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?