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Searching Moses Quinby’s Early Impact on American Beekeeping

By August 21, 2023No Comments

The history of apiculture is full of beekeeping books accompanied by unique hive designs created by their authors.

To survive more than a century, books would be expected to fare better than hives, being sheltered indoors. The protection was far from perfect. Leaky roofs were a notorious and chronic problem in old houses, wetting and sticking book pages together, not to mention house fires. In the minority, the lucky hives spent their working lives under shed roofs, or perhaps in the loft of a barn, and then stored for the passing decades. Hives fully exposed to the elements had a brief life on a historical time scale. Old hives are exceedingly rare, but I search for them and occasionally a lucky strike lets me reunite a beekeeper’s book and hive, and sometimes a little more. Here is one episode that took decades to complete (so far).

In 1853, Moses Quinby, a beekeeper from Saint Johnsville, Montgomery County, New York, published the first edition of his book, “Mysteries of Beekeeping Explained.” In a remarkable coincidence of independent work and timing, that same year revealed another book. This text fundamentally revolutionized beekeeping. Its first title was “Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee,” by Reverend L.L. Langstroth. Many editions and authors later, the book flourishes today as “The Hive and the Honey Bee,” published by Dadant and Sons. From a global perspective, today most beekeepers know the Langstroth hive with its removable combs, enclosed in hanging frames. By the early 1850s, American beekeepers had been confronted with numerous hive designs, but none with such a simple drastic idea, a gap that would make combs easy to handle.

(Briefly, for Apis mellifera L., the western honey bee, one bee space is approximately a gap or passageway for the bees from ¼ to 3/8 inch in width. The bees will leave this gap mostly open, clear of propolis or burr comb. For a gap less than a bee space, the bees are expected to fill it in with propolis. For a gap more than a bee space, the bees are expected to fill it in with burr comb. Crowding and foraging conditions also influence whether or how much bees will block gaps at or near bee space distances. A closely related concept is comb spacing. Bees space their combs (about 1.375 in), so about two bee spaces remain between brood combs, allowing the bees to work back-to-back on the combs. Bees lengthen honey cells until about one bee space remains between capped honeycomb faces.)

As was typical with patent hives, Langstroth sold patent rights, allowing beekeepers to legally build, use, and sell his hive in their counties or regions, depending on the contract. The chronic problem of Langstroth’s bee space idea in a hive was its construction simplicity. Any carpenter could make a hive and frames based on the bee space, the other dimensions of the beekeeper’s choice. The builder would also need to know the comb spacing, but that could be measured from a feral colony. A natural comb’s midrib is the “foundation” part. The comb spacing would be the measurement between adjacent midribs. Langstroth tried to defend his beehive patent from infringements. Protracted court battles caused him years of considerable grief.

Long before the arrival of the Langstroth hive, Quinby had several hundred hives and sold tons of honey in New York City markets by working with commission agents, the usual practice. Quinby kept bees in what today we would call a chamber hive, a box hive for the brood nest and non-surplus honey. Above it were smaller wooden boxes with little glass windows, as best as I can tell during his early years (see Figure 1). The bees stored surplus honey in these boxes. The bees moved between the brood nest and the honey boxes by matching holes in them. The volume of Quinby’s hive for essentially the brood chamber was 2000 in3.

For Quinby a hive’s volume was of considerable importance. For a square hive to winter in his area, it would have a height of 12.6 in. While such a short hive may surprise the modern beekeeper, it should not bother an apicultural historian. The one-cubic-foot hive volume spending the cold winters of the Northeast had been nothing new. (Keep in mind too, the bee stocks of the early 1850s descended of Apis mellifera mellifera of colder regions. That at least partly explains how a colony could survive the cold months with much less space and less winter honey than our current bee stocks. The larger, taller box hives held more honey, which the beekeeper took upon killing the bees (see below). For Quinby, rather than kill the bees in a larger box hive, he wintered bees in a hive with smaller volume, leaving the extra space for surplus honey above.)

Quinby eventually sent to market tons of honey in his small redesigned honey box, which had glass on four sides to show the natural comb inside (top, bottom and corner post in wood). Holding five pounds of honey, this attractive glass honey box was quite novel. I imagine it stood out compared to wooden honey boxes with small glass windows (see Figure 2).

At the time, most beekeepers used simple box hives, their hives usually low in numbers (a dozen or less), the honey consumed by the family. If any surplus remained, the family sold it locally. In a box hive, the entire colony resided in a single cavity, typically a simple wooden box, taller than wide, open at the bottom. To harvest the honey, the beekeeper put the box hive over a small pit with burning sulfur (brimstone) at the bottom. The ascending fumes killed the bees, and the beekeeper removed all the honey from the box. A box beekeeper needed spring swarming to replace colonies killed during the previous fall honey harvest, the same way skep beekeepers did for centuries before America was colonized. Quinby never used this method, and he advocated against killing bees to harvest honey.

Quinby quickly adopted the hanging frame, in a larger size than Langstroth’s. Leaping forward 20 years to 1873, Quinby also invented a practical bee smoker. Then too soon on May 27, 1875, he died suddenly, at age 65, shocking the beekeeping community, who had come to know him as a generous educator, and as a father figure.

Quinby published information on his glass honey box for other beekeepers to copy. He purposefully did not patent his bee smoker, giving the design freely to the beekeeping community. Quinby was raised among Quakers and had a strong charitable philosophy that did not include patents, considered a restriction on helping the human condition. Given the size of his advanced beekeeping operation (even before the movable frame), his honey production, and selling in distant large markets, some rightly call Quinby the father of commercial beekeeping.

From 1853, Quinby’s book went through several editions and reprints. A drastic one came after his death in 1879. Quinby’s son-in-law, his long-time helper in the apiary and business partner, Lyman C. Root (not related to the Roots of Medina, Ohio), rewrote the book. The updated text returned to the beekeeping community bearing the title “Quinby’s New Beekeeping.” Gilded in gold, early editions bore the Quinby smoker, redesigned by L.C. Root, on the binding of the book. The binding image meant to cement a close connection of the new book and smoker with the fame of Quinby (see Figure 3). Both book and smoker would need Quinby’s storied pedigree given the fierce competition coming from other bee books and smokers of the 1880s.

Figures 4 and 5 show the Quinby smoker redesigned by L.C. Root. The smoker does not appear until 1879, just after Quinby’s death (1875). Still, the smoker has a close connection to Quinby and his family. Figure 6 (left) shows the smoker as both a hot-blast and a cold-blast smoker in one. With a hot-blast smoker the air from the bellows blew directly through the fire before leaving the smoker through the …

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