Thursday, June 16, 2016

Handmade History: Beekeeping

By Kate McCreight, guest blogger

Minnesota spring days have turned to summer, light breezes, birds chirping, accompanied by the drone of bees flitting around our backyard gardens. For some Minnesotans, the bees come from their own backyard colony. Beekeeping is becoming an increasingly popular part of urban farmettes and rural farms, but it is a practice that dates back nearly 5,000 years.  (Collecting honey from wild bee colonies dates back even further.) 

Save the bees notecard, Sharon's Compendium

Honey bees are not native to the Western Hemisphere, and were first imported by English colonists in the early 1600s. The bees slowly migrated further westward by both artificial means (transported by settlers) and natural swarms. 

For millennia, beekeepers used hives made of straw, wooden boxes, or pottery vessels. The design of these hives meant honeycomb was nearly impossible to remove, the colony would be killed in order to remove the honey. In the mid-nineteenth century, L.L. Langstroth patented his movable comb hive,  which is the type of hive keepers use today. In this hive, separate frames are able to be individually removed to harvest the honeycomb without harming the bee colony. 

Beeswax quickly became an important item of commerce for the early Colonists and onward, with hundreds of thousands of pounds exported in 1770 (honey is not mentioned in the record). The primary usage of beeswax was for candle making, a vital household need in the years before electricity.

Pair of pure beeswax candles, beehive skep and honeybees, Sweet Bee Honey and Crafts
Beeswax has a multitude of other uses: cheese waxing, waterproofing, polishing furniture, and salves. 
Walnut beaver teether, conditioned with beeswax, Oak Tree Arts
Honey is, of course, the other primary bee product. (The harvest season is typically late summer to early fall - as such, there are no HandmadeMN beekeepers offering honey at this time.) Aside from it's deliciousness, honey is also be used in cosmetics, a hangover cure, preserving fruit, and as a natural energy booster. 

Minnesota currently ranks in the top 5 states for honey production, and actively participates in moving migratory bees to California and southern states for pollination and over-wintering. Bees are also kept in Minnesota through the winter months. Ways you can help our native bee population are by eliminating pesticide use, plant wildflowers, and let the dandelions grow (they are an important first food for early spring bees).

Further reading: 
Minnesota Hobby Beekeepers Association:
Beesource, History of Beekeeping in the United States:

This post is part of a monthly series exploring the intersection of history and modern Minnesota makers. Is there a craft or technique you want to explore? Let me know in the comments! 


Sharon Parker said...

What an interesting overview of beekeeping. I had heard that harvesting honey used to involve killing the bees, but I didn't know why. Thanks for the all the info, and for featuring my bee note card.