Ye insects all, that fly or creep,
Assist my doleful ditty,
The fat of Bee defunct to weep,
Of Bee so humming witty!
It was a pretty little thief,
Most innocent of any,
And eke it plunder’d ev’ry leaf,
To turn an honest penny.
For news and learning, great and small,
It buzz’d about to seek ’em;
And honey laid at top of all
To cover Album Graecum:
Squeez’d at a press this humble bee.
Can now no longer sing;
Thus pointless ends my elegy,
My wasp has lost her sting.
—An Elegy on the Death of the Bee, Boston Post-Boy newspaper, published 19 January 1736.
As early as 16 June 1787 (and probably much earlier), beekeeping (or apiculture as it is now called) was practiced in New Hampshire. On that date the “New-Hampshire Spy” a newspaper printed in Portsmouth NH published a lengthy article called “On Bee-keeping,” that detailed bee colony management.
The honey bee is not native to North America. They arrived here as guests of the early European colonists, probably arriving in Virginia by 1622, and early New England records show that they were in Massachusetts by 1638. The language of the Native Peoples (American Indian) contained no name for the honeybee. Several sources that that the Indian referred to the honeybee as the “white man’s fly.”
We know that by 1792 the honey bee was prevalent (at least in the wild) through “The History of New Hampshire,” by Jeremy Belknap when he stated, “The Honey Bee….have multiplied exceedingly, and are frequently found in a wild state, enclosed in the trunks of hollow trees, in all parts of New-Hampshire, as far northward as the State is inhabited, which is 44 degrees, 40′ of north latitude. They chiefly delight in the neighbourhood of cultivation, as they derive their principal food from the labors of man.”
It is historically probable that many of these “wild” New Hampshire honeybees were descendants of the bees brought by earlier colonists that escaped from their apiaries in Massachusetts, and spread out in different directions. Indeed as the colonists moved westward they found honeybees already established there in the trees of their new settlements.
The earliest bee imported from Europe appears to have been the common black bee (aka “German”). That type of bee, however was found to be a favorite prey of the waxmoth, which damaged their combs and hives. About 1860 the Italian bee began to be imported and used.
In colonial New Hampshire bee products such as honey, propolis, and beeswax were important in the inter-colonial economy and on the frontier. There were various uses to which these items were essential–for household sweetener, candle-making, as well as in medicine and the arts.
In 1736 The Boston Post-Boy published a remedy for “throat distemper” in the following manner: “Take some Honey and the sharpest Vinegar, with Allom dissolved therein, and let the Patient often Gargle it in their Throats; or if they be Children, then take a feather and dip it into said Liquor and so wash their Throat.” Honey and beeswax were the raw ingredients of many syrups and potions, often used to mask a bitter-tasting mixture.
The History of the Twelfth Regiment, New Hampshire Volunteers states that during the Civil War, “most every company had two or three old bee hunters in it, who were constantly on the lookout for something sweet, and sometimes they got it from the bees, without getting any honey from the hive.”
Today honey is still prized as a sweetener. “Honey also has certain antibiotic properties that have been widely documented. It is used successfully to treat bedsores, skin diseases, wounds, and mastitis. In fact, nearly every substance found in the hive —honey, beeswax, pollen, venom, royal jelly, propolis — is valued and studied by herbalists.”
1. Of the approximately 20,000 known species of bees, there are only six to eleven species (depending on the authority) of bees within the tribe Apini, all in the genus Apis, and all of which produce and store liquefied sugar (“honey”) to some degree.
2. Bee Afraid–During the past few years, 22 states, in the United States, including New Hampshire have reported a sharp decline in their cultivated honeybee population. Some say a mysterious disease is killing off U.S. honeybees. Others blame their deaths on insecticide poisoning from “West Nile Virus” and other sprays. This decline is threatening to disrupt pollination of a range of crops (including New Hampshire’s remaining fruit trees) and costing beekeepers hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace the lost bees. This is probably one of the least publicized substantial agricultural problems in our state.
[updated June 2016]