Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bees In An Iron Cage? Part III-Origins of Rationalized Beekeeping

On November 4th at 7:30 pm, I will be giving a presentation entitled "Bees in an Iron Cage?: The Formal Rationalization of 20th Century American Apiculture" at the Stark Auditorium at Winona State University. The presentation is part of Winona State's CLASP lecture series which has as its theme this year, Food. I will be collecting my thoughts for this lecture and writing my notes right here on my blog: Canaries In A Coal Mine.

Rationalized beekeeping in the United States began in the mid-19th century through the inventions of a number of innovative apiculturalists who were able to disseminate their ideas throughout the country through such publications as The American Bee Journal and Gleanings of Bee Culture (both still in publication). Laidlaw and Page (1997:9) describe this period in beekeeping history as a time when the "Essential tools of beekeeping were discovered that made it possible to fully exploit the economic value of honey bees. Without movable-frame hive, comb foundation, the honey extractor, or the bellows smoker, beekeeping would indeed be at the same stage of advancement it was in the first half of the nineteenth century." Two important innovators were Lorenzo Langstroth, and G.M. Doolittle.

Langstroth, a semi-retired minister, is credited with inventing the box hive with movable frames, still the most common manner of maintaining bee colonies in the United States today. Langstroth's approach allowed beekeepers a neat and efficient way of managing many bee colonies by giving beekeepers a way to move inter-changeable frames of comb from one hive to another in order to strengthen weak hives, and begin new ones from scratch. Using frames also produced less defensive bees, making the control and manipulation of honey bees easier for the beekeeper. (Langstroth 2004)

G.M. Doolittle (2008) invented a system for the mass production of honey bee queens, allowing the industrious beekeeper to multiply the number of hives in his/her possession without having to capture swarms or feral bee colonies. His system also allows the beekeeper to choose what larvae are suitable for queens, rather than leaving such a decision in the "hands" of the bees as would be done when beekeepers simply split hives. Coupled with a selective breeding plan, the beekeeper could easily produce a line of bees exhibiting such "desired" characteristics as honey productivity, disease resistance, and gentle behavior. His basic techniques are still followed today, and are taught, for example, at the University of Minnesota during their summer queen rearing extension course (Spivak and Reuter 2006).

While the rationalized techniques used have allowed beekeepers to efficiently run a greater number of hives in a very productive and controlled manner, this rationalization has probably had costs for the honey bees, even after setting aside the negative effects of rationalized pesticide-use on the bees. The beekeeper's need for efficiency, predictability, control and profit often conflict with the biophysical needs of the honey bee colony.

Works Cited

Doolittle, G.M. (2008) Scientific Queen-Rearing. Kalamazoo, MI: Wicwas.

Laidlaw Jr., Harry H. and Robert E. Page Jr. (1997) Queen Rearing and Bee Breeding. Kalamazoo, MI: Wicwas.

Langstroth, L.L. (2004) Langstroth's Hive and the Honey-Bee: The Classic Beekeeper's Manual. North Andover, MA: Dover.

Spivak, Marla and Gary S. Reuter.
Successful Queen Rearing- Short Course. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota.

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