How a Tiny Fraction of an Inch Saved Millions of Lives

A cross-post from The Regency Redingote:

The fraction was 5/16 of an inch, the lives saved were those of bees, honey bees. Literally millions and millions of bees were saved by this little space, which came to be known as "bee space." The value of this small space was not finally understood until the second year of the young Queen Victoria’s reign, by a beekeeper in Poland. But there were many humane thinkers across Europe, from the late eighteenth century right though the Regency, who actively sought some means by which to prevent the killing of so many honey bees at the end of every summer.

The story of the space that kept the bees buzzing …

In the wild, honey bees will build their hives in a hollow space which provides protection to the honeycomb they construct to store food and protect their young. At some point in pre-history, humans began to domesticate the honey bee, in order to have regular access to the sweet honey they produced. Honey was the only sweetener known in most of the world until at least the 5th Century, AD, and for centuries after that only in India. Sugar did not arrive in Europe until it was brought back from the Holy Land in the aftermath of the Crusades. The Egyptians were known to keep bees, as did both the ancient Greeks and Romans, and bees continued to be kept throughout Europe right into modern times. But the hives in which those bees were kept have varied widely over the centuries. Some human-constructed beehives were nothing more than hollowed-out sections of a tree with a flat roof, known as "bee gums." Beehives of this type were used across Europe, well into the nineteenth century, though this type of hive was less common in England. Mud and clay hives had been used in Egypt and around the Mediterranean, but they do not appear to have been much used in England. The most common type of beehive used in England, right through the Regency, was made of woven straw or grass, and was usually known as a skep.

Skeps are what most people consider the traditional, classic form of beehive. Essentially, they are a large conical basket with an open bottom which are placed with the open end down. Their primary purpose was to shelter the swarm of bees which surrounded the queen bee who lived within. Initially, most beekeepers left the skep hollow and let the bees build their honeycombs as they pleased. Over time, beekeepers provided a framework of narrow wooden slats inside the skep which provided a structure to which the bees could attach their honeycombs. The skep type of beehive was still in use during the Regency, and in fact, many of you have seen at least two of them, if you have seen the BBC mini-series of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. In that film, when Lizzie is chatting with her friend, Charlotte, now Mrs. Collins, in the parlor of the Collins’ home, out the window can be seen Mr. Collins in his garden, in which stand two large bee skeps. Fortunately, those were only movie props, as skeps were an extremely inefficient beehive form, and were usually lethal to the majority of bees which lived and worked within them.

Beekeepers had no access to the bees living inside a skep, which means they were unable to check the hive for pests, parasites or disease which might harm the bees, especially the all-important queen. Thus, they could do nothing to protect or aid the bees in the hive in the event of any threat. But worse still, for centuries, beekeepers had been unable to divine a way to remove the honey and the comb from the skep without killing the bees. Right into the eighteenth century, usually in September, beekeepers would kill all their bees so they could easily take the honeycomb from the skep. The most usual practice was to dig a pit, in which sulphur was burned. This was typically done in the early evening, when the bees had returned to the hive after foraging for the day. Each honey-laden skep was held over the burning sulphur, the fumes of which poisoned the bees. The dead bees were then shaken out of the skep and the honeycombs removed. By the mid-eighteenth century, across much of Europe, especially in England, outrage was growing against this annual slaughter of these industrious, social insects. A number of compassionate and scientifically-minded beekeepers set themselves to try to find ways to harvest the honeycomb without the need to harm the bees. Most agreed that redesigning the structure of the hive was the best way to enable removing the honeycomb while still preserving the life of the bees who had worked so hard to produce it.

It was known that the Greeks had been able to harvest honey without killing the bees in the hives they used. In 1768, Thomas Wildman published A Treatise on the Management of Bees, in which he advocated a new skep design based on hives used by the Greeks. Wildman detailed how parallel wooden bars where placed inside a skep with a removable top, allowing the honeycomb to be taken out without disturbing the bees. He also described multi-storey hives which could be removed as they were filled with honeycomb, and after the swarm had moved into the lower hive to begin more honey production. In 1789, a Swiss naturalist, François Huber, invented the "leaf-hive," so called because it was constructed as a series of wooden frames joined together by strips of leather in such a way that it resembled the leaves of a book. Huber’s hive design was intended to allow him to have easy access to a hive of bees he was studying, but there were some enlightened beekeepers, even in England, who were aware of his design.

In the early nineteenth century, probably around 1806, a Ukrainian beekeeper, Peter Prokopovitsch, developed a beehive constructed of a set of frames which fit into a box, each having a narrow extension on two sides which slid into corresponding grooves, like a series of drawers. Prokopovitsch did publish plans and details of his hive design, though it is not known for certain how widely it was circulated outside of his homeland until after Napoleon led the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Prokopovitsch’s work may have been known to at least a few of the more well-informed beekeepers in England by around 1814. Just as the Regency was ending, in 1819, Robert Kerr of Stewarton, a town in Ayrshire, in Scotland, designed a beehive of octagonal shape which came to be known as the Stewarton hive. This hive had a series of wooden bars inside from which the bees could suspend their honeycomb. More importantly, it, like Wildman’s design, was a multi-storey hive which allowed the beekeeper to harvest honeycomb from one area of the hive after the bees had moved on to work in another.

The main problem with some of the early hive designs was that their inventors did not quite understand the concept of "bee space." Though not given that name when it was first discovered, it has since come to be known by that term. It is the provision of bee space in hives which finally allowed for the convenient harvesting of honeycomb with no risk to the bees who worked so hard to produce it. Bees are truly remarkably industrious little creatures and they have a tendency to fill larger open spaces in their hive with beeswax. They fill smaller spaces with propolis to increase the structural strength of their hive and to make it easier to defend. Therefore, in some of these early hives, the honeycomb was sometimes difficult to remove because the frames or bars to which it was attached were sealed into the hive structure by either beeswax or propolis. Johann Dzierzon, a Pole, was born in January of 1811, less than a month before the Prince of Wales became Regent. Ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, Dzierzon maintained a life-long interest in the study of bees, and made several important discoveries regarding their behavior. In 1838, he developed the first beehive in which the individual honeycombs could be readily managed without destroying the structure of the hive. By keeping a distance of approximately 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch between each comb-frame, the frames could be easily moved as needed, since the bees were less likely to fill gaps of that size with either beeswax or propolis. Instead, they kept spaces of that size free to allow them to move about the hive between the honeycombs. Dzierzon published prolifically and his beehive designs soon became known throughout Europe and across North America. Beekeepers adopted Dzierzon’s designs and began to improve upon them. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, a number of beekeepers, particularly in England, determined that the optimum bee space was 5/16 of an inch. When this precise fraction of an inch was left between each comb-frame in the hive, bees were the least likely to fill the space, which would have adhered the comb-frames to the walls of the hive. The frames therefore remained free and could then be reliably removed from the hive at any time without harming the bees.

During the Regency, there would have been at least a few beekeepers of a scientific bent, both in England and on the Continent, who were experimenting with their own hive design. These discerning and rational beekeepers were hoping to find a way to harvest the honey without the need to decimate the swarm of industrious insects who spent their lives producing it. We know that Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins, at least the version of Mr. Collins in the 1995 BBC film of Pride and Prejudice, was a thoughtless, insensitive beekeeper, since he was using the old-fashioned bee skep. Considering his character, that comes as no real surprise. But let us hope than any beekeepers who appear in future Regency novels are more enlightened and compassionate toward their bees, unless the beekeeper is the villain. Or, perhaps the blue-stocking heroine has devoted much time and effort to beehive design and is trying to get a neighboring landowner, maybe the hero, to adopt her hive design in order to preserve his bees when the honey is to be harvested at summer’s end. Though the term "bee space" had not been coined during the Regency, the concept was certainly being considered by at least a handful of naturalists and beekeepers. How might a Regency author employ the concept of bee space to enable the bees to keep buzzing.

For further reading:

Crane, Eva, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting. London:   Duckworth, 1999.

Kritsky, Gene, The Quest for the Perfect Hive:   A History of Innovation in Bee Culture. Oxford:   Oxford University Press, 2010.

Ransome, Hilda M., The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore. Mineola, NY:   Dover Publications, 2004.

Wilson, Bee, The Hive:   The Story of the Honeybee and Us. New York:   Thomas Dunne Books, 2004.

© 2011 – 2013 Kathryn Kane, Kalligraph
Originally posted at The Regency Redingote
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.

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  1. That might be exactly what I’ve been looking for! I’m planning a book in which my hero decides to plant an apple orchard, and what a plot device this would make for his heroine to help him to make a go of it.

    Will there be a proliferation now of books involving bees? There could be a lot of confusion caused in the neighbourhood, seeing that the bee was Napoleon’s symbol, after all.

    1. Sounds like you have a promising story on your hands. Apple trees and bees sound like a wonderful combination.

      I doubt the neighbors would object to bee-keeping in the neighborhood, since many who lived in the country kept bees in Regency England. There was a high demand for both the honey and the beeswax, so bee-keeping was a good source of extra money. And for those who kept gardens, or orchards, it was understood that bees were necessary for their crops to bear fruit. So, even if the neighbors did not keep bees, they would see the value of your hero’s bees, which would also help to pollinate their own gardens and orchards.

      Despite the fact that the bee was one of Napoleon’s personal symbols, the bee was long seen as a most admirable creature. It was hard-working, industrious and quite social. All characteristics which would enable it to keep its popularity in England, even when Napoleon had bees embroidered all over his coronation robes. Which goes to show that Napoleon was more progressive in his thinking than were the leaders of the French Revolution. They actually rejected the bee as a symbol of their new republic because bees had a queen! Go figure! 😉

      This article is a cross-post from my blog, The Regency Redingote. If you should decide to feature bees in your story, you are welcome to post a link to it in a comment there, when it is published. That will make it easier for readers there to find your book.

      Good Luck with your story!


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