Bees in the Colonies


The humble honeybee sweetens the American story. Apiarist Bill Krebs says bees have been here since the beginning.


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter, and today my guest is Bill Krebs, who is a beekeeper, and a volunteer beekeeper at Colonial Williamsburg. Bill, thanks for being here.

Bill Krebs: My pleasure.

Harmony: So I’m thanking you, and I also have to thank the listener who sent in this question, because it’s something I had never thought about: bees in the colonial period.

Bill: Well the really, I think exciting thing, especially for Colonial Williamsburg is that the first bees here in the colonies actually arrived and came up the James River in 1622 and were offloaded at Hopewell, Virginia. They just took over and populated the country with bees. They just multiplied so fast. There were no honeybees in North America until the colonists brought them over in 1622.

Harmony: So before we talk too much about bees in the colonial period, can you tell me, how do bees work? What’s the structure of the hive, what’s the hierarchy of the jobs that are done?

Bill: Essentially you have three types of bees. You’ve got, in a hive, you’ve got a queen, you have maybe 200-300 drones, they are the male bees, and then in a good hive today, you would have anywhere around 50,000 worker bees.

The worker bees, as the term says, they really do the work. They do all the inside work, and they go through a neat change as they get older. Their first job is as a nurse bee, and they take care of the young in the hive. Then they later become wax producers where you get your beeswax, and then they become guard bees standing at the entrance preventing other bees that don’t belong in the hive from coming in.

About through half of their life, they now become a forager. They will go out and find nectar, that is their carbohydrate, and that nectar is then converted into honey. They’ll also bring back pollen, and pollen is their protein. So they bring back the pollen, and that’s fed to the larvae. Also in the meantime, it’s fed to the queen.

As I said, there’s just one queen, and she does not rule the hive, but she is a magnificent egg-layer. A good queen, if I have a good queen, she’ll lay 2,000 eggs per day. So, but that’s all she does essentially is lay eggs.

The job for a drone is only to fertilize the queen. That’s all he does. He sits around and eats honey, he doesn’t even work on the hive. The downside for the drone is, the hive knows that he has no real function other than taking care of the queen. So in the fall, drones are pushed out of the hive. No drones will be kept over, because all they’ll be doing is consuming the honey over the winter.

You picture it in the coldest part of the winter. It’s, you know, even down here in Virginia it gets down to 12 or something like that. In the hive, it’s 75 degrees. What happens, the bees form a ball in the cold weather around the queen. They eat the honey and shiver, just like you would if you’re outside, you shiver. That muscle reaction generates heat. That’s how they get it up to 75 degrees.

I just gotta tell you what the coolest thing I think is. They take turns being on the outside. You know, it’d be colder on the outside than in the middle. So if you’re in the middle and I’m on the outside, we’ll change positions. So they are a wonderful example of harmony and they really work toward the good of the hive.

Harmony: So tell me about the relationship between man and bees. How does the bee help man, how does man help the bee?

Bill: Well, of course, the probably the most important thing that the bees do, they are wonderful pollinators. There are other insects that are good pollinators too, but the unique thing that the honeybee does. When she goes out, and she finds a flower that she really likes, an apple blossom, she stays on the apple blossom, and she’ll go from one apple tree to another apple tree, and essentially stay on that one crop.

Where the bumblebee, who is a good pollinator, too, she’ll go to the apple tree, and then she’ll go down to the dandelion. Well of course, the pollen that she picked up on the apple tree does not help the dandelion. You have to have the same pollen to pollinate it. But it goes on into all other kind of fruits and vegetables: cucumbers, squashes, many, many crops are pollinated by bees, and consequently, that’s where our food source comes. So that’s why bees are important to man.

And man is important to bees because, unfortunately, right now, bees are under all kinds of attack. They’ve had a rough time through the years.Recently, two mites have come in and are just devastating the bees, and now we have this thing that you may have heard, called “colony collapse syndrome.” What is happening, the bees are just dying. They leave, and this has been going on now for three years, and large loss of bees. So man is now trying to figure out why, what is causing them. They think it may be a virus, but it could and probably is a new pesticide that has come out. So we’ve got to help the bees out, because they help us out so much.

Harmony: We talked about how bees are important to man, and I think one of the greatest examples of how bees are important to us is kind of played out in the fact that when England begins to colonize the Americas, one of the first things that they send over– you’re settling a wilderness, and you try to think about what you’re going to need when you get there – “bees” is on that list.

Bill: Yes, it’s amazing. As I said, the bees became very important. Queen Elizabeth’s favorite beverage was mead. Mead was made from honey, and it is fermented and they will add all kinds of spices and things to it, but she was a big lover of mead, and many people are today. In fact, I think back in the 18th century, mead probably was used as much as straight honey. It’s a good source of alcohol.

In addition to the honey, they got beeswax. Beeswax was, and still is, very important. I was doing some research from 1740 to 1744, 8,000 lbs of beeswax was shipped out of Yorktown. Yorktown is a small little town. Up in Philadelphia, in one year they were shipping 29-30,000 lbs out. Now, if you can picture how fine the wax is in a comb, to be able to accumulate that volume of wax, you had an awful lot of hives. So there were a lot of hives back in those days. They were either wild or kept.

Harmony: What are humans using wax for? Candles, I imagine.

Bill: Yeah, number one, candles. And candles, I think, were the major use back in the Revolutionary times, but they use them in lipsticks, they used to coat the insides of wine kegs to give it a waterproofing. They use it in shoe polishes, it is used quite extensively in addition to candles.

Harmony: What are those first beehives like that come to the Americas?

Bill: Well what they were, most of the ones that were brought over came from England, and at that period of time, there weren’t many trees over in England, because they had cut them all down. Remember that’s why we were shipping trees and lumber back to England. So they use what they call “skeps.” Skeps are straw baskets, the word comes from the Scandinavian term meaning basket. It’s a dome, and you’ve probably seen pictures of them.

We don’t have them anymore because we don’t keep our bees in skeps now. But they were essentially brought over in woven skeps, or they would be brought in what they called gums. Gums became more popular here in the colonies, because we had all these trees. The term gum comes form the black gum tree that it hollows out. So you have the outside perimeter of the tree and then it’s hollow in the middle. If you cut it off and made it maybe three feet high, you would plug one end and then you would restrict the other end so there’s a smaller opening and you would keep bees in this gum.

Harmony: So we know that bees and beekeeping are important in the export trade, but they also become important politically. Tell me about how honey becomes important when it’s hard to get sugar.

Bill: Oh well, of course, when we had the embargo against England and we would not trade with them, all of our sugar was coming from the Caribbean. So if you did go along with the rules of not importing anything from the English colonies, then the only sweetener you had was maple syrup or honey. So honey became extremely valuable during that period of time. It’s been used all over the time, but that period of time it was very important.

Harmony: It’s been a pleasure talking with you, thanks for being with us.

Bill: My pleasure.

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