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History of Beekeeping in North America ft. Dr. Tammy Horn Potter

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Show Notes

History of Beekeeping in North America is this week’s topic on Backyard Bounty podcast as we join Nicole and Dr. Tammy Horn Potter.

What You’ll Learn

  • How honey bees made their way to North America
  • What four inventions of the 1800s are still used in beekeeping today
  • How History of Beekeeping tells of using bees to defend against Vikings!

Our Guest

Tammy is the author of three books about honey bees: Bees in America, How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation was published in 2005; Beeconomy: What Women and Bees teach us about Local Trade and Global Markets in 2012; and her most recent book Flower Power: Establishing Pollinator Habitat published in 2019.

She is also the Kentucky State Apiarist for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and serves on serve on four boards related to bees: Honey Bee Health Coalition, Eastern Apiculture Society, Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees, and Project Apis M

Dr. Tammy Horn Potter tending to beehive

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Announcer: 0:01

Welcome to the Backyard Bounty podcast from where each week you'll be hearing inspiring stories and educational interviews with expert guests to help your hobby farm thrive. And now, here's your host, Nicole.

Nicole: 0:16

Hello, everybody. Thank you so much for joining me for another episode of Backyard Bounty. I'm your host Nicole, and today I'm joined by Dr. Tammy Horn Potter, who is the author of three books, the Kentucky State apiarist for the Kentucky State Department of Agriculture, as well as the board of the honeybee Health Coalition, Eastern Apiculture Society Foundation for the Preservation of Honeybees and Project Avis-M. And today we are going to talk about the history of beekeeping in North America. And Tammy, thank you so much for joining me today.

Tammy: 0:50

Thank you for inviting me.

Nicole: 0:52

Absolutely. I'm really excited to have you on the show. I've been trying to find somebody to talk about the history of beekeeping for a while, it's actually been a challenge. And through a series of events, I was able to come across your fantastic book that you have on the history of beekeeping. And so I'm really excited to talk about this topic with you today. But before we get into that, can you kind of give us a little bit more about your background and your beekeeping? I know as we were talking before the show, you've got a lot going on.

Tammy: 1:20

Oh, well, I was an English professor, I took the summer off to help my grandfather, with his beehives. And before that I was determined never to do science, agriculture or math. In my life, I had chosen a career path that was determined, you know, to stay very linear and to stay away from all three of those endeavors. And, of course, now I sit before you and I do all three, typically every single day and that and I love it. So I'm an example of somebody whose hobby became a career through dog legged fashion. But I think you had asked about my first book, and I wrote "Bees in America" starting in 2002. And basically, it was the book that I wanted to find, and I couldn't find it anywhere. Because as an English professor, I was enthralled with the way that we see the honeybee used in so many of our cultural interactions in our music and in our art. That's how that first book started. It wasn't planned. It's very chronological. It starts in the 1600s, and moves right up to 2004, when I finished, and I've been pleasantly surprised at in many ways how current it remains. I think for many of the values in our society, it goes back to those early symbols that we used with honeybees where we associate values such as the thrift and hard work with being like a honeybee. And if somebody isn't, you know, pulling their fair share, as we say, we tend to call them a lazy drone, which was, you know, at the time in the 1600s, you know, we didn't quite understand what was going on in the bee biology of that. But those still values and that association that we make with honey bees is still quite prevalent. And so that it's been surprised about the book is that I think it's still relevant, maybe even more. So here we are in 2021, and we have more people unemployed than I can remember in my working career. And of course, we know that this isn't because people are lazy, or people are not saving enough or they haven't been thrifty or anything like that. I think as a country, we're in a better position to understand the dynamics that the virus can have on our economy. So this, to me is a huge opportunity for our country to begin to kind of separate what we bring to our notions of, you know, the relief programs and, you know, stimulus programs and things like that. It's a way I think of having a more enlightened discussion than falling back on our associations about what work is and who should be doing it...

Nicole: 4:39


Tammy: 3:08

And who should receive help, you know, and who should give help. Yeah, I guess it's complicated.

Nicole: 3:08

It is.

Tammy: 3:08

To me, it seems like one of the things that I hear in Washington DC some of the conversations about these issues of poverty and social welfare and, you know, all of these kinds of discussions, whether we like it or not, we've been imprinted by our value system that we associate with honey bees. And it's neither Democrat nor Republican. It's neither left or right. You know, it just goes for centuries back. And we've forgotten that.

Nicole: 5:24

I think that brings up a lot of really good points. You know, there is a lot to say about the societal structure of the honeybee colony, a lot of really good lessons that we can take from that, and also a lot of misunderstandings and mystery when it comes to to bees and the history of beekeeping. And I know that as I've been involved in beekeeping for the time that I have, there's a lot of misunderstanding. So could we maybe talk about the beginning of beekeeping in America? Because I think a lot of people are surprised to learn that honeybees actually are not a native species to North America.

Tammy: 5:59

That's correct. It's become a naturalized species since since the early 1600s, and of course, because of the forestry practices that were in place already by the Native American cultures, it was a good environment for honeybees to thrive. There were black gum trees that you know, were standing and so honey bees could swarm into those and and do very well of course, at this point in time, there weren't that many parasites that were a big issue with with the honey bee, you know, as far as I'm thinking of Varroa mites, which are impacting current honeybee hives now, you know, that's a 20th century problem, not a not an early 17th century problem. So, you know, honeybees did very well. In fact, you know, I like to quote a scholar Ann Cooperman who says, honey bees did better than the settlers did. You know, the settlers were dying off, you know, 50% rates, but honey bees were doing quite well. I mean, there was plenty of forage and plenty of standing trees so that they could swarm and they establish themselves and naturalized themselves quite rapidly, they would often move in advance, or concurrent, you know, migration happened, either by swarming on the bees part, or settlers were often taking them with them. That's a big surprise for many people. It has become a divisive topic among current people who are pro pollinators. Because there's this question, do we consider honeybees as invasive, but with our industrial agriculture being what it is, and how many people that we feed not just in the United States, but around the world? You know, our industrial agriculture, our specialty crops depend upon pollinators, a diverse set of pollinators. In other words, I think, if anything, I would never be an either or person. You know, I think we need all of this species that our country sustainably take care of, in order to provide food for not just our citizens, but also international countries.

Nicole: 8:14

So what did the very first colonies look like? How did they bring them over? You know, did they keep them in hives or in some sort of a special, you know, transportation colony or something? And, and then, when did the Langstroth hive come into play? Is that what the settlers used? Or did they use skeps or something different?

Tammy: 8:33

So skeps, of course, were quite popular in Germany and in Europe and Ireland, especially places you know, our hive technology is determined by the environment. So the skep is something that is is popular with the European countries. We don't start having bees and log trunks really, unless you are in Russia. You know, Ufa, Russia, of course, is the side of the 2022 Apimondia. And they are going to focus on on forest based beekeeping.

Nicole: 9:05

Oh, cool.

Tammy: 9:06

But you know, they have those huge forest there that again, made really good habitat for healthy colonies. But the English settlers were much more accustomed to the skeps and the skeps have a couple of advantages. A, you could build them from your environment, the grasses around you, they weren't expensive to build. B you can carry them from town to town if you needed to. Not that you would want to. Because of course, they they are stinging insects. But But if you had to, you know they could be transported. And so that's what the guess is, is that you know, skeps were were brought into the hold of the ship and then stay out of the way of other horses and other livestock that was being transported across the ocean. So we think skeps were the primary mode of transporting bees. And then once they got to the North America, then they started branching out by having the bee gums, the tree gums that you see, in my part of the of the state. There are still beekeepers who keep hives in bee gums.

Nicole: 10:21


Tammy: 10:22

This is not allowed in most states. In fact, there are laws against this because you cannot remove the frames to check for American foul brood. But in our state, there's not a law against it, really. And so in the eastern part of the state, of course, it's the Appalachians, there are some beekeepers who who, you know, a swarm is moved into a huge tree. And so they'll just cut it and keep it.

Nicole: 10:50


Tammy: 10:51

You had asked about the Langstroth hive that comes into existence in the 1850s it's later approximately a good you know, 100 plus years later. And again, what makes that hive such a gift to beekeepers is that it is a movable frame hive. Langstroth's genius was figuring out that, you know, bees needed a very precise amount of distance between the frame so that they could build out the beeswax foam, which of course, beeswax is going to do three things right, it holds the brood, and it holds the nutritional needs of the colony, the pollen, which becomes the bread and the nectar which becomes honey. But then it's also the dance floor. So the bees need room to communicate, you know, so that you know that space between the frames is called bee space. And Langstroth just figured that out. And that if he just kept his frames at that appropriate amount of bee space, and they could provide all of those needs to the colony. But the beekeeper could also come along and make sure to manage help manage the colony check to see if it had a queen, if it needs a queen, check to see if the bees need more pollen, you know, which is what I'm doing this time of year on these days when it's like 40 or 50 degrees. And I can get into the hive very quickly and see how they're doing make sure that they have enough honey to get through this last stretch of winter. That's the brilliance of the Langstroth movable frame hive.

Nicole: 12:40

it would have been really interesting to be there and to watch him as he kind of figured out how to build this perfect hive, or at least as perfect as you can for a manmade hive that we still use today. I think that there had to have been so much observation and science involved I can't even imagine.

Tammy: 13:00

Of course, he was a prolific writer. He was a trained pastor. And so he was accustomed to writing. And he says that he just yelled "Eureka!", and then ran through the streets. He was thrilled. He knew immediately he understood. And so he writes about that moment. And it's always a great pleasure to see people when they choose to enact his life. Because he was a very charismatic person. He was a very kind person. You know, as a teacher, you know, students can sometimes be quite mischievous. They were never miss genius. To Mr. Langstroth, they were always very respectful to him because he was so kind. So he's quite a hero for beekeepers. And then I think since we're talking about the Langstroth hive, we should also mentioned that there were three other inventions in the 19th century. All four of these inventions are still used in the beekeeping industry today. Right? So we have the Langstroth hive, the movable frame hive, right that was the crucial one because prior to that the beekeepers had to destroy the comb, they had to destroy the hive, they would often let the weaker one try to survive the winter and you know, kill the heavy ones so that they could get their their honey and their beeswax. But the movable frame hive made it possible to provide maintenance and also at the same time generate honey production and and at the same time also move them to so pollination becomes a real possibility. So the Langstroth hive, that's crucial. That's the the turning point when it doesn't just become a backyard hobby. It becomes possible to be a commercial beekeeper.

Nicole: 14:56


Tammy: 14:44

But the second invention and this is not any specific order because we all we need them all for. But the other invention was the smoker, the bellows smoker. Moses Quimby is typically credited with with that with the design that becomes more popular, but you will see in a fascinating drawings from the Ukraine and Russia, of the tree people smoking pipes, you know, you have to calm the bees, right like that's what they would do instead of having a smoker, but in the United States, we've developed a smoker that hasn't bellows You know, it doesn't go out hope we if you know what you're doing. Sometimes there's a little bit of the magic arts there that you have to learn. So we have a smoker, they extractor honey extractor is also designed then I think that that was designed in Germany, that the you know, United States quickly adopted that engineering and, and so we still use that, and then the foundation. And so in the process of being able to make beeswax foundation easily and cheaply. You know, then beekeepers can make frames with that beeswax foundation, and really jumpstart their honey production. You know, bees are no longer having to construct that beeswax, because the beekeeper is providing that foundation just, you know, it is enormous ly time intensive and resource intensive for a colony to produce beeswax. So when that foundation press comes into being beekeepers can just take off and go then. And the commercial honey industry then is set to go in the 19th century. And then there's some other jumps in progress. Queen production towards the end of the 19th century becomes a real skill and art as it continues until today. I don't know if you know, the book, Douglas Wynottte "Following the Bloom" is about a migratory beekeepers. Don't hold me to this. But I think it was written in 1990. And it was rereleased in 2005, maybe. And what he discusses other people have always have also said it too. But what I think he does such a good job of discussing is the role of transportation, and how transportation helps set up this model of following a migratory triangle, if you will. So for instance, commercial beekeepers would send their bees on trains, you know, and this had some real mixed effects. You know, because if a train was stopped in the middle of the Mojave Desert, you know, then you could have a real mess on your hands. You know, by the time the train finally arrived in the station, where the beekeeper was supposed to pick up his live bees. There are some great pictures, early 1900s of beekeepers just determined to do some pollination. And so they have their hives on a horse drawn wagon. Well you think about how much you have to work with a horse, you know, to so that they can handle that. So Douglas Wynotte's point is that semis you know, flatbed trailers make, make an industrial countryside, agricultural countryside possible. Because you can load those hives on pallets with a forklift on the back of a semi, you know, throw undead over them, and then away they can go. And you have you're able to get pollination to those specialty crops when they need it. And then keep following the bloom, you know, so it's February the fifth right now, you know, I'd say a good million are over there in the Central Valley in California working almonds, you know, and when the almond bloom is done, then they'll move right up to cherries or, you know, the in Washington state or apples, they'll move, you know, they'll move someplace and then they'll end up in South Dakota on clover to spend the summer. And all of that happens because we have good infrastructure in terms of our transportation or National Transportation. We have interstates. We have forklifts. We have semis. And that makes the United States very unusual. Sure, you know, our, our federal government invests in good transportation, not just for beekeepers, obviously. But we benefit our food system benefits because of that.

Nicole: 20:28

So obviously, these are things that are vastly different from beekeeping back in the day. So you mentioned that the, the smoker was a later invention. And I don't know if this is well documented, but how do beekeeping practices differ from the 1600s to today, other than, you know, of course, what you've already touched on?

Tammy: 20:47

You know, in those 1600s, a lot of the beekeeping was, was done by women, you know, the deputy wives is what the is what they were called, there was a, there was an actual designation, because, you know, if you think about where the settlements were, you know, they were right at the coastline. And so many men were sailors, you know, they would have to leave their home for four months, you know, sometimes half a year, that was not unusual. And so, you know, their wives had legal authority to make decisions, you know, to make purchases, but they also had, you know, the responsibility of providing food every day for the kids. And, you know, and so, you know, they, along with the chickens, hives, and chickens were the domain quite often of The Good Wife, you know, there was a title. And, of course, you know, as somebody who didn't marry until I was 45, you know, we're quite conscious of the fact that, you know, there was this meant pressure on a woman to be a good wife, like, that's what you were supposed to do. But, you know, that was, you know, taking care of the highs was part of your responsibility. It wasn't a skill that was gender determined, like other agricultural skills could be, you know, in fact, I write in my second book, which is all about women and bees, I write about the Irish St. St. Gonaith, and in Gaelic, that means Deborah, which is Hebrew for bee, and St. Gonaith, was the beekeeper. And in her particular nunnery, that's what they, they did in her convent, they took care of bees, and so they provided honey for people during times of illness. And when their convent was threatened by Vikings, then they took the steps and they dropped them right on top of the Vikings heads. defended their, their convent, you know, this is, you know, this, of course, is the myth I have, you know, have yet to see it dramatize. But so my point here is that is that women kept beads in the 1600s. And that, like I said, it's it wasn't a gendered agricultural activity. But because they were using skeps, you know, they were using long gums, you know, these, these trees that would decay from the inside out, providing a very suitable habitat for a swarm, you know, there was only so much that they could do and if an aviary came down with something like American foul brood, it would wipe through an aviary, there was no management whatsoever when it came to diseases, or wax moth. So there could be problems, I guess, is the point. You know, having a couple of stocks of bees were quite critical, because when you think about it, until the colonies became a nation, there was no national currency. And so honey and beeswax had value, real real bartering value in this kind of economy that depended upon no trading. I mean, we had Spanish currency, we had French currency, and English currency, Native American currency, you know, the Dutch had their own currency, you know, so there was an enormous amount of different types of coins being floating around in those early colonies. So to have access to honey and beeswax, beeswax was was almost more important than honey, you know, because it was stable. You know, it wouldn't it wouldn't leak you know you can, but you need you always needed things to waterproof you always need a light you know something to start a fire with, you know, compared to bear tallow, which would be what many people would use to light their cabins and things like that. Bear tallow was very unpleasant smelling and so beeswax was quite pleasant smelling. And so, you know, to be able to make candles, you know, it was not underestimated the importance of having a couple of beehives, you know, when you're living so close to the land like that, like they were doing in the 1600s, you know, that would help you know that that becomes part of your buffer zone.

Nicole: 25:26

Was there a certain societal class that had beehives? Or were they kind of, you know, kept by everybody? And then also, do you know what, what race of bees were here originally.

Tammy: 25:39

So what the specialists have said at the time that I was writing bees in America now, mind you, there has been so much more done with DNA analysis since then. So I'll just leave that there that there may be room for correction and bees in America, but the bees that were initially brought to the states seem to have come from, like a sub species. We call it the German black bee. It was not this darling of the American beekeeping industry right now of the Italians, you know, the Italian honey bees, which is that was not the predominant species, though, that was brought over that didn't come over until it wasn't adopted readily until after the Civil War. But the nice thing about that particular species, that German black species is that it was really Hardy, you know, it, it had acclimatized to the Alps, in the mountainous regions in the colder climates. So when it was brought to the colonies, it did fine. It could handle those New England mentors, you know, maybe if they had tried to bring the Italian honeybee over initially in the 1600s, might not have naturalized quite so well, but, but that's what the specialists seem to think at the time, because we did have some diversity of the stock. And many beekeepers imported other types of species, a stock was brought in from Cyprus, several were brought over from other places. And it wasn't until 1922, with the tracheal mite parting such losses in Europe, that the United States put the honeybee import and act in place. Ironically, there was a lot more diversity of honeybee species in the 19th century than there was in the 20th.

Nicole: 27:44

Well, I wouldn't have expected that.

Tammy: 27:45

Now that changed, mind you because, you know, African honeybees ended up coming into the United States, you know, in 1993, Texas, and I think some people even think that there may have been African honeybees that came into Florida through the ports, but it's definitely documented that they showed up in in 1990, in Texas. So there have been some entrances.

Nicole: 28:10

And what about a different the societies of the settlers? Could everybody have bees? Or was that only limited to either like the upper or lower class?

Tammy: 28:20

No, in my study, it didn't seem as if it belonged to one particular social class, many different and again, we've already talked about the fact that women and men kept bees. You know, in England, it was really considered an occupation and farming for intellectuals, right? I mean, you know, it was your learned, your convents, your monasteries, your universities, you know, those types of people, but also, peasants in Europe, were very good beekeepers, I mean, this was how they would pay their ties to the Lord's, and the ladies and the convents and pay their taxes. So it was a very much a skill, which transcended social class. And and that carried over to the United States, the colonies before they became the states. But that carried over that this was a skill that it that people would want to develop, and certainly have on their on their farms, and their villages. And even Native Americans benefited from some of the byproducts of value added products of the hive, even though that wasn't part of their culture, until 1622. They certainly readily adapted it.

Nicole: 29:45

So did the Native Americans become beekeepers as well?

Tammy: 29:48

Not the way that you and I would think of them as beekeepers, but they, you know, I certainly made observations. I mean, you know, Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying that Native America called honey bees, the white man's fly. And there are some instances where, you know, they would certainly, especially as migration moved westward, you know, honey bees took advantage of places like caves and things like that, especially in Texas. And so where they're building these kinds of caves and things, you know, it made for some opportunities for different Native American groups to go in and harvest the beeswax in the honey.

Nicole: 30:33


Tammy: 30:33

There are reports of that. But you know, the kind of manage beekeeping that you're asking about, that's not something that we see.

Nicole: 30:42

So as you've researched these books, and then your history in beekeeping, and everything that you do, what have you found, in your opinion, is the most interesting about honey bees in our culture, or the evolution of beekeeping in North America.

Tammy: 30:58

So now that I'm the state apiarist, you know, what I love about agriculture in North America is a, you know, I take samples for the USDA, you know, because I want to establish a baseline of the health for our state. And so that's the, that's my favorite part of the job is going out, taking samples, hearing about the beekeepers, either, you know, they're having a good year, or what their struggles are. Here in Kentucky, we have a bear problem. And so, you know, it's not as if every sample I take is, you know, the beekeepers having a great year. They're real, there's their real problems. But unlike the complexity, of establishing a baseline and working with beekeepers, and trying to help figure out why their hives are dying, to me, what's been compelling in the past year, is to see how many viruses, the apiary is, and Kentucky have had, because, of course, as a nation, we are suffering from this other virus as people. And so there's a lot of parallels between what I'm seeing happening in our community, and what I'm seeing happening in the backyard. So to me, that's very compelling. I think some of the solutions could be the same. more space between hives may reduce horizontal transmission. Better hygenics with our hog turns, not using the same gloves over and over and over again. You know, I think that as we as a country, get more educated on how we can be healthier, I think hopefully, that that will transfer to being better beekeepers, too. You know, it's not such a big leap. Maybe that's what I love about the beehive is that there are so many parallels between the beehive society and the human society.

Nicole: 33:03

Yeah, they really are. Like, we talked to the beginning a lot of lessons that can be learned as well. Well, to me, I mean, obviously, there's a lot of information that we could talk about, I feel like I could talk to you for for many hours about the history of beekeeping. But fortunately, you have a book about it, so that folks can get all of the information there. Can you share with us your books and where we could get more information?

Tammy: 33:29

Sure. So "Bees in America", of course, you can find this at and Abe books, that's just exactly like it sounds "A-B-E" has used copies for a very reasonable rate. I like to make sure that people know about a books because like I said, it's a it's a used bookstore, and I'm fond of them. So that's this one. This one came out in 2005.

Nicole: 33:55


Tammy: 33:56

And I like to make sure that people understand that I was not a good beekeeper when I wrote this. I really don't want people thinking that this is a how to book it is not that is not who I was. I was an English professor and just fascinated with the symbol and how I felt like it defined our social patterns. My second book is called "Economy- What Women in Bees Teach us About Local Trade and the Global Market". I did not have a say in the subtitle. But by this point, I had gone to Hawaii and worked with Big Island Queen for four different lectures and in the Queen industry, and also, you know, went to Australia to interview a queen producer there, went to England to interview the ground dama beekeeping Eva crane went to Australia. I traveled the world to write this one because I wanted to show the different types of hives as well as the different types of women who are keeping bees. So I'm very much of a beekeeper when I write this one. So that's the difference between the two books. This one came out in 2012. And then I had been working with coal companies to establish a theories on surface mine sites in eastern Kentucky. So Larry Connor asked that our write a primer, about that experience. And so the third book came out in 2019. It's called "Flower Power, Establishing Pollinator Habitat". So I like to tell people, it's a little like George Lucas in the Star Wars trilogy, except that I'm not making nearly the money that George Lucas does. But it's the past, present and future of beekeeping. Because I think that we do need to consider establishing more pollinator habitat, not just for honeybees, but also the native bees that exist in our country, and not just in our country. But in Mexico and Canada. The third book is very much concerned with future practices. You know, I suspect that what I would like to see it's a pipe dream, but to have pollinator reservoirs, areas where we set aside specifically to address those populations.

Nicole: 36:23

Absolutely. That would be wonderful. And then for the, the state side, as far as getting in contact with you, if somebody needs to have a hive inspected? Do you have the website for that?

Tammy: 36:37

Oh, so they just email me at [email protected].

Nicole: 36:42


Tammy: 36:43

You know, that's the email. And typically, depending upon the year and the time of year, I need about two weeks notice, you know, if I'm at the State Fair, I am there at the state fair for two weeks. So, you know, sometimes the month of August is difficult.

Nicole: 36:59

Okay. And of course, we'll put the links to all of those in the show notes so that people don't have to try and frantically type as they listen here. But Tammy, thank you so much for joining me today. I learned a lot. This was really interesting. I wish I had about three more days to talk about beekeeping with you and thank you so much for your time.

Tammy: 37:17

I lost I really enjoyed it. Thank you so much for having me. Yes.

Nicole: 37:21

And for those listening, thank you so much for joining me for another episode and we'll see you again next week!

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Bee smoker with Hive frame with comb and bees in background

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