Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Beehive Skeg (image by Rosser 1954)
"If there’s a buzzing noise, somebody’s making a buzzing noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing noise that I know of is because you’re a bee. And the only reason for being a bee that I know of is to make honey. And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it." Winnie the Pooh
Like many of us, I have baked many loaves of bread over the past year, finding the tasks needed to create bread easy to integrate into the rhythms of my life worked from home. Many of my favorite bread recipes call for the complex goodness of honey, an ingredient that I can easily find on the shelf at Big Y or Armata's. But honey has not always been easy for people (or bears) to obtain. Winnie the Pooh, “a bear of little brain”, loved honey and knew that he had to follow bees in order to find honey. Likewise, early humans loved honey but could only obtain it by gathering hives that they found in the wild.
While European colonists found a wide variety of bees and other insects in North America, they did not find honey bees and so they had to import them. Honey bees were first brought from England to the Virginia colony as early as 1622 and they were first brought to Massachusetts between 1630 and 1633. As in in Europe, honey and wax were greatly valued by the colonists.
By 1720, honey bees must have been in the wild in western Massachusetts. The Rev. Stephen Williams of Longmeadow wrote in his diary on Oct. 13, 1720, “this day I went into woods again after bees – but got none. I fear I am too eager after such things.”
Early beekeepers kept hives in containers such as straw skeps (pictured at the top of the article), pottery vessels, wooden boxes, or log gums. None of these structures allowed longtime maintenance of a hive and also significant production of honey. But, in 1852, L.L. Langstroth of Pennsylvania patented a hive with movable frames. Adaptations of this model, which are still used today, allow the beekeeper to manage the hive without destroying it. The beekeeper can remove a part of the hive (a frame), harvest the honey and wax from the frame, then reincorporate the frame the hive. This is a sustainable method of maintaining the bee colony while also procuring valuable bee products.
Commercial production of honey began in 1864 and the government began tracking honey and beeswax as an agricultural commodity in 1870. The 1870 Non-Population Census form for Longmeadow is incomplete, but we know that at least three Longmeadow men produced honey in 1870. In 1880, eight Longmeadow men produced honey. Honey would have been harvested in July and in October.
In addition to the personal financial rewards of selling honey and wax, beekeepers provided an invaluable service to a largely agrarian community. Working within a three mile radius from the hive, bees busily pollinated farmers' crops as they gathered the pollen needed to make their honey and their home.
Today, it is estimated that almost 2/3 of the crops that we eat are pollinated by bees. While we no longer have any farms in town, Longmeadow today has around a dozen beekeepers. These bees pollinate our gardens, trees, and woodlands, keeping our plants healthy and Longmeadow verdant and lovely - at the same time that they are producing delicious honey!
1. Ronald Manseau, beekeeper/ Longmeadow, MA 2. History of Beekeeping in the United States 3. The Evolution of Beekeeping 4. The Bees- The Disney Wiki 5. Stephen Williams Diaries 6. 1870 US Census, 1880 US Census
Contributed by Elizabeth Hoff, LHS Board Member
Originally published April 15, 2021