Caldwell Gallery Hudson

Urban Bees Then and Now

NPR recently ran a piece on urban gardening that covered growing and gathering foods in cities from Philadelphia to Paris, including harvesting honey from rooftop apiaries. Listening to this piece piqued our interest because not only do we have a wonderful painting in our collection entitled The Beekeeper’s Daughter by Henry Bacon (1839-1912), but our Marketing and Research Associate Cynthia Caldwell Allen is also a beekeeper. Here is a guest blog from her on beekeeping then and now.

Henry Bacon The Beekeeper’s Daughter 1881

The Beekeeper’s Daughter is a charming genre piece done in or around Paris in 1881 which captures a romanticized version of old world beekeeping. Bacon’s painting depicts several woven straw skeps snugly lined up along what is most likely the south-facing wall of a house. Ideally positioned for the beekeeper to keep an eye on and with plenty of sunshine to keep the bees active, the hives proximity to the door probably meant that most visitors would have used an alternative path when dropping by to visit either the beekeeper or his daughter.

As a modern-day beekeeper what I find intriguing about this piece is that thirty years before Bacon painted it Lorenzo Langstroth had discovered “bee space” which essentially made keeping honeybees in straw skeps obsolete. Was Bacon trying to do what modern-day advertisers do and invoke a sense of nostalgia in his viewers? With no diaries or letters to inform us we can’t be entirely sure if this is a painting of a beekeeper holding on to the old ways or an artist trying to engage his audience with a painting of the good old days. In either case beekeeping around that time would most likely not have been done in straw skeps since the mid-nineteenth century saw so many advances in beekeeping. Langstroth, who is often referred to as the Father of modern beekeeping, had observed that if honeybees were given a very particular amount of space – between 1/4″ – 3/8″ – they would not try to bridge the gap with comb nor fill smaller spaces with propolis. Instead the bees would just leave spaces of those particular dimensions open as walkways within the structure of a hive.

Various straw and wooden skeps filled with comb and honey

Langsthrop’s realization of this phenomena along with the design of a press to make comb foundation (Gottlieb Kretchmer and Johannes Mehring) and the invention of a honey extractor (Franz von Hruschka) allowed beekeepers to enter into the golden age of beekeeping. Prior to this discovery and these inventions the only way to harvest honey was to either remove or destroy all the bees and then cut out the comb from the skep. Langstroth’s new hives allowed beekeepers to reuse their comb rather than destroying it after every harvest. In all likelihood this information was available to beekeepers throughout Paris from the Luxembourg Gardens apiary school which was established in 1856 and still operates to this day, which leads me to believe Bacon was giving us a romanticized view of how things used to be.

Removable frame where the bees are capping off the honey.

As seen in the image above my hives have frames which can be easily removed one at a time. Once the bees have been brushed off the honey can be uncapped, extracted, and then the frames are returned to the hive so the bees can fill them up again with more honey. I appreciate the efficiency and significantly larger honey harvests from my modern hives, though part of me would love to stroll up to the house in Bacon’s painting and smell the nectar as it ripened into honey as I listened to the bees humming in their skep homes. Of course it’s easy for me to think this way since I can enjoy Bacon’s iconic image of rustic French beekeeping while I’m at work and afterwards visit my own hives.

If you want to see some of the many incredible and sometimes wacky designs of beehives throughout the ages look through the images here.