From the Archives to the Bee Yard

Drone (male honeybee), 10 May 2007: Waugsberg, Wikimedia Commons

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One of the reasons I chose to locate my postdoctoral research on the environmental history of beekeeping at the University of Guelph was the presence of reknown honeybee researchers Ernesto Guzman and Gard Otis, and the existence of the Honey Bee Research Centre on campus. Occupying about a hecture of land adjacent to the University Arboretum, the Centre is home to about 200 bee colonies and a field lab known as Townsend House. Combined with the University of Guelph Library’s extensive Burton Noble Gates Collection on the changing science and practice of apiculture, Guelph is easily the best place in Canada to study the history of beekeeping and its relationship with surrounding land use, and land users.

Having done some preliminary research on beekeeping in the province, I thought it only appropriate to get a bit more familiar with my subjects themselves. An email to Paul Kelly, resident university beekeeper and manager of the Honey Bee Research Centre, resulted in an invitation to attend a “bee yard session” Paul was giving for the Wellington County Beekeepers Association in early June.

It was hot and humid the afternoon I arrived at the research centre. A couple of bee bodies brushed past my windshield as I pulled in, boosting my sense of apprehension. Just what had I signed myself up for?

In “bee yard session” I had read: “tour of the bee yard.” “This is where the hives are; over here is a smoker, we use this to calm the bees when we inspect the hives; here are our research facilities….” I had hoped we would get the opportunity to suit up and see the bees at work inside the hive, but that’s as far as my imagination had taken me. The experience that followed was more than I bargained for.

Roughly fifteen beekeepers ranging in age from their mid-30s to their mid-70s, and of varying degrees of experience, arrived to take part in the session. I was one of just two self-confessed “newbies,” but our newness was of different categories, I found out: she was new to the practice, but had already committed to the extent of buying a hive of bees; I was new to bees, full stop (and have no intention, at least in the short term, of acquiring a hive of bees). Paul handed me a hat and veil (no full suit? I wondered) and showed me how to how to drape the veil over the hat and cinch it so it covered my face and neck.

As we approached the bee yard, Paul explained what we would be doing over the next hour. Townsend House’s “bee yard sessions,” I learned, are seasonal workshops held in the late spring and early fall to acquaint novice beekeepers, and reacqaint more experienced ones, with important activities to maintain the health and productivity of their hives. Today we would be learning how to open a hive, handle frames, and “mark” the queen bee for easy identification.

Bees flew back and forth across my field of vision as we approached the hives, and one came to rest on the veil in front of my face. I practiced my inner calm as I tried to focus on what Paul was saying. In the bee yard where we stood, about 50 hives were clustered together a couple of feet apart. With about 60,000 bees per hive, that makes for 3 million bees, all within thirty feet of me. Paul puffed his smoker around the top and the lower entrance to one of the hives before removing the cover. The smoke cues the guard bees to retreat inside the hive and feed on honey, and masks the smell of any alarm pheromones they release.

Each of Paul’s actions was practiced and deliberate, from placing the hive cover on the ground top down to better receive the stacked contents that would follow, to stacking the frames on alternate angles so that only a small portion of the frame rested on the next—with the purpose of squashing as few bees as possible. Pulling out a frame heavy with honey, Paul selected me as the newest of the bunch to get a feel for its weight. A frame has a short metal handle on each side upon which it rests inside the super (the large white stackable boxes that make up a modern frame beehive). It’s heavy not only with honey, but with bees.

Paul held the frame out for me to grasp and I placed my two index fingers gingerly under the two handles. “This seems like a job for a pair of gloves” I thought to myself. Next I was to practice upending it and turning it over, mimicking the actions of a routine frame inspection. My gingerly grip on the frame, Paul told me, wouldn’t cut it. Instead I was to grasp the frame firmly by its sides, moving the tips of my bare fingers around to the blind side of the frame which was… covered with bees. Paul didn’t seem concerned by that. I moved my fingers a little further down the frame and then passed it on with relief to the beekeeper beside me.

The next activity was to build confidence in marking the queen. This went beyond picking up frames to picking up… bees. Paul pulled a “brood” frame from one of the lower supers and moved around the circle, asking everyone to select a drone (a male honey bee) and pick it up by the thorax. Larger and stouter than the female worker bees, drones do not have stingers. Almost as large as the queen herself, they make good practice specimens for marking technique.

Holding a bee was one thing; making sure I selected the right bee, and not one of the stinging workers moving around alongside them, was another. Thankfully Paul spared me the indecision and handed me a drone. We were then to practice transferring it from hand to hand, holding it top to bottom between our fingers, and then side to side, tipping its abdomen up for easy marking. The brave among us took a white marker and placed a circular mark on the top of their drone’s abdomen. I quietly released mine from its squirming confinement.

As a way of parting, we each had an opportunity to place an open hand softly upon a frame of furry, warm bee bodies. The energy communicated by their bodies was fantastic. They responded, not with irritation, but by shifting slowly to a different part of the frame—a useful technique for frame inspection. As the workshop concluded, I couldn’t help but marvel at how docile these bees were, and how accommodating (there is some genetic selection in that, but that’s another story). The bees seemed as unconcerned by our presence as when we arrived.

While the economics of beekeeping has changed dramatically over the last century, and honeybee pests and pathogens continue to evolve, the equipment and the practice of beekeeping hasn’t changed much since L.L. Langstroth invented the top frame hive in 1851. Observing an experienced apiarist at work and learning about honey bee behaviour in the present gave me new understanding to apply to my work in the archives: among other things, bodily knowledge of the weight of a frame laden with honey.

It is a rare historian, furthermore, who has the opportunity to “handle” her research subjects. Environmental historians have perhaps more opportunity than others to combine archival research with work in the field. As I found in my first trip to Townsend House, there’s a lot of value in stepping outside one’s comfort zone.

Jennifer Bonnell is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Guelph

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Jennifer Bonnell

Associate Professor at York University
Jennifer Bonnell is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at York University. She is the author of Reclaiming the Don: An Environmental History of Toronto's Don River Valley (University of Toronto Press, 2014) and Stewards of Splendour: A History of Wildlife and People in British Columbia (Royal BC Museum, 2023). She is co-editor with Sean Kheraj of Traces of the Animal Past: Methodological Challenges in Animal History (University of Calgary Press, 2022) and with Marcel Fortin of Historical GIS Research in Canada (University of Calgary Press, 2014). She is currently working on an environmental history of beekeeping and environmental change in the Great Lakes Region in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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