Periodically, I have the opportunity to rediscover my beekeeping library. Usually these encounters happen during winter, but this July, opportunity knocked when Matt Scott stopped by. Matt was preparing a lecture on the history of Maine beekeeping for the Bridgeton Historical Society and was in need of references and hive patents for his talk. Maine has several noteworthy beekeeping authors and hive patent designs from individuals such as: Lizzie Cotton, Gorham, 1874, who claimed she invented the movable-frame hive; Gilmore’s Patent Apiary, Wayne, 1849; and the R. S. Torrey Maine State Beehive, Bangor, 1859. Torrey’s hive was even referenced on the reverse side of a Civil War Token.
Among the literature, books and patents, we came upon two pamphlets. One eight-page pamphlet was published by the Penquis Beekeepers Association, organized in 1949. The brochure was basically an advertisement for local businesses that included everything from beekeeping supplies (Walter M. Holman, Rumford Center; R. B. Dunning Co., Bangor; R. B. Swan & Son, Brewer) to Studebaker sales at Knight’s in Bangor, and sources for coal. Within the pamphlet, there are tidbits such as: “Our aim is to increase beekeeping in Maine. It is a well-known fact that bees are necessary to all agriculture and to our present high standard of living.” There are also statements related to the economic value of bees, the value of pollination, and uses for honey. The brochure was an interesting way to educate the public about bees while encouraging people to patronize those who advertised.
We also found another pamphlet, “The Vanishing Bee,” by Robert B. Willson and D. E. Wheeler. The article within the pamphlet was reprinted (Webb-Smith, Cornish, ME) by permission of the authors from Colliers from May 1, 1948, and “distributed by the Maine State Association of Beekeepers for the education of those not familiar with the Honey Bee and its necessity to Agriculture and Allied Interests.” If not for certain terms and USDA initiatives within the article, it reads like many recent bee-related publications. If one substitutes almonds for legumes, CCD for Isle of Wight, and neonics for DDT, a person would think the article had appeared in a recent issue of Bee Culture or on a beekeeper’s blog.
The parallels between the “Vanishing Bee” article and current publications related to honey bees are striking. For example, in 1948 the authors state, “bees pollinate some fifty agricultural crops” and “without bees a great many of the foods we take for granted and have every day, including beef and most of the pork, would gradually disappear from the American table.” Today’s articles often state that honey bees pollinate some ninety crops and that one-third of the food we eat is due to honey bee pollination.
The use of new pesticide chemistries is also mentioned in the 1948 article: “Within the past few years, the pollinators have had to fight against a new enemy. Countless billions of honey bees, wild bees and other insects which helped in the big task of pollination have been murdered by the wholesale and careless use of powerful insecticides.” Today, like sixty years ago, there is concern over new classes of insecticides and the harm these materials may cause to beneficial insects.
One interesting similarity between the past and present concerns the honey bee’s role in agricultural production. In 1946 there was a USDA initiative to rebuild depleted herds of cattle to 1945 levels. The USDA initiated the first program for a considerable jump in the national bee population, calling upon the beekeeper, the legume seed grower, the orchardist and the farmer to cooperate in solving the problem of “Our Depleted Meat Supply.” “They were urged to develop more colonies (6,087,000), to keep bees healthy, and to direct and control their work of pollination by the proper placement of mobile hives” (for legume seed production). That goal is much like the current almond initiative where 2,500,000 hives will soon be needed to pollinate acreage coming into production.
Finally, there is the CCD-like parallel. The article states, “A beeless agriculture in the Unites States may seem unthinkable, but agricultural experts are frankly worried by the threatened extinction of wild bees and other pollinating insects. They are fearful of the terrible plague known as the Isle of Wight disease, which broke out in the Isle of Wight in 1906, and ever since has been destroying honey bees in Europe.”
The “Vanishing Bee” essay of 1948 could have been written today with only a few minor changes. The economic and environmental issues are quite similar; however, today they seem to be bigger and more complex.