Honey Hunters of the Past
Honey hunters collect honey from wild bee colonies and this ancient custom is still practiced by aboriginal societies in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. In some ancient cultures, hunting for honey was considered a competitive sport like hunting animals and fishing. Not only was honey hunting an enjoyable pastime in these cultures, but it was also a profitable endeavor as well. Sweet honey and comb could be traded or sold to other tribes at an advantageous price. Some of the earliest evidence of gathering honey from wild colonies is from rock paintings dating to around 8,000 BC in caves in Spain (see picture to the right).
There were also honey hunters in the newly formed United States. Finding a bee tree required time and effort, but it was worth it to many American settlers. Honey was one of the few sweeteners available during the early to mid 1800s. White sugar was expensive and had to be purchased in town and maple syrup required months of waiting and a lot more effort than finding a bee tree. Bee hunters typically chose a day in early spring when there were few flowers in bloom, which would only serve to distract the bees, and when the bees were still hungry from a long winter confined in their hive.
Honeybees rarely fly more than one or two miles away from their hives in search of pollen and nectar, so honey hunters rarely had to follow a bee for very long. When bees are finished foraging, they literally make a “bee-line” or the straightest flight path possible back to their hive. Honey hunters would try as best as they could to follow the bees back to their hives, which were typically located in a tree—either a hollow space somewhere along the truck or in one of the larger branches. Honey hunters would then carefully note its location or discreetly mark it and leave it alone until the fall when the bees would have filled it up with honey.
In the fall, honey hunters and their helpers (usually family members of all ages) would load up their crocks and jars on a sled or other conveyance and drag them to the tree’s location. They would also take along hot coals in an iron kettle. By putting wet leaves or cedar branches on top of the coals, honey hunters would generate a thick smoke, which they would use to make the bees sleepy and less protective of their hive. The tree or the branch would then be cut down and the comb laden with honey would be scooped up and put into the containers. Of course, not all the bees were subdued, so the people working the closest to the bees would get repeatedly stung. One hive would produce enough honey to provide sustenance for a family throughout the winter and also enough beeswax for several candles.
Writer and historian, Washington Irving, in “A Tour of the Prairies” (1835) gives his account of his personal experience with honey hunters in quest of a “bee.” “They placed a honeycomb, which served as bait, on a low bush. Soon the bees appeared and after they had provided themselves with enough honey, they flew into the air and in a “bee-line” to their nest. The hunters followed the bees’ course and traced them to some hollow tree-trunks where they found their cache sometimes sixty feet above the ground. Then they chopped down the trees and with knives and scoops emptied the cavities, replete with honey.”
Unfortunately, honey hunters almost always destroyed the beehive when recovering the honey. Early settlers did not know enough to take only some of the honey and leave the bees with enough stores to survive the winter. Over time, settlers learned how to keep swarms of bees on their farms and homesteads in coiled straw hives called skeps or hollowed logs called bee gums. Even with these portable beehives, most of the bees died after the honey harvest as the only way to harvest the honey was to cut away the entire comb, leaving no honey for the bees. In the 1850s, beehives with sliding frames were invented by the Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, which allowed for partial honey harvests—providing honey for both the beekeeper and the hive. And amazingly, the Langstroth beehive, with only minor modifications, is currently used around the world by the beekeepers of today—including yours truly at Bee America.