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Beekeeping in the Modern Era

Pieter Bruegel's drawing "The Beekeeper and the Birdnastler"

In the Modern Era (1500-1945), scientists advanced the study of the constitution and functioning of bees, and various modern types of hives with separate frames and boxes were invented that allowed bees to be handled without damaging the brood of bees, which greatly increased productivity and paved the way for commercial beekeeping. The invention of the honey extractor, foundation and smoker greatly simplified and accelerated technological processes, which allowed beekeeping to reach a new level.

Scientific research of honey bees

In the Modern Era, many questions remained about the bees’ structure and function. Therefore, work continued to study them using more advanced observation techniques.

The Danish biologist Johannes Swammerdam (1637 – 1680) was the first to use a microscope and dissection of a bee for research.

The French explorer René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur (1683-1757) built a glass hive for observation. It helped to see that the queen laid eggs in the cells of the honeycomb, but how fertilisation took place was not known. It was thought to occur without physical contact with the drones.

The Swiss François Huber (1750-1831) was the first researcher who can be called the founder of bee science. He proved on the basis of observation that the queen mates with drones outside the hive during flight. In addition, he confirmed the earlier assumption that bees can raise a queen or worker bee depending on nutrition. He also described that worker bees can also lay eggs, drones can be kicked out of the hive, and queens can destroy each other in the struggle for survival. Huber was among the first to describe the ovaries and spermatheca (sperm store) of queens, as well as the penis of male drones. In his research he used a microscope, dissecting bees, and an observation hive that consisted of frames that opened like book pages. He summarised all his knowledge in the book Nouvelles Observations sur Les Abeilles.

François Huber (July 2, 1750 – December 22, 1831) was a Swiss naturalist.
Francois Huber (1750-1831)

In 1835, Johann Dzierzon (1811 – 1906) investigated that drones emerge from unfertilised eggs of the queen. In other words, the worker bees and the queen are the result of fertilisation, the drones are not. Afterwards, only nutrition determines their further role. In 1854 he discovered the mechanism of secretion of royal jelly and its role in the development of queen bees.

Johann Dzierzon (1811 – 1906) a Polish beekeeper who discovered the phenomenon of parthenogenesis in bees.
Johann Dzierzon (1811 – 1906) a Polish beekeeper who discovered the phenomenon of parthenogenesis in bees.

Development of hive design

In the 16th and 17th century, hive designs were not much different from those used in the Middle Ages. They were of different types, depending on the location. Mostly wicker hives made of straw or willow branches were used, and tree hollows hives were also used in forested areas.

The Beekeepers and the Birdnester by Pieter Bruegel (c. 1568)
The Beekeepers and the Birdnester by Pieter Bruegel (c. 1568)

In the 18th century, hive design evolved to produce hives with movable frames that could be removed without damage, preserving the bee family’s integrity. Prior to this, the medieval practice of destroying the bee family before extracting honey and honeycomb from a straw hive persisted.

Thomas Wildman in 1768 described the use of wooden bars at the top of a straw hive so that they could be removed without damaging the whole hive. He also put another hive on top of the straw hive, which was removed after the hive was filled with honey. This use was the prototype of the modern super. The use of bars was known as far back as Ancient Greece. The last mention of such a hive dates back to 1682.

Short top-bar hive from Greece, as depicted in 1682
Short top-bar hive from Greece, as depicted in 1682

John Thorley in 1744 attached a glass jar to a wicker hive so that the bees could collect honey in it. The jar thus played the role of a modern super.

François Huber (1750-1831) used his own observation hive in his research, consisting of frames and made on the principle of opening book pages.

Huber`s hive for observation, which consisted of frames opening like book pages.
Huber`s hive for observation, which consisted of frames opening like book pages.

Petro Prokopovych (1775-1850), a Ukrainian beekeeper, in 1814 invented a hive with sliding frames, which were separated from the main body by a separating board through which only worker bees could pass. This allowed to obtain pure honey without brood and bee bread.

Prokopovych’s beehive system

Johann Dzierzon (1811 – 1906), a Polish apiarist, in 1838 designed a hive with movable frames, which did not damage the bees’ nest. A distance of 6.4-9.5 mm was left between the frames, sufficient for bees to pass through.

Johann Dzierzon`s beehive with movable frames

The American Lorenzo Langstroth (1810-1895) patented the frame hive in 1852, which allowed the frames to be easily removed from the hive. The frames were removed from the top of the hive, just as in modern hives. Langstroth used Huber’s data on the distance between the frames, which bees do not cover with wax or propolis, but leave a passage between the frames. This distance ranges from 6 to 9 mm.

Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth (1810 – 1895).

Later on, different varieties of frame hives, of different shapes and sizes, were designed. But all of them were based on the distance between the frames, which the bees leave for bee space and are not covered with propolis and wax.

The Langstroth hive was improved by Amos Ives Root (1839-1923). He designed a multi-hive with a shortened frame, increased the number of frames from 8 to 10, made a detachable bottom and a removable roof. The hive became more convenient to maintain and was put into mass production. This type of hive became known as the Langstroth-Root hive.

Amos Ives Root (1839-1923)

In 1891, the French-born American beekeeper Charles Dadant created a larger hive with a larger frame size, consisting of 11 frames and a dividing board. A little later Swiss beekeeper Johann Blatt made changes to the design, namely he reduced the frame length to 435 mm. This design was called the Dadant-Blatt hive.

12 frame Dadan Blatt hive
Old Dadan hive

Apart from these hives, various types of hives were invented at the end of the 19th century, which later did not become so widespread: Covan (England), Alberti (Italy), Quinby (USA), de Beauvois (France), Lajans (France).

The invention of foundation

In 1857, the German Johannes Mehring (1815-1878) invented foundation, a sheet of wax with imprints on both sides of the sheet, similar to the bases of bee cells. It was used to produce honeycombs with regular, identical cells. He invented a press to impress wax wafers with the indentations common to the bottoms of the cells. Johannes Mehring’s wax wafers did not allow further direction for the construction of the honeycomb. Therefore the bees built larger cells for the honeycomb. Nevertheless, the honeycomb was built in a straight line. In 1861, the American Samuel Wagner improved the process by making the cells we use today and patented it.

Johannes Mehring (1815-1878)

In 1895, Amos Root and mechanic Alva Washburn made and used a metal roller that could make correct impressions on the foundation. In the end, it was the rolling of the foundation with a metal roller that solved the problem of making a foundation. Previously it had been tried on a flat surface using a press, In 1895. Detroit inventor Edward Weed invented rollers that can make wax foundation in a continuous roll.

Contemporary foundation

The invention of the honey extractor

In 1865 at the 14th German and Austrian Beekeepers Conference in Brno (now in the Czech Republic) Franz Hruschka, a former Austrian army officer of Czech origin (1819 – 1888), demonstrated the idea of extracting honey from the honeycomb using centrifugal force. The first extractor was built by Bollinger Manufacturer in Vienna.

Franz Hruschka (1819 – 1888)

The idea behind the honeycomb was to fix the honeycomb in a metal frame and rotate it in a circle. The honey would be extracted from the honeycomb by centrifugal force. In the process, the honeycomb itself would not be damaged.
After the announcement of this idea, the honey extractor itself was improved several times. The first version was a tin box with a mesh bottom and a funnel-shaped bottom through which honey was drained.

Hruschka`s first honey extractor.

The second variant with a triangular frame fixed to the ground. The vertical shaft was attached to a horizontal beam 12 feet long, at the end of which was attached the bucket of the first version. A rope was wrapped around the shaft and pulled in a similar manner to the drill. Due to the length of the beam, the speed of honey extraction was much faster, but the size of the machine made it cumbersome to operate.

Hruschka`s second honey extractor.

The third version was more compact with a handle, two wheels and a rope. All honey extractors are derived from this last model.

Hruschka`s third honey extractor.

The invention of the smoker

Although the use of smoke to calm bees has been known since ancient Egyptian times, the modern fumigator as we know it came into being at the end of the 19th century. The American beekeeper Moses Quinby (1810-1875) in 1873 invented the smokebox with a bellow attached to a tin burner. When combined with a wooden dowel with a handle on one end and the smoking end of a long thin rod on the other end, a short wooden stick on the end of the stick is used to blow air into the metal bowl.

The American beekeeper Moses Quinby (1810-1875)

But Quinby, out of his convictions, did not patent his invention. Instead Tracy F. Bingham of Farwell, Michigan, improved and patented an improved smoker based on the design of Quinby on January 20, 1903.

The smoker

The end of the 19th century brought very many positive changes in the development of beekeeping. Since beekeeping in the Stone Age, we have not seen so many inventions in such a short time. But the history of beekeeping does not end there. In contemporary times, scientists and inventors continue the innovative traditions of their predecessors.

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