Nature’s Gift of Bees: Part I

November 29, 2012

In the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I wanted to reflect upon three distinct ways in which honeybees have assisted humans in their endeavors—both in the present day and in the past. In this first post, I’ll discuss the contributions honeybees made in helping pilgrims settle in America. In my next post (12/06/12), I’ll describe how Kentucky is leading the way in restoring pollinator habitats and forage on reclaimed surface mining land. Mining companies are being required to plant trees and understory foliage plants, which will provide habitat and food for honeybees, bumble bees and other native pollinators. And in my final post (12/19/12) in this three-part series, I’d like to highlight the efforts Heifer International is making toward helping families in developing countries become self-sustaining by supplying them with bees and the necessary equipment and training to take care of them. These bees can help to almost double the yield of fruit and vegetable crop production as well as provide a source of family income through the sale of honey, comb and beeswax.

It was the pilgrims—many of who were fleeing poverty, persecution or wars in their own countries—who brought honeybees to North America in 1622. Evidence of the honeybee’s arrival in Jamestown comes from a letter written on December 5, 1621 by the Council of the Virginia Company in London and addressed to the Governor and Council in Virginia, “Wee haue by this Shipp and the Discouerie sent you diurs [divers] sortes of seedes, and fruit trees, as also Pidgeons, Connies, Peacockes Maistiues [Mastiffs], and Beehives, as you shall by the invoice pceiue [perceive]; the preservation & encrease whereof we respond vnto you…”  (Goodwin 1956; Kingsbury 1906:532)

Some of these early settlers had extensive beekeeping skills, which helped to ensure the survival of the honeybees during the formative years of the United States. However, it would be over two centuries before honeybees reached the west coast of America. During this westward expansion, the honeybee sustained the settlers by providing honey, wax and propolis (i.e., resinous mixture that honeybees collect from tree buds or sap). These products were used both for human consumption and for sale to provide an income. Furthermore, the honeybees pollinated the seeds and saplings that the settlers brought with them from Europe. By enabling new species of plants and trees to grow, honeybees helped to maintain the settlers’ livestock by enabling the growth of white clover and other English grasses that were used to feed the animals. While honeybees clearly aided the settling of this country by Europeans, humans in turn provided assistance to the honeybee. Humans provided shelter initially in the forms of skeps and later in movable comb hives. Additionally, they supplied pollen and nectar sources by planting large areas of plants that were attractive to bees. Humans also aided bees in traversing the physical barriers that would have otherwise been insurmountable to them like the vast plains and imposing mountain ranges.View of Bee America hillside where honeybees go to drink

This brief look back upon the founding and expansion of the United States helps us to better understand the interactions between humans and the environment and serves to remind us that human actions affect not only our own lives, but ecosystems as well. As a beekeeper, I am very aware of my bees’ dependence on the care and nurturing I provide them. My family and I have planted native species of plants and trees, which help support the hive, along with providing adequate shelter and access to a clean and renewable source of fresh water. We cherish the gifts they in turn provide of honey and beeswax. However, we are careful to ensure that the hives are left with enough of this precious sustenance to be healthy and productive contributors to the ecosystem in which they live—a sustainable cycle in which we at Bee America are fortunate to be guardians.

Picture Caption:

Waterfall and pond on the hillside at Bee America where the honeybees come to drink

Sources Cited:

Goodwin, Mary. Response to request for info on beehives and bee culture Jan 26, 1956. Williamsburg, VA: Rockefeller, John D. Jr. Library.

Kingsbury, Susan Myra.  The Records of the Virginia Company of London The Court Book, From the Manuscript in the Library of Congress 1619 – 1622 Vol 1 and 2.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1906.