The Secret Origins of Bees at Bartram’s Garden

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July 18, 2017 by lkreslins

While the Bartrams are best known for their study of botany and their booming international trade of seeds and plants, they also dabbled in beekeeping. Bartram’s curator Joel Fry explains, “It turns out that both John and William Bartram kept bees, and they most likely kept them in the common straw skeps that were largely in use until the middle 19th century.” Raising bees in skeps had one major drawback–to harvest honey the bees had to be killed.

It’s assumed that the Bartrams were early adopters and that they had a hand in experiments with a beekeeping upgrade. Around 1768 William Bartram copied detailed notes and a drawing of a new beekeeping system in his “Commonplace Book.” These “New Invented Bee-boxes” were taken from a book by the English  Rev. Stephen White, Collateral Bee-Boxes, first published in London in 1756. This new system used three cube-shaped boxes placed side-by-side, with the aim to coax the bees from one box to the other to harvest honey. The “New Invented Bee-boxes” were a failed step in a long process to develop the modern movable frame hives, which were perfected in Philadelphia almost a century later by L.L. Langstroth, whose mid-19th century patent on hives became the basis for modern beekeeping.


“Commonplace Book” page 28-29

Image: Page from William Bartram’s “Commonplace Book” with his notes on “New Invented Bee-boxes.” These notes were probably transcribed by William Bartram from a copy of the book: Stephen White, Collateral Bee-Boxes, first published in London in 1756.

But why did John Bartram not write about bees regularly if he kept them? Most likely, it’s because beekeeping was so common, and documenting such a well-known insect was outside of Bartram’s scientific sphere of interest. However, the commonality of honey bees didn’t fully remove the Bartrams from investigating a very important question: How did they get to the United States and when?

Because honey bees were so widespread along the entire east coast most Americans assumed they were native. Honey was an important food for both Native American and colonists. But when John and William Bartram observed feral honeybees naturalized throughout Florida in 1765-66, they concluded they had spread from introduced European colonies. Their argument was in part based on the fact there was little evidence Native Americans had words for “bee” or “honey” in their various languages. John Bartram wrote in 1767, “Wee are Certain the first New England Setlers transported Bees from England.” And this conversation was continued in letters between John Bartram and Peter Collinson in 1768, when Collinson remarked, “Indians have no Name for a Bee that is a plain proof they was foreigners.”

William Bartram during his 1775 travels along the Gulf Coast to the Mississippi recorded that honey bees were “few or none West of the isthmus of Florida, and but one hive in Mobile, which was lately brought there from Europe. I had been assured by the traders that there were none in West Florida [which included AL, MS, LA], which to me seemed extraordinary and almost incredible.”

While the Bartrams did not regularly record their observations of honey bees, their knowledge on the subject matter was not untapped. Benjamin Smith Barton, a young professor of Natural History at the University of Pennsylvania, frequently relied on William Bartram’s experience and knowledge of North American plants and animals. In the 1790s Barton read two papers on bees and honey before the American Philosophical Society and quoted detailed information from Bartram. These were later published in the Transactions and included an interesting text called “Some Account of the Poisonous and Injurious Honey of North America,” which was read on July 18, 1794. The piece suggested that potentially poisonous honey can be produced from a number of plant species from the genera Rhododendron, Kalmia, Lyonia and others. Rest assured that the honey from the Philadelphia Honey Fest will be safe for tasting.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Bartrams as beekeepers and all things honey related, visit Bartram’s Garden during Honey Fest 2017 on Sunday, September 10. Click here for more information.

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