Is the honey bee, Apis mellifera, a domestic animal? This question has no easy answer. The first beekeeper was probably a honey hunter, someone that found and plundered a nest of bees. Since many bee nests were found in tree trunks, it was a natural development that these were often cut and moved with the bee nest intact. Even today many beekeepers remember these gums. In Europe, honey bees were kept in conical baskets called skeps. Both these technologies took advantage of wild or feral bees. Domestication had to wait until beekeepers could manipulate the nest to suit their own needs.
I just saw an original play at the recent meeting of the American Beekeeping Federation in Reno, Nevada. Entitled Bee Man, it is a work in progress by a Maryland beekeeper named Marc Hoffman. This one-man production in three acts follows the career of the Reverend L.L. Langstroth who lived from 1810 to 1895. He was an inventor, scholar, author, abolitionist, minister and manic-depressive (bipolar). The play revealed the dramatic ups and downs of Rev. Langstroth as he came to grips with his love for honey bees and how he saw in them much of the successes and failures of human society during his time.
The vast majority of beehives in the U.S. are called Langstroth. It is a box of a certain dimension that is capable of holding ten wooden quadrangles that honey bees build a comb in. Each comb, therefore, is surrounded much like a painting by a frame. The quadrangular frame with its comb is supported by two ears that rest on rabbets grooved inside the box. This box allows ten frames to dangle inside that are close to each other but not touching. Nor does the outside of the frame contact the wall of the box. The design is such that each dangling frame is completely surrounded by an air space of 3/8 of an inch. The honey bees in the box keep this space open at all times, neither building comb in it nor gluing it to other frames or the box itself. As a consequence the frames can be easily removed from the box.
After much observation Rev. Langstroth, as depicted in the play, felt like running into the streets screaming eureka. It had finally dawned on him the significance of the 3/8 of an inch gap that he discovered, and subsequently called the bee space. Designed to bee space specifications it became possible to remove a comb from a honey bee colony without destroying it. Once beekeepers could remove combs in their wooden frames, a great number of possibilities emerged that were extremely advantageous. This moveable-frame-hive Langstroth hive became the cornerstone of modern beekeeping around the world.
Although his up phase coincided with the discovery of the bee space in 1851, Rev. Langstroth often did not have time to enjoy its success. This is because although he patented his hive, he was unable to do the same for the idea of the bee space. Thus, many others took the idea and developed bee hives of their own. This era of patent hives was a great source of frustration such that Rev. Langstroth on more than one occasion considered suicide. Fortunately, his religious education and experience were great sources of comfort, and saw him through these trying times. Like so many inventors before and after him, he probably was unable to greatly benefit much from his Langstroth hive that is now the standard for beekeepers around the world.
There is little doubt that discovery of the bee space and universal use of the Langstroth hive have resulted in the honey bee becoming more domesticated. Other developments also contributed to this, especially introduction of exotic pests and diseases that often require chemical treatment by beekeepers to keep their bees alive. One cant help but wonder what Rev. Langstroth would say about present-day beekeeping and its effect on his lovely honey bees. For even though his hive makes it easier for beekeepers to manipulate colonies, the honey bee has paid a heavy price for this domestication in a number of ways. The unintended consequences of this development include a laundry list problems often caused by beekeepers themselves, but also exacerbated by humanity’s influence on its natural environment. The conclusion is clear. Honey bees are no longer in charge of their destiny as they have been over millennia. We must now hope that beekeepers will be able to provide the where withal for their charges to prosper in the future.