone. This takes place on the wing, high in the air. Drone eggs are not fertilized, but worker and queen eggs always are. The supply of semen is enough for a lifetime. No clipped queen can be fertilized, as copulation never takes place in the hive. Dzierzon wrote, “The power of the fertile queen, accordingly, to lay worker or drone eggs at pleasure is rendered very easy of explanation by the fact that the drone eggs require no impregnation, but bring the germ of life with them out of the ovary; whilst otherwise it would be inexplicable and incredible. Thus the queen has it in her power to deposit an egg just as it comes from the ovary, and as the fecundated mothers lay it; or by the action of the seminal receptacle, past which it must glide, to invest it with a higher degree, a higher potency, of fertility and awaken in it the germ of a more perfect being, namely a queen or a worker bee.”
(2) The most important point in the theory is that “All eggs which come to maturity in the two ovaries of the queen bee are only of one and the same kind, which when they are laid without coming in contact with the male semen become developed into male bees, but on the contrary when they are fertilized by male semen produce female bees.”
This strikes at the root of and completely abolishes the time-honored physiological law that an egg which is to be developed into a male or female individual must always be fertilized by male semen.” Dzierzon refers to Riem, a French naturalist, for the fact that laying workers lay only drone eggs. In I854 Dzierzon wrote: “If the drone egg does not require fertilization, Italian mothers must always produce Italian drones and German mothers, German drones, even when they have been fertilized by drones of another race.”
Dzierzon even had an explanation for the way fertilized eggs differentiate as worker or queen. He discovered that it was due to early-development nutrition, i.e., royal jelly. I am in awe of the brilliance of early scientists such as Dzierzon who made such discoveries without any genetic tools, before Mendel and others began unravelling genetics.
None of Dzierzon’s work or discoveries lessens the importance of Langstroth’s work. The American Reverend Langstroth independently created a cheap practical hive about 20 years after Dzierzon’s efficient movable-frame hive. Both wrote a great deal about practical beekeeping and both worked for their respective churches. Dzierzon, a Pole who attended a Protestant grammar school before entering the priesthood, was excommunicated at around age 60 when his years of radical politicking and his disagreement with papal infallibility finally caught up with him. He left his parish, and moved to a hamlet in his childhood province. Of his new home, he wrote:
In every direction, one has a broad and pleasant view, and I am pretty happy here, despite the isolation, as I am always close to my beloved bees — which, if one’s soul be receptive to the works of the Almighty and the wonders of nature, can transform even a desert into a paradise.
During his retirement years in Silesia, Dzierzon continued researching and publishing. (He wrote 800 papers and 26 books in his lifetime.) After thirty years of excommunication, the infallible pope had died and Dzierzon reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church. He died at age 95, probably holding a hivetool.