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Honeybees are Immigrants Too!

Bayou-Diversity (3 May 2020) For thousands of years humans have gathered honey from the hives of wild honeybees. People ate honey, concocted the alcoholic beverage “mead,” and made candles from beeswax. Honey and wax were also used for medicinal purposes. None of this, however, happened in North America until Europeans arrived because honeybees are not native to the western hemisphere. About 20,000 different kinds of bees are found naturally throughout the world, many types in North America, but not the honeybees that we know. Records indicate that honeybees were shipped from England to the Colony of Virginia in 1622. Other shipments were made to Massachusetts around 1630. Swarms of these early colonies soon escaped and became the “wild” honeybees of America. They had spread westward to Louisiana by the Civil War as was noted by a Confederate major near Monroe in 1864. He wrote: “The troops had nothing to do but bathe in the clear water of the Ouachita and make pumpkin pies, gather wild grapes, and hunt wild honey, of which the surrounding woods furnished an abundant supply.”

For centuries colonies of honeybees have been kept in wooden boxes, straw skeps, and pottery containers. In America, pioneers kept bees in “bee gums,” sawed sections of hollow logs that were used as hives. The black gum tree was a favorite because of its tendency to form hollows. Collecting honey from any of these hive types usually resulted in killing the bees and loss of the colony. In the mid-1800’s a Pennsylvania minister patented a hive with movable frames that is still used today. It allowed collecting the honey without loss of the colony. Modern beekeepers in the United States produce about 70,000 tons of honey per year, while Americans consume more than 150,000 tons in the same period, resulting in an abundance of imported honey – much of it from the origin of “our” honeybees. (Adapted from “Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country,” by Kelby Ouchley, LSU Press)


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