Essays in Beekeeping History: The Creative Continent

From Bee Craft: June 2009

Karl Showier

Nineteenth-century American inventors left a legacy of equipment still used today


The smoker perfected by TF Bingham

TF BINGHAM – an effective bee smoker

The development of the bee smoker followed that of the movable frame hive. It had long been recognised that bees could be subdued by smoke. The modern smoker was developed by TF Bingham of Farwell, Michigan, from the prototype used by Moses Quinby and his son-in-law, Lyman Root.

Bingham, by placing a space between the bellows and the cylinder containing the fuel, made it possible for the smoker to smoulder when not in use and produce a cooler smoke. The snout of the smoker was also shortened and the cylinder lid provided with a handle to make its opening easier. A hook was later fixed on the bellows that enabled the smoker to be hung from the side of the hive. The smoker we know today was in production by Root by 1905 in a range of cylinder sizes.

GW DEMAREE -swarm control

George Demaree of Christiansburg, Kentucky, presented a paper to the Ohio Beekeepers’ Convention entitled How to Prevent Swarming. This was duly published in the American Bee Journal on 21 April, 1892.

When Demaree devised his method, many American beekeepers were using shallow brood chambers in order to maximise the production of sections. The first pioneering beekeepers in the district experienced high yields but, as the number of bee colonies increased and farmers cleared the wilderness, planting maize and wheat, the number of nectar sources declined.

Also the North European brown bee, which produced a smaller brood nest when compared with the Italian bee, was then becoming less popular.

These small brood chamber hives were very subject to colony loss as the space allowed did not contain enough room for the Italian bees to create a full brood nest or set aside adequate winter stores.

The English beekeeper William Broughton Carr also used a small brood chamber in his Bebbington Hive which was, in effect, a shallow super dedicated to brood rearing. However, when Carr developed the WBC hive he must have seen the limitations of the small brood chamber because he adopted a chamber which held the larger British Standard brood frame.

The Demaree technique involved placing all the combs bar one from the old brood chamber into a new upper chamber above a queen excluder. The one comb left in the old box contained unsealed brood and eggs together with the queen. The space created by this move was filled with empty combs to give the queen ample space for brood production. The method requires a queen that is easily found, bees that can be manipulated without difficulty and a good nectar flow that provides the bees stores in the lower chamber.

With larger modern hives such as the Langstroth, British Commercial and Dadant, the Demaree method, although effective, requires careful consideration as to the separation of the queen from the bulk of the brood nest and the colony’s food reserves in the upper box. EB Wedmore in his A Manual of Beekeeping sets out the subsequent development of the Demaree system.


John Harbison introduced bees to the west of the USA

By the 1860s, it became clear that the west coast of the USA offered enormous potential for beekeepers although colonies sent overland tended to arrive in very poor condition. There was therefore a considerable demand for bees but, until the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the transport of bees from the well-settled East to the new lands in the West presented considerable logistical problems.

In 1854, 28-year-old John Samuel Harbison migrated to the West coast to take part in the California gold rush but, as a beekeeper, he saw the more certain financial potential of beekeeping on the Pacific coast.

He therefore returned to Pennsylvania where his father and brother, WC Harbison, kept bees on the family farm. The two brothers devised a special travelling hive. This was before the Langstroth hive was well known. Jc’.n Harbison came to believe the Langstroth hive did not meet the bees’ requirement for a tall nest space as it provided a flat one. Today the American use of several tiered brood chambers meets this requirement.

In 1857 the Harbisons prepared 67 hives from the family apiary in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, for the journey to the West. The hives were first moved to New York and shipped by sea on 5 November to the port at the eastern end of the railway across the isthmus of Panama. This port was then called Aspinwall but is now called Colon. The hives arrived on 15 November and the bees were permitted a cleansing flight. The hives were then carried over the isthmus by rail and placed on board a ship bound for San Francisco. From there, Harbison went with his bees on a river steamer up the Sacramento River to the town of that name.

John and his bees finally arrived on the 2 December 1857 when he found that five colonies had died out on their 5900 mile (9494 kilometre) journey. He united the weak colonies so that, in the end, he had 50 viable colonies. The rewards, however, were considerable as a colony of bees would then fetch $100 (Sterling equivalent at the time of £25).

The Harbisons made a further shipment of 240 colonies. Other beekeepers’ shipments met with losses of up to 80%. The Harbison brothers developed commercial beekeeping specialising in comb production. As soon as the transcontinental railway links were established in 1873 they were able to send their first boxcar load to the East. This was followed in 1876 with a full train load often boxcars containing 89 tons of comb honey. At the time there was considerable resistance to extracted honey as adulteration with corn syrup was common.


Frames designed by Hoffman are self-spacing

Wire for supporting foundation is now used worldwide. It was originated by a United States Civil War veteran, Captain JE Hetherington of Cherry Valley, upper New York State. This is an area that lies between the Mohawk River and the Eire Canal. Although obtaining a US Patent for his method, Hetherington charged no royalties and gave the invention to the public. He also developed a number of appliances such as the tall section box and the non-drip shipping case.

During Hetherington’s lifetime it was claimed that he ran the largest number of hives in the world at that time, with about 3000 colonies. He also exported comb honey to England.

J HOFFMAN – the self-spacing frame

Julius Hoffman was born in October 1838 at Grottkau in Silesia which was then part of Prussia. Today, Grottkau is Grodkow, in Poland. As a boy, he lived near Johannes Dzierzon so was able to learn beekeeping from him. In 1862, 24-year-old Julius emigrated to London and four years later moved to New York where he was employed in the organ and piano business, while still keeping a few hives.

In 1873 he moved to Fort Plain in upstate New York to become a serious beekeeper, building up his apiary to some 700 colonies.

Until Hoffman devised his self-spacing frame, frames were spaced by eye, if at all, or by a range of often not very practical systems. This did not matter before motor transport existed as beekeepers did not move their hives. Large-scale beekeepers used a number of permanent apiaries with on-site or horse-drawn extracting equipment.

Julius Hoffman devised a frame side bar that was wider in its upper third to give the correct inter-comb spacing. The width of the side bar is reduced in its lower two thirds to allow bees to circulate round their combs. The end bars of the ‘close end’ Quinby frame were the full depth of the frame so it did not permit bee circulation and could easily be glued firmly in place by propolis.

When Al Root visited the Hoffman apiary in 1890 he saw the advantage of this frame at once and, by 1896, was using the Hoffman frame in all his apiaries.


The Miller feeder

Charles C Miller (1831-1920) made a deep impression on beekeeping in the United States at a time when commercial beekeeping was coming into its own. Miller, who was born in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, first trained as a doctor but only practised medicine for a year. He then moved to teaching and, as an accomplished musician, was a representative of a music company. He and his wife went to live at Marengo, Illinois.

After some years as a hobby beekeeper, he gave up his other work and in 1876 he commenced making his living solely from the craft. His reputation was built up by writing for the bee press and the publishing in 1886 of A Year among the Bees. This was followed by Forty Years among the Bees (1902) and in 1911, by Fifty Years among the Bees.

Today he is remembered for the Miller queen introduction cage and the Miller feeder. The latter fits over the top of the hive and holds between two and four gallons of syrup. He was the first to explain the newspaper method ‘of uniting two colonies by spreading a sheet of newspaper with pin hole perforations between the boxes of bees to be united. The bees in the upper box could communicate their hive odour to those below so that, as they removed the paper, the two colonies united peacefully.

Dr Miller stressed the need for standardisation in his apiaries. He maintained up to 400 colonies using only Langstroth hives of the pattern still found in the US which take eight frames rather than the usual ten.


The Porter bee escape

Methods for the removal of bees from the honey supers of hives occupied beekeepers’ minds as apiculture developed into a commercial activity. Early methods were simple. Bees were smoked out of the supers or the bees were shaken or brushed off the combs. The use of phenol (carbolic acid) became popular by the end of the nineteenth century but led to contamination of the honey as it was poisonous.

In 1891, EC Porter of Lewistown, Illinois, introduced the bee escape invented by his father. This device fitted into a slot in a coverboard which could be placed under the supers to be cleared. Its enclosed spring mechanism permitted bees to leave the super overnight but not to return. Originally with one exit route, it was modified to provide two. More than one escape could be fitted into a coverboard. Care had to be taken to see that the spring mechanism did not become blocked.

Porter bee escapes became popular and remain so. The bees receive the minimum of disturbance. The use of the Porter bee escape allows the beekeeper, particularly with a suburban apiary, to empty the supers of bees overnight.

FREDERICK WEISS-embossing rollers

It is one of the ironies of history that the inventor of the wax embossing roller which brought foundation into general use is now forgotten. Pellet, in his History, page 49, records that Professor AJ Cook credits Frederick Weiss, a German, with making six-inch-long rollers with shallow grooves between the pyramidal projections so that a shallow wall was raised between the cells.

Professor Cook of the Michigan State Agricultural College in his Bee-Keepers’ Guide (page 204, seventh edition, 1884) reports that Frederick Weiss invented the roller in 1874. Cook notes that the ‘poor old man has I fear received very meagre profits from this great invention’. Cook argues the case for patents to give men like Weiss the reward they deserve.

Eva Crane notes that Weiss was an American who successfully passed long sheets of wax between embossed rollers. However CP Dadant, in his 1927 revision of Langstroth’s Hive and the Honey Bee (page 294J wroce ‘como foundation made in America was manufactured in 1873 by a German, Mr F Weiss, very probably on an imported machine. Al Root, to whom the credit is due in popularising the invention the world over, manufactured a large roller-mill in February, 1876, with the help of a skilled mechanic, A Washburne’.

EB WEED – modern sheet foundation manufacture

In the early 1880s, both Dadant and Root were struggling to mass produce foundation. They were using small manual rollers which pressed a sheet at a time. EB Weed was an inventor from Detroit, not a beekeeper. He saw that it was possible to mass produce long sheets of wax and then pass them through embossed rollers. He worked first, unsuccessfully, for Dadants at Hamilton, Illinois, and then in the well-equipped workshop of Al Root at Medina, Ohio.

What was termed the Weed New Process came on stream in 1896. The system superseded the method used up till then of dipping moist boards in hot wax. These became coated with a film of wax which was peeled off the board and passed through a roller to produce the impressed foundation. The Weed machine produced a ribbon of wax which could be wound onto a spool and subsequently passed through powered rollers, after which the spools of impressed wax were cut up into the required sizes.

Early descriptions of the Weed method spoke of the liquid wax being extruded whereas modern methods pick up a film of wax on a water cooled roller before passing it to the embossing rollers.

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