Honey Bees and The Westward Expansion

My next release, THE PROPER WIFE, will be hitting the shelves next month.  This book was a lot of fun to write – the characters of Eli and Sadie were such seeming opposites that getting them to their Happily-ever-after took quite some doing.

One of the scenes in this book hinged on Sadie deciding she needed to harvest honey from a beehive whose location was a carefully guarded secret.  Since I had no experience with or knowledge of bees and honey gathering, especially from a nineteenth century perspective, this meant I had to dig in and do a bit of research.  And, as usual, my research took me down an unexpected but fascinating trail.

One of the intriguing little tidbits I stumbled across was that, while there are many species of bees that are indigenous to the Americas, honey bees are not.  This took me completely by surprise – I’d always assumed they were a native species.  It is not known exactly when they first arrived here, but it is certain they came over with the early colonists as they were considered essential for both the wax and honey they produced.  Honey bee hives were mentioned in journals and shipping records as early as 1622.  However, it would take them another 231 years for these highly prized insects to reach the west coast.

In fact, one could say that the journey of the honeybee across America mirrored that of the settlers.  They faced some of the same barriers – disease, harsh climates, predators, resource competitors, and geographical roadblocks – that hindered their advance.  But the human and apian settlers had a very symbiotic relationship during this westward push.  The honey bees not only provided honey and wax for the settlers, they often arrived in advance and helped to spread the white clover and other European grasses that the imported livestock favored.  In return, the humans planted countless acres of land with crops that were favorable to honey bee populations, built hives, and more importantly transported them over terrains such as treeless plains and mountain ranges that would have been difficult for the honey bees to cross on their own.

In fact, it is doubtful the honey bees could have crossed the Rocky Mountains without the help of humans.  Some settlers transported hives during their own overland travels, others had them shipped around the horn of South America.  But it was no easy task.  There is a story that tells of an 1846 attempt to bring honey bees to Oregon.  A settler who was planning a trip using the Applegate Trail was offered $500 to deliver a hive of live honey bees.  The tale goes that he loaded up two hives just to make certain he arrived with at least one intact.  Unfortunately all the bees in both hives perished of cold and disease before they made it across the mountains.

It is reported that the first honey bees arrived in California in 1853.  These originated when 12 hives were purchased in Panama, transported across the Isthmus and then sent via ship to San Francisco.  Only one hive survived the trip but once there it flourished and eventually produced a number of swarms.

Of course, none of this history played a part in my March book.  The bee harvesting scene is quite short (but pivotal) and I really just needed to find out what a rustic hive might have looked like in the late nineteenth century and how one would go about collecting the honey.

How about you folks out there?  Any of you have experience with honey bees, either in the wild or in a manmade hive? 


And in honor of my upcoming release,
I will be giving away one of my advance
author copies of The Proper Wife to someone
who leaves a comment on this post today.

Website | + posts

Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
Winnie loves to hear from readers. You can connect with her on facebook at www.facebook.com/WinnieGriggs.Author or email her at winnie@winniegriggs.com.

44 thoughts on “Honey Bees and The Westward Expansion”

  1. One of my colleagues took up bee keeping when she retired. She really enjoyed it, but found that she was badly allergic to a bee’s sting (fortunately there was someone with her when she found that out the hard way). She had to give up her hive and bees, but she can still eat honey OK!


  2. I left a message but the board ate it so apologies for double-posting if I did. A colleague of mine tried bee keeping but found she was allergic to bee stings, so she had to give it up. She can still eat honey though!


  3. I don’t have experience with bees (or honey, for that matter). My former boss (we called him “the teddy bear”) used to work with hives in his spare time. I always admired that he had this and other activities that kept him hopping, so to speak.
    Thanks for sharing the above detail. I found it interesting to read.

  4. Oh, I love all Love Inspired books! I know this one will be great! Looking forward to reading it. Count me in on the giveaway.

  5. I don’t have any experience with honey bees and my on;y experience with honey is that my son won’t stop eating it. I really need to either buy stock in honey. Thanks for coming to day and the great post.

  6. Congratulations, Winnie, on the new book release! It looks wonderful. That cover will surely draw readers.

    I never thought much about honey bees and westward expansion until your blog today. It would’ve been extremely difficult to try to transport them via wagon train. No wonder they all died. But whoever thought of shipping them by water was quite a forward thinker. The West was built on innovation. I know absolutely nothing about honey bees. Never needed to. But I do know how vital they are to crops.

    Wishing you lots of success with your new release.

  7. No experiences with bees except that I am not afraid of them. They don’t bother me when they are in my garden. I do remember when I got stung growing up on the ranch my grandmother used to put baking soda on my bee stings.

  8. A cousin of mine is a beekeeper, Winnie. He’s retired and does it a hobby, but he’s sometimes called on to collect a swarm of bees from someone’s house or yard.
    I’ve been concerned with what I’ve heard about the decline of honeybees on the news. Think what a disaster that would be if we lost them.

  9. Pageturner – yikes about your friend being alergic, that can be really nasty business. Glad it all turned out ok

    Laney4 – LOL on calling your boss teddy bear. Was this related to his beekeeping (sort of like Winnie-the-pooh)?

  10. Congrats on your new book Winnie. I don’t have any experience with honey bees. But I do love honey. Where my hubby works they had a lot of honey bee collect around their picnic table and a bee keeper came and got them. He said he was happy to get them.

  11. Hey there, Winnie!
    Oh! I just got the connection with Winnie-the-Pooh and Winnie Grigg. No WONDER you came up with that one!
    No, Fred’s nickname was not related to his beekeeping. I would say more his statute. He was a solidly built family man who always wore a smile. He was one of the friendliest men I have ever met and I miss him often (as he died over ten years ago). My best boss ever….

  12. CrystalGB and anon1001 – oh yes, fresh honey is the best!

    Linda – Thanks for the kind words about my book and cover. And yes, those early pioneers had to be great innovaters just to get by.

    Joye – I have similar memories. Baking soda did seem to be a cure all for many and ail!

  13. Phyliss – glad you enjoyed the post – always love sharing these little tidbits of history with the folks here who appreciate them

    Elizabeth – I’ve also been concerned with the huge decrease in the honey bee population here. What a tragedy that would be if the trend continues

  14. Very interesting post. I think we all take the honey bees for granted. I never paid any attention to them because I do not like honey but they are very necessary for pollination.

  15. I would love to read your book. My father-in-law was a beekeeper for years until the bee mite and foreign competition helped him decide to sell out and pursue his other jobs. It’s a very interesting profession, labor intensive.

  16. Quilt Lady – thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the congrats!

    Laney4 – LOL – yes, I’ve always felt an affinity for Winnie-the-pooh, so in a way you could say a post on honey bees was a natural fit

    Goldie – yes, honey bees are a very key, vital ingriedient to our agricultural economy

  17. Love the sounds of your book and will be looking forward to reading it.
    My only experience with honey bees was as a child I was stung as I walked through an alfalfa field that I had been warned to stay out of. That evening we walked a mile to my aunt and uncle’s home, all the while my ankle was swelling because the stinger was still in there!

  18. My sister had some in her walls that had to be exterminated – really so sad it was somewhere they couldn’t save them. I think your love of research is the main reason I enjoy historicals so much. You just know when a writer loves what she is doing – it really shows even if everything doesn’t get in the book – the knowledge and knowing what to put in is there!

  19. Kathy – I’ve always thought it took a special kind of person to be a beekeeper – must require lots of patience

    Tanya – Thanks for stopping by and LOL on the type-o. Believe me, I’ve done much worse!

  20. Connie – glad my book interests you . And ouch on that sting experience – I remember getting a few of those as a barefoot girl – not fun!!

    Catslady – Oh yes, research is one of the fun parts of this ‘job’. I’m so easily distracted by tangents and the rabbit trails I discover

    Victoria – Hi! I so agree about the mysterious aspect of the hives…

  21. That is a fact I actually knew about… bees being brought here. Thanks for sharing your research with us… where I live, there are many farms and they keep bee boxes around their fields… do not mind them, they just like invading my hummingbird feeders.

  22. Oh, Winnie! Bees just scare the living daylights out of me. As a native Oklahoma girl, we went barefoot all summer from about May until early September. I can’t tell you how many bees I have stepped on. Also, when my son was about 2 1/2, accidentally stepped on a carpenter bee. I had never heard of those until then. It had a next in the ground, and he stepped over the hole I guess just as the bee was coming out. I didn’t know that bees were brought here, though— that is VERY interesting! No way could I be a beekeeper! LOL
    Cheryl P.

  23. We have a friend who is a bee keepers. It’s always very interesting to find out what they’re up too. Will have to quiz him about how bees came to the west – maybe I know something he doesn’t now!

    Looking forward to reading your new book!

  24. Colleen – I didn’t know bees went after the contents of hummingbird feeders but I guess that makes sense since hummingbirds live off of flower nectar as well

    Cheryl – LOL – I was not fond of them as a barefoot girl either. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  25. I’ve never heard this before. No honey bees in California?
    The things we learn doing research!!!
    Wouldn’t the bees have stung whoever transported them? It’s not like you could put them in a hermetically sealed container with air filters to make sure they kept breathing.

  26. It was interesting readying about the honey bees altho I haven’t had any experiences with them. I wonder how they kept them on the ships of yore bringing them over to this country? Hmmmm

  27. Winnie, your book is next out of my box of Harlequin books which just arrived. I can’t wait to read it. I am a honey fanatic!

    Peace, Julie

  28. I don’t have have any experience with honeybees, other than loving their honey, so I’m looking forward to reading about it in your book, I always enjoy when a story takes me somewhere unfamiliar.

  29. We’ve lived alongside a vacant lot for forty years, it was where the neighborhood kids always played. About 10 years ago the kids all ran home telling their parents of the bees that were in the lot. It seems that a swarm of bees swung around our house, & settled down in an old tree in the lot. From our house we could see the bees flying around the tree. End of the story: they only stayed overnight. By the next afternoon, they were gone and the kids were back to playing in the lot!

    Pat Cochran

  30. Jackie – I’m not sure how the transport would work, either on a boat or on a wagon. The bees would have to be free to fly where they wanted – one thing about being on a ship is they couldn’t swarm and find a new place to settle

    Tracy – Ah, now you’re conjuring up lazy summer days on a front porch swing

  31. Interesting post!My husband was a beekeeper until we moved to town. My son in law has our hive now.
    Someone’s bees have been eating from our hummingbird feeders every warm day this winter.

  32. Julie – Thanks for buying my book – hope you enjoy it!

    Summer – I’m a honey lover too. Unfortunately there’s not a whole lot about it in my book – just that one scene. Lots of other stuff I hope you’ll enjoy though

    Pat – LOL, it’ll give those kids an adventure to talk about for weeks!

  33. Winnie,

    Love this post. The cover of your book is just breath taking I try and buy all your books. They are all great

    The only thing I can thing of when I think of bees is when I got stung I think it would be interesting to take care of the fragile bees

    Walk in harmony,

  34. Estella – wow, you must know way more about bees than I’ll ever know. I should have turned to you for my research

    Melinda – thanks for saying such nice things about my books. Hope you enjoy this one as well

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