THE SWEET HISTORY OF BEES AND HONEY IN EARLY AMERICA
Story by Richard Thomas + Illustrations by Carly Schultz
By the 10th century bees and beekeeping were indigenous throughout Europe. By the time the early explorers began probing to the West beyond the known boundaries of the Medieval world, honey was a staple food and in demand by commoners as well as European aristocracy. Beekeeping had been depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics, written about by Aristotle and Virgil and included in cave paintings dated at over 13,000 BC. Beehives were a prominent feature on the cargo manifests of the expeditionary ships sent to establish the colonies of the powers vying for land in the New World because European bees were different. They had stingers, and their honey was higher in carbohydrates, therefore of more nutritional value than their cousins in the West.
Making a beeline
Honey was a relatively stable food and was more resistant to conditions of Transatlantic passage than most. Bees and hives were shipped in skeps, a type of wicker or straw bucket with a hole on the side, and they were turned upside down and mounted on platforms that were fastened to the decks and covered by latticed crates so that bees would have an open but sheltered location. Native Americans did not know honey until Europeans arrived. Though there are no documents attesting to the presence of bees with the first Spanish colonizing fleets in the 1500s, it is illogical to think they were not among the essential goods the first settlers brought to our shores. Bees were documented cargo brought by the English to Virginia in 1622, and by 1650 bees and honey were plentiful and found throughout the colonies. Native Americans referred to the bee as ”the White Man’s fly” and they knew its presence signaled the coming of European settlers. Certain religious sects carried honeybees with them as they traveled, and the Shakers and Moravians in particular, both of whom had settlements along the East Coast from Pennsylvania to Georgia, were widely known for their bees and honey.
The Queen Bee
References to honey as a trade item are found among the documents of Indian traders in Carolina in the 1670s, so it was almost surely being harvested in the settled areas around Charleston. By 1700 the hive was well established as the English metaphor for colonizing and growing America, and the roles bees fill in building a hive and producing honey were assigned to human counterparts. The queen was omnipotent and the enactor of laws, which the worker bees followed dutifully for the good of the hive, and the lazy drones were forced from the hive in times of hardship. The parallels to royalty, the growing middle class labor force and the policy of forced emigration for criminal and indigent citizens in England were unmistakable at the time.
In the Southern colonies the most common method of transporting and keeping bees was the straw skep, or in certain areas where the black gum tree was plentiful (like Hilton Head), beekeeping was done in “bee gums.” As the black gum had an open bark with deep fissures, it was prone to infection and deterioration from within and commonly produced hollow trunks. Sections of hollow trunk with openings at the bottom were set upright in “bee yards” or apiaries. Often sticks or crossed sticks were placed underneath a board cover to provide an easy attachment for a honeycomb. In the absence of sugar and cane syrup, honey was the primary source of sweetener in Colonial America. Other important products from bees were beeswax for the making of candles, royal jelly and propolis, the latter substances with medicinal value for wound treatment. Even today local honey is one of the best remedies for pollen allergies.
In the land of milk & honey
In Revolutionary War times, as precursors to war, the Townsend and Stamp Acts served to crystallize the bee colony model in the minds of increasingly rebellious Americans. The tax collectors of King George III and the government officials were seen by the colonists as “drones, who did no work of their own but lived off the work of others,” royalty (the queen) as a disengaged power with little interest in the welfare of her people, and the worker bees (Colonial Americans) as dedicated citizens who were laboring to build a new land for the good of all. Directly following the Revolution, the skep was used as a symbol of Colonial American Industry, and an allegorical 1778 painting by Joseph Strutt depicts Industry as a figure carrying a skep to a shrine to honor the fallen Revolutionary soldiers. The following year, 1779, the Continental Congress issued a forty-five dollar bill with a seal showing a beekeeping shed with skeps surrounded by the slogan, “SIC FLORET REPUBLICA” or Thus Flourishes the Republic. Even our Founding Fathers sought the symbolic power of bees and the hive to begin to drive attainment of financial success for the new country.
The production of honey locally during the Antebellum period is documented, and though some sugar cane was grown on Hilton Head at the time, sugar was scarce. We know that one of the favorite alcoholic beverages at the time was honey wine or mead, and being remote from the cities, HHI residents would have been quite skillful in the manufacture of the drink. Recently a Bluffton brewery began making mead and had some encouraging early sales. Could this possibly signal a resurgence of beekeeping in the local area? LL