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Podcast Episode 54- Honey & Honey Houses

*First, I would like to say that the information we cover in this episode is so small in comparison to the life of honeybees and their importance. Honeybees are very interesting creatures and are unfortunately in danger. We encourage you to learn more about these amazing insects and seek out additional information. 

One of the oldest agricultural pursuits known to man is beekeeping. Finding a bee tree required time and effort, but it was worth it to many early settlers. Honey was one of the few sweeteners available during the early to mid 1800s. White sugar was expensive and had to be purchased in town and maple syrup required months of waiting and a lot more effort than finding a tree with bees. Bees are the only insect in the world that produce food that humans can eat. Along with the tasty honey, bees also produce wax. This seldom went to waste. Settlers had to be very resourceful and utilized everything they could. Therefore, the wax was also collected and had a variety of purposes for example candles and lipstick. Beeswax was also great for waterproofing. The wax was often coated on barrels, and shoes to repel water! 

In the 1800’s the early settlers relied on finding wild bees to gather honey. Bee hunters typically chose a day in early spring when there were few flowers in bloom, which would only serve to distract the bees, and when the bees were still hungry from a long winter confined in their hive. Honeybees rarely fly more than one or two miles away from their hives in search of pollen and nectar, so honey hunters didn’t have to follow a bee for very long. When bees are finished foraging, they make a “beeline”, or the straightest flight path possible, back to their hive. Honey hunters would try as best as they could to follow the bees back to their hives, which were typically located in a tree—either a hollow space somewhere along the trunk or in one of the larger branches. Honey hunters would then carefully note its location or discreetly mark it and leave it alone until the fall when the bees would have filled it up with honey. 

Swarms of bees often choose hollow cavities as nesting sites. The perfect nesting site includes few and small entrances, shelter from the environment (i.e., wind, predators, sun, and rain), and preferably a dry location with southern exposure. Inside the cavity, honeybees build their comb entirely out of beeswax secreted from the four sets of glands located in a worker bees’ abdomen. This wax is mixed with saliva and kneaded into the consistency at which it can best be molded. The comb is formed and shaped by the workers into hexagonal cells, set back-to-back. 

Bees are insects and like all insects, they are invertebrates and have six legs and three body parts. They have a head, thorax, and an abdomen. While most people identify bees by their yellow and black abdomens, bees come in many colours. They can be black, white, red, orange, green, blue, and even purple! Bees are social insects, and they live in groups called colonies. In the colonies, each bee has a job. The queen bee is the largest bee in the hive. Her job is to lay eggs, typically they can lay up to 1500 eggs a day! Male bees are called drones. Drones rarely leave the hive and do not have stingers. Their job is to fertilize the eggs to make more bees! Worker bees are all female. They have many jobs including feeding, cleaning, and making wax, but their most important job is to find and collect nectar and pollen.  

Bees are important pollinators. They help plants to grow by carrying pollen from one flower to another. Bees pollinate many fruits and vegetables including Blackberry, Blueberry, Cantaloupe, Cranberry, Cucumbers, Currants, Gooseberry, Gourds, Peppers, Pumpkins, Radishes, Raspberries, Squash, Strawberries, Watermelons, and Wild Garlic. 

Just imagine how hard honeybees have to work…a whole hive of bees may fly tens of thousands of miles (up to 55,000 miles) and visit millions of flowers (more than two million flowers) in order to collect enough nectar to make a singular pound of honey. Honeybees use their long, tube-like tongues to suck the nectar out of the flowers. They store it in their honey stomach, separate from their regular stomach, which helps them digest their food. Their honey stomach is more of pouch that they use to carry nectar back to the hive and transfer it to other worker bees. 

These honeybees that remain in the hive then “chew” the nectar for about 30 minutes or so during which time enzymes are breaking the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars. This form of nectar is then spread throughout the honeycomb to allow any remaining water to evaporate from it. As the nectar dries, it thickens into what we know as honey, it not only becomes more digestible to the bees, but it is also protected from any bacteria. To help speed the drying process, the worker bees fan their wings. 

 Once the water remaining is at about 18% and the honey is gooey enough, the bees cap the cell off with a bit of wax. The honey is stored until it is eaten by the bees or is harvested by a beekeeper. Honey is primarily composed of fructose, glucose, and water. It also contains other sugars as well as trace enzymes, minerals vitamins, and amino acids. Honey, in its natural form, is one of the safest, most shelf-stable food products you can eat. 

There is no requirement in Canada for honey to be pasteurized. In fact, many consumers seek raw, unpasteurized honey as it contains natural yeasts, enzymes, and traces of pollen from local flowers and trees, which are considered health and flavour benefits. Because of its low moisture content and high acidity, bacteria and other harmful organisms cannot live or reproduce in honey. So pasteurizing honey (unlike, for example, dairy products), is not about food safety. Some honey is pasteurized in order to slow down the natural process of granulation, in order to allow it to remain in a liquid (or pourable) form longer, which is particularly useful if it is dispensed from squeeze bottles or poured for easy measurement when cooking or baking. Pasteurization may delay the granulation of honey, but it does not stave it off forever. Granulated honey, which maintains the flavour and nutritional profile of its earlier liquid form, can easily be returned to a liquid state by gentle heating.  

It was rather hard collecting honey without damaging or destroying the bee’s hive. To prevent this, boxes were created so that bees could build their colony without it getting damaged. Once the honey is ready, it was carefully cut with a knife. In the olden days, most beekeepers did not have the luxury of net clothing for protection. Instead, they relied on being extremely careful and hoped they wouldn’t get stung! However, honeybees are not aggressive by nature. They only use their stinger when they feel threatened. A technique known as drumming was used to extract the bees from the hive. An empty box would be placed on top of the hive while the beekeeper hit it with sticks to get the attention of the bees who would then exit the hive. This process left fewer bees to contend with during harvesting. Another process used back then was smoking. Keepers would use smoke to distract the bees and calm them down in order to check the hives. This practice is still used today! 

After collection, the honey needed to be stored in a way that would keep it fresh for a long period of time. Many people stored their honey in jars which would then be placed in a cool, dry spot so it can be preserved and accessible for future use. 

So how did bees get to Upper Canada? Before the 1630s, domestic honeybees were unknown to North America. However, sugar supply was low, and the settlers knew how important honeybees were in pollinating many crops due to honeybees having been domesticated in Europe for thousands of years prior. So, bees were exported in skeps (woven straw hives) from Europe to establish apiaries here. Honeybees were one of the many invasive species at the time, along with dandelions, brought here by settlers. Over time, the bees ventured across the continent and took to the wild, establishing their own hives. They were then re-domesticated as more land became settled. Though the honeybee’s introduction into North America was invasive at the time, they greatly established healthy ecosystems and became an important resource.  

 The bees were so important for the settlers to have a successful life and prosperous farm; settlers began associating life in North America with the honeybees. Even through literature! Many works of poetry and novels written in the mid 1800s across North America were filled with the mention of bees. Even language began to be associated with the insects. When the community would get together to cut down lumber it was called a logging BEE, when women worked on quilts together, it was called a quilting BEE. Honeybees live in complex societies and are very social creatures. They live and work together in large groups. Just like honeybees, the settlers came together to ensure a thriving community and every community wide task became attached with BEE on the end.  

At the site of Backus-Page House, we have a rather interesting outbuilding known as a honey house. Our Honey House was originally built around 1830 on the William Pearce Farm in Wallacetown by a travelling carpenter. After the death of Steward Pearce, William Pearce’s grandson, the Honey House was willed and moved to the Elgin County Pioneer Museum in St. Thomas, where it stayed for ten years from 1968-78. 

In April of 1978, vandals burned the Honey House to the ground, but students at the Parkside Collegiate Institute built an exact replica using old, weathered boards and in June of 1984 a “Bee Social” was held to welcome the Honey House back to the Museum. It was then gifted to the Backus-Page House Museum in December of 2006. And that’s how the Honey House made its way to us.  

Next you will hear an excerpt from a story written by Muriel A. Moorhouse reflecting on visits to her cousin’s house- the Pearce homestead- where she became entranced by the bee house. 

“” Oh my, oh my, – a perfect doll house!” The very first words I murmured upon being shown the Bee House, and my very first clear memory as I attempted to recall history around 1920 or later.” 

“[It is difficult for me to recall when I was first made aware of the Bee House. It was always there, same spot, same tall straight fir tree standing on guard at its side. If your back was to the house, you always faced the Bee House. The first ancestors, William and Anne had built this lovely dwelling for the bees only! I had an Uncle Jim Dobbyn of Shetland who seemed to enjoy working with bees, he had hives, stacked two or three high, and also he had a honey house where he extracted the honey from the wax combs. As a result, I had learned early about bees, a wondrous creation, but a mind of their own. When I was shown the Bee House, in spite of its size, and so different from a hive- I always knew it reminded me of danger. But no one said you could not stand and admire it or watch all the action!  

Still, in its natural wood, no stain, wide boards, fitting together so precisely, no wide cracks or splintered pieces- a perfect structure on the outside. Size approximately 10’ x 12’. A heavy cedar shingle roof looking like soft moss and very simple but delicate lattice trim going up both sides of the rood, ending or meeting in a turned pole, a hole appears on the front wall at the very peak. A perfect Doll House. No, – beware- a Bee House. I never knew what the back side was like- was it a door or doors for entrance? And never once did I have a peek into the interior!  

There were dear little half-moons, carved out of wood, placed way up the front of the building at intervals, with a small opening. The idea- the bee was supposed to land on these half-moons- stagger up to the opening and enter the Bee House. Of course, it worked and has been working for over a hundred and fifty years.]”  

“[The bees could entertain me for hours. Arriving heavily laden with pollen never once missing the landing field- a wee rest, and then up about two inches to the opening, thence inside to the busy factory. I was so engrossed by their antics I never once tried to see where they were exiting, and to this day I do not know. They had returned from their pristine fields and that was all that mattered to me. They never once seemed to push or bump one another- simply a continuous flow of movement, and no one seemed to go on strike. It was a very busy organized world.]” 

While this building is known as a honey house, as Muriel says, it was actually a bee house. Pioneers attracted bees to the small house by dropping honey on hot stones around the building. In the early years the homesteaders filled it with large empty boxes. Wild swarms of bees from the woods flew to the beehouse and produced honey in the boxes placed inside. Then the honey was cut from the boxes with knives. Years later, larger buildings were built that could hold as many as 130 hives. This was also where the honey was extracted. At that time, the Honey House was used as a tool shed. It was understood that the 138-year-old Honey House was only one of two left in Ontario in 1968.  

Over two hundred years since their introduction to North America, honeybees spread across the continent, helping to define the new world and marking the transition from hunting to settled agriculture. Though their introduction was invasive at the time, they greatly established healthy ecosystems and formed an important symbiotic relationship with humans. Today we have looked at the process of making honey, settlers’ utilization of honeybee crops, the development of keeping bees, and the great influence the insects had on life in Upper Canada. We hope you enjoyed today’s episode!