Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/April 1885/Apiculture

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AMONG the recent industries of rapid growth in this country, bee-culture stands prominent. Of course, as a homely art, bee-keeping is no modern industry, being as old as history; but in its scientific developments it is of recent growth. In these times, when science is properly taking its place at the helm in all departments of human industry and activity, it is not strange that it is promptly assuming the guidance of bee-culture. This is a utilitarian as well as scientific age; and this is why bee-culture is being so rapidly developed, for its extraordinary growth is only in the ratio of its utility. Though known to commerce for twenty-five hundred years, hitherto it has been followed and known, in this country at least, principally as a local industry. But bee-culture, from the soundest economic considerations, ought undoubtedly to become a great national industry fostered and protected by the state. Apiculture is naturally a part of, and closely allied with, agriculture, inasmuch as the nectar gathered by the one is immediately derived from the same fields and forests that yield the abundant ingatherings of the other. Indeed, the bulk of the honey-crop of this country (which is, in round numbers, about 100,000,000 pounds annually) comes from the bee-keeping which is in connection, more or less, with farming.

But this is not the principal reason why bee-culture must take rank as an important national industry. The postulate is fully warranted by the following fact or facts: When the agriculturist takes his grain to market, he takes with it more or less of the fertility of his soil; when he takes his stock and dairy products to market, he does the same thing, only, perhaps, in a less degree. But, when he takes his honey to market, he does nothing of this kind—he takes none of the fertile elements of his soil along with it. When the skilled apiarist, guided by science, so controls, directs, and manipulates his bees that they gather the rich nectar in tons from a given area, representing hundreds and even thousands of dollars, he impoverishes neither his own land nor that of his neighbor: he simply secures that which, if not gathered, "wastes its sweetness on the desert air." Likewise, when a country exports its surplus grain or stock, it also inevitably parts with more or less of its fundamental agricultural resources; but its exported honey-surplus represents no corresponding impoverishment of soil. It would therefore seem clear that, from economic considerations alone, bee-culture ought to and must take its place among the most useful and important national industries.

There is also an æsthetic and hygienic side to apiculture, though in this practical and materialistic age mere sentiment must be subordinated to utility. But the more advanced scientific bee-keeping of today may, without assuming much license or latitude, be called "one of the fine arts." To the cultured and esthetic devotee of art proper in the recesses of his studio, who has never practically studied the nature and habits of the wonderful little honey-bee, and manipulated it from day to day, this claim for our beloved art may excite a smile. Nevertheless, the apiarian devotee who has studied, observed, and handled the marvelous denizens of his hives for twenty years will affirm his art, no less than the flavor of the nectar it produces, to be indeed fine. Ladies of high culture and refined tastes are engaged (and successfully too) in bee-culture with all the enthusiasm which is naturally inspired by a congenial and ennobling pursuit; and this is the best proof of our contention as to its aesthetic status. Being withal a healthful occupation, bee-culture invitingly offers itself to those in delicate health and not strong enough for hard physical labor. In numerous instances such persons, by engaging in this pursuit, have not only procured liberal means of subsistence, but have also recovered lost health and strength. The capital required is comparatively small, while the average return for skilled exertion is large. Hardly any other legitimate business yields so large a return in dollars and cents for the amount invested and the work bestowed. True, bee-keeping has its formidable obstacles and serious drawbacks; but these, while sometimes troublesome to the scientific apiarist, are disastrous mostly to the unskillful or negligent, or the mere neophyte. And even though the cargo of industry sink, not much treasure in money or labor is carried to the bottom, while a very little capital added to the valuable lesson of failure soon sets the redoubtable amateur on his legs again.

The honey-bee—which belongs to the general branch of the animal kingdom called Articulates, and to the class Insecta, and to the subclass Hexapoda, and to the order Hymenoptera, and the family Apidæ and genus Apis, and species Apis mellifica—is one of the most intensely interesting studies in the whole domain of natural history. When the immortal Darwin had the scientific zeal and patience to study the apparently insignificant earth-worm for forty long years, leaving a field untouched for thirty years for the purpose of studying and observing the habits of these despised creatures, how comparatively easy and pleasant to study the honey-bee, which is so much more useful and beautiful! The fact that the honey-bee is so much more serviceable to man than many others of the lower creatures whose nature and habits are equally wonderful, as the ant, for instance, invests it with a double interest to us. Insects which are pests, no matter how marvelous in structure and habit, we can not study with that intense pleasure and interest we can those that yield so much to our physical as well as mental gratification.

Of the species Apis mellifica there are many varieties—the principal of which are the Ligurian or Italian bee; the German or black bee; the Syrian bee; the Cyprian bee; the yellow, Egyptian bee; the amiable, Carniolan bee, of Africa; the superbly beautiful Dalmatian bee; the Smyrnian bee, very popular in Austria; and the stingless bees of South America.

In this country (i, e., Canada and the United States) we have principally the German and Italian bees; but within the past five years the Syrian and Cyprian varieties have been extensively imported into this country by that distinguished and enterprising apiarist, D. A. Jones, of Beeton, Ontario. As the genus Apis is not indigenous to this continent, all now existing here have been introduced from the Eastern Hemisphere—first, the black and Ligurian races, and latterly the Eastern varieties.

Each of the varieties now in this country (vying for "survival" as the "fittest") has its distinguishing characteristics. So far, however, the Italians seem to possess more good points and desirable qualities than any of the other races, and hence are the most numerous and popular among advanced apiarists. Their chief distinguishing qualities are superior amiability, industry, and what may be called patriotism, or indomitable energy in defending their homes against invaders, such as robber bees and the "bee-moth"—against both of which they are quite invincible. While different strains of this variety vary considerably in color, they are in general distinguished by three beautiful yellow bands across the abdomen. They also have longer tongues than the German bees, by which they are enabled to sip the nectar from places inaccessible to their less favored competitors. A. J. Cook, Entomological Professor in the Michigan Agricultural College, who has done very much to advance scientific bee-culture in the United States, says on this point, "The tongue of the black worker I have found, by repeated dissections and comparisons, made both by myself and by my pupils, is shorter than that of the Italian worker, and generally less hairy."[1] In confirmation of this fact, established by Professor Cook's dissections, I have frequently noticed my Italian bees, during a scarcity of honey from other sources, working upon the second bloom of the common red clover (not the Trifolium pratense, which the black bee can readily work upon), when the German bees were doing nothing on it, the flower tubes being too long for their tongues.

The black bees (or rather, German, for in point of fact they are not black in color, but a gray-black) have some desirable qualities, though they are now being rapidly superseded by the Italians. They produce nicer comb-honey than the Italians, or perhaps any other race. The proverbial whiteness and finish of their comb are due mostly to the extra capping.

For the Syrian races of bees, Mr. Jones and some other leading apiarists claim some superior qualities. I am inclined to think the Syrian queens (Palestine strain), crossed with the Italian drones, will presently prove to be our very best bees—combining more good points than any other existing variety. Doubtless, however, the bee of the future will be greatly superior to anything we have at present. For purposes of experimentation in developing such, we have now in America several of the best varieties in existence under domestication. By judicious crossing, in accordance with the well-known laws of variation and heredity, such a result is quite certain. The vast improvement made in this way among our domestic animals, within less than half a century, fully warrants the conclusion that, in the evolution of things so palpable everywhere, we may in the case of our bees subsidize and utilize the same ever-acting law of progress.

Following the Syrians, and genealogically closely allied to them, we have the Cyprians, though not yet widely diffused. They resemble the Italians, of which they are supposed to be the progenitors. The Cyprian bees have some good points, and one very bad point. They are famous for their fecundity, but equally infamous for their ferocity, being maliciously expert in using very pointed stings. This variety (unless in this inspiriting western atmosphere it acquires more amiability) is not likely to become popular, notwithstanding the marvelous fecundity of the queens. It may be possible, by crossing with some bee of good disposition, to mollify their bad tempers and retain their good qualities.

Of the remaining varieties of the honey-bee, and sub-varieties, including hybrids, little is practically known in this country, with the exception of one or two strains of the latter. The "hybrids," resulting from a cross between the Italian queen and the German drone, are well known in Canada and the United States, and, next to the pure Germans and Italians, are perhaps most numerous. These hybrids have excellent qualities: they make superb comb; are active and energetic; and I have observed stand the rigor of our Canadian winters much better than the pure Italians; but they are much less amiable.

A properly constituted colony of bees consists of three different kinds, viz.: an impregnated queen (the fully developed female); drones (the males); and workers (undeveloped females). The queen (absurdly called the "king-bee" from the time of Aristotle and even Virgil down to Huber) is the mother of the whole colony, and is capable of laying over three thousand eggs per day! During the height of the breeding-season in the honey-flow, she frequently lays from two to three thousand eggs per day for man)'-consecutive days together. She remains prolific for from two to four years, and in some instances queens have been known to remain prolific upward of five years. Before the queen-bee of a colony becomes quite barren, and while she is still laying, if not removed by the apiarist, the workers themselves supersede her, by killing her and rearing a young queen to take her place. Sometimes, however, the old, worn-out mother is permitted to remain in the hive while the young one is being reared, and ultimately dies of neglect and depression, or is assisted to "shuffle off" by her own unfilial progeny. The queen is reared from the same egg as the worker, but in a much larger cell, nearly perpendicular, and on different food, called "royal jelly," which has the effect of fully developing the sexual apparatus. The time from the egg to the perfect queen emerged from the cell is about sixteen days. In a few days after hatching, the young queen leaves the hive for her "bridal flight," during which, and on the wing, she meets the male bee or drone in copulation and becomes impregnated, when she returns to the hive to remain there until she leads out the first swarm, which she does when she finds young queens being reared in the hive—one of them designed to take her place. A single fertile queen in a colony is the normal condition of the household, and hence the old queen departs to make room for her successor. Second and third swarms are of course led out by the young queens. With the exception of sometimes attacking and destroying inchoate queens, the sole function of the queen is to deposit eggs and lead out the first swarm. After her impregnation she deposits both drone and worker eggs—either kind at pleasure. She is capable, however, as a virgin queen, of laying fertile drone, but not worker, eggs. This apparently anomalous fact (parthenogenesis) is now well established, not only in the case of the virgin queen-bee, but in that of several other insects. Sometimes worker-bees in queenless colonies lay fertile drone-eggs; but the queen is the only fully developed female in the colony.

The worker-bees, though "the bone and sinew" of the hive, are not blest with the queen's longevity. In active work, on the wing and off, during the honey-season, they naturally live but a few weeks—from one to two months—while those hatched late in the fall will live until spring, sometimes reaching the age of nine months and upward, which is the maximum longevity of the worker-bee. In passing from the egg to the perfect bee, the worker occupies twenty-one days. The young worker spends several days (from ten to fifteen) at home building comb, attending to the young brood, receiving and depositing the loads of the outside workers, and sundry other little duties, before it ventures to the fields to work. The duties of the older workers of the colony are to gather honey, pollen, and propolis, destroy and cast out the drones when necessary, and defend the colony from enemies without or within. They also, as already noticed, destroy old, unprolific queens and rear young ones to take their places, and sometimes lead out in swarming, as the queen does not always take the lead in swarming. And although very young bees are ordinarily very reluctant to leave the hive, I have seen such rush out under the swarming impulse so young that they couldn't fly more than a foot or two, if at all. They usually crawl back home again in apparent disgust with the outside world, and doubtless with more wisdom and less conceit.

The third and last rightful denizen of a perfect colony of bees is the unsophisticated, stingless, but much abused drone—the male bee. He is well named, however, being a very liberal feeder with excellent digestive organs for honey, and with no duties whatever within the hive further than the incidental one of contributing by the presence of his cumbrous corporation to the animal heat of the hive. As to his natural longevity, nobody from Virgil to Huber, Langstroth, Quinby, Newman, Cook, Jones, et alii, seems to know much about it. The matter not being invested with any importance, no investigator seems to have bothered his head much with it. So far as I could ever see, the drone seems to live and thrive admirably until he is either killed off by the workers, starved to death, or gallantly yields up his life in performing his sole function, which he invariably does in the performance of this function in the act of copulation. The drone, as Dr. Dzeirzon established, comes from an unimpregnated egg—the virgin queen, and sometimes even workers, being able to lay eggs which will produce drones. As a rule, drones are found in colonies whenever they are needed, or likely to be needed to impregnate the young queens, which is usually during the swarming season and honey harvest. Though they are promptly ejected from strong colonies when not needed, and the honey-flow fails, they are tolerated in queenless colonies, and are sometimes wintered over. The drone is much larger than the worker, and his cell very protuberant, and in it he spends twenty-four days from the egg before he emerges.

As remarked at the outset, bee-culture made but little progress on scientific principles for thousands of years. It is only within the last half-century or so that it has, under the magical talisman of science, fairly leaped forward like every other pursuit. The first great achievement was the application of the centrifugal force in the construction of the honey-extractor, thus enabling us to get the honey in its purity out of the comb without injuring the latter, when it can be returned to the bees to be refilled. A German (Herr von Aruschka) accomplished this, and thereby gave a great impetus to bee-culture. Indeed, the invention of the movable frame and the honey-extractor completely revolutionized the modus operandi of bee-keeping. As to who is really entitled to the credit of inventing the movable frame, there is some uncertainty and a conflict of claims. The truth seems to be that some three or four different persons are fairly entitled to credit—each, it would appear, having conceived and developed the idea, more or less independently of the others. Huber and Schmidt in Germany, Munn in England, M. de Beauvoys in France, and Langstroth in the United States, are all fairly though not equally entitled to credit, and each has placed progressive bee-culture under tribute. Mr, Langstroth, however, seems entitled to much more credit than any of the others, for his hive had more practical value than the whole of the others together. In carrying out the common principle, Langstroth was undoubtedly far ahead.

The next stride in advance was the invention of the manufacture of "comb-foundation," which was a great desideratum, as the honey season in the temperate zone is comparatively short, and a new colony of bees supplied with the "comb-foundation" will do as much in two or three days as one alongside of it without the foundation will do in eight or ten days, as the writer has repeatedly proved. Foundation comb is made by pressing sheets of pure bees-wax between metal rollers or plates so constructed as to give to the wax the exact impressions of the cells in the basal wall of the natural comb. This saves the worker-bees just that much labor and time, and they proceed at once to rapidly draw out and develop the incipient cells. The merit of this invention is also somewhat in dispute. Upward of twenty years ago the late eminent apiarist, S, Wagner, patented comb-foundation in the United States; but it soon transpired that Herr Mehring, in Germany, had previously made foundation, and that the Germans had been using it for three or four years. As it is the accumulated wit and experience of the age, rather than the man, that produces the invention, it is quite likely that Mr, Wagner arrived at the idea without the aid of the other German (for Mr. Wagner was himself a German). Montaigne said he "had as clear a right to think Plato's thoughts as Plato himself had"; and the American German had not only as good a right as the home Teuton to think out this invention, but he was just as likely to do so, and more likely, for the inspiriting and inventive Yankee atmosphere would quicken his blood and sharpen his wits.

Recent bee-culture has been also greatly promoted and extended by the specialty of queen-rearing, which has been brought to great perfection on scientific principles. D. A. Jones, in Canada, and Henry Alley, in the United States, have developed this department of apiculture to an extent leaving, one would think, little to be further achieved or desired. As, however, under the progressive laws of evolution, we have ceased to set bounds to improvement in anything not fixed mathematically, we will not say that any department of practical apiculture is yet fully wrought out to perfection.

In order to secure absolute purity of fertilization in the different varieties and sub-varieties in crossing, D. A. Jones, of Beeton, Ontario, has established queen-nurseries on different islands in Georgian Bay, so far from shore and from each other as to secure entire purity of blood in copulation. Queens and drones bred and mated under such circumstances, from pure imported stock, can not be otherwise than pure.

Henry Alley also, of Wenham, Massachusetts, has, through a long series of experiments during many years, successfully applied science to the modus operandi of queen-rearing, and has recently given the world the fruits of his labors and researches in a work entitled "The Bee-Keeper's Handy-Book; or, Twenty-two Years' Experience in Queen-Rearing."

Another feature of present bee-culture, which is at once both largely the cause of its present advanced condition in this country and the best proof of its wide extension, is its periodical literature. Devoted wholly or partially to apiculture, we now have no less than three or four papers in Canada, and nearly a dozen in the United States. Among the latter is one weekly devoted exclusively to bee-culture. This is the "American Bee Journal," published in Chicago by Thomas G. Newman. Among the former is the "Canadian Bee Journal," a weekly, just commenced under the most favorable and promising auspices. It is edited and published by D. A. Jones, of Beeton, Ontario.

Since the hitherto great difficulty of successfully wintering bees in these climates has been nearly overcome by the application of science, bee-culture must, in the near future, become a great and profitable national industry in Canada and the United States.

  1. "Bee-Keeper's Guide," ninth edition, p. 35.