Bees—one short name for about 20,000 species of flying insects classified into seven families. All live within social communities that depend on strict work routines; all seek the same food sources (pollen and nectar); and all process their harvest and preserve it in hives built in the ground, in hollow trees, or in human-designed apiaries.
Bees help plants reproduce by facilitating pollination as they search for pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their young. This relationship has long served plants well—DNA research confirms that bees coexisted with flowering plants from their beginning 130 million years ago.
Bees and humans have a much shorter, but more emotional, relationship. As pollinators, bees provide a critical link between humans and their food source: plants. Over millennia, humans domesticated one species of bee, native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, to satisfy their needs—Apis mellifera, the Western or European honeybee. As Europeans colonized North America, they imported honeybees and the crops that honeybees pollinated from the bees’ native ecosystems.
Illustrations of Apis mellifera, the Western or European honeybee / THF621311
Humans clustered hives of honeybees around orchards, grape arbors, and other areas of intense flowering-plant cultivation to ensure pollination. From the hives, they harvested honey—a natural sweetener that required little processing. The hives also produced honey, pollen, and bee venom, which had medicinal value. Beeswax was used to seal containers, produce candles, and create art. And queens from the hives propagated even more honeybees.
Group of beehives (apiary) designed for pollinating a grape arbor / THF621283
The Honeybee Hunt
Historically, honey-seeking humans learned to identify the location of an existing hive, usually in a hollow tree trunk. Some “baited” bees by setting out a little honey to attract a bee and following it back to its hive. This involved “lining” a bee—watching until it flew out of sight, moving closer to that location, waiting to see another bee in flight, and repeating the process. In short increments, this led honey-seekers to hives.
To secure their “own” honey supply and facilitate pollination of crops, humans sometimes moved existing hives closer to their gardens, orchards, and clover fields. They also hunted bee swarms. When a colony becomes too large, a queen will “hive off,” leaving with a portion of the hive’s population. (In the meantime, the remaining bees create a new queen to lead the original hive.) The departing bees swarm together near their former home, lingering only temporarily as scout bees search for a new nesting site. The reward for aspiring beekeepers who successfully encourage a swarm to take up residence in a hive of their own choosing is sweet.
Aspiring beekeepers lured swarms or moved existing hives closer to their crops and kitchens. / THF621285
Beekeepers first mimicked nature, luring swarms of bees into hollow logs much like the tree trunks they’d abandoned. Before long, humans devised prefabricated housing to keep pollinators close to gardens, orchards, and clover fields, and to keep honey close to the kitchen table. These hives, often grouped together in apiaries, took many forms, from simple boxes to highly decorated contrivances.
Manmade beehives ranged from hollow logs to simple boxes to complex, highly decorated inventions. / THF177143, THF172336, and THF172095
Some beekeepers made bee “skeps,” hives made of coiled rye straw held in place with a wooden splint, to house bees and protect honey stores. Skeps held real meaning for those who relied on them to house bees and protect honey stores. But bee skeps also took on symbolic meaning rooted in religious associations with worker bees and the biblical beekeeper, Deborah. Over time, skeps came to represent the industry of a productive household and the dependability of workers. Utah, known as “The Beehive State,” even adopted the coiled beehive as its official state symbol.
Some farm families made inexpensive skeps to house bees and protect honey stores. / THF177141
Medals awarded at the 1882 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition featured a bee skep (at bottom), symbolizing industry. / THF154061
During the mid-19th century, the U.S. Patent Office issued numerous patents for improved beehives. Arguably the most important went to Philadelphia pastor Lorenzo L. Langstroth in 1852 for his “Improved Mode of Constructing Beehives.” Langstroth's enduring contribution to beekeeping came through careful observation. He determined that bees naturally left a space of 3/8” between honeycombs (constructed within the hive to house larvae, honey, and pollen). Langstroth designed a beehive with 3/8” spacing (later coined the “bee space”) between the frames, sides, and bottom. This improved access, allowing beekeepers to remove and replace frames of honeycomb without harming bees, and more easily inspect for bee moth infestation, which could seriously damage a hive. The hive Langstroth devised, along with the guide he first published in 1853, revolutionized beekeeping, and Langstroth-style beehives remain standard today.
Lorenzo L. Langstroth’s careful observation of honeybees led to a revolutionary beehive design. / detail, THF621310
Careful spacing within Langstroth-style hives improved access for beekeepers and helped protect the bees. / THF172338
In Defense of Native Bees
Because they did not evolve in tandem with native plants, honeybees are not the best pollinators for all crops grown in North America. They seek nectar more than pollen to produce honey, and many plant blossoms do not produce enough nectar to mobilize honeybees. Native bees and other flying insects find blossoms of native plants—including tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, avocadoes, and cranberries—more appealing than do honeybees, and they do a better job of moving pollen from blossom to blossom, ensuring fertilization. As a consequence, many market-garden and truck-farm crops (cabbage, carrots, squash, and melons), berries (strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries), and orchard crops (apples, pears, peaches, and plums) depend on native bees and other pollinators, even as honeybees play their role. All also pollinate crops that livestock eat (buckwheat and clover) and crops that produce fibers we use to make cloth (cotton and flax).
Native bees pollinate many food crops, including orchard fruits like pears. / THF293065
Vegetables, fruits, and other agricultural products result from the intimate relationships, millions of years in the making, between bees and the plants they pollinate. When colonists imported honeybees to North America, they introduced direct competition to different genera and species like squash bees, bumblebees, and solitary bees. Even today, humans’ special treatment of honeybees puts native bees at a disadvantage. As the disrupters of natural relationships, humans bear responsibility for creating a balance between honeybees and native species that are too often neglected in popular conversations. While we depend on honeybees for our honey supply, we depend on all pollinators to sustain our food system. To learn more, explore the U.S. Geological Survey’s documentation of native bees at the Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab, check out this excerpt from Dave Goulson’s “A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees,” or browse beekeeping-related artifacts in The Henry Ford’s Digital Collections.
This post was adapted by Saige Jedele, Associate Curator, Digital Content, from several write-ups on bees and beekeeping by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford.
THF213753 / George Washington Carver at Dedication of George Washington Carver Cabin, Greenfield Village, 1942.
On this day in 1946, George Washington Carver Recognition Day was designated by a joint act of the U.S. Congress and proclaimed by President Harry S. Truman. Carver died just three years earlier on this day in 1943.
Immediately, public officials and the news media began to celebrate his life and create lasting reminders of his work in education, agricultural science, and art. Carver, mindful of his own legacy, had already established the Carver Foundation during the 15th annual Negro History Week, on February 14, 1940, to carry on his research at Tuskegee. It seems fitting to pay respects to Carver on his death day by taking a closer look at the floral beautis that Carver so loved, and that we see around us, even during winter.
Carver recalled that, “day after day I spent in the woods alone in order to collect my floral beautis” [Kremer, ed., pg. 20]. He believed that studying nature encouraged investigation and stimulated originality. Experimentation with plants “rounded out” originality, freedom of thought and action. THF213747 / George Washington Carver Holding Queen Anne's Lace Flowers, Greenfield Village, 1942.
Carver wanted children to learn how to study nature at an early age. He explained that it is “entertaining and instructive, and is the only true method that leads up to a clear understanding of the great natural principles which surround every branch of business in which we may engage” (Progressive Nature Studies, 1897, pg. 4). He encouraged teachers to provide each student a slip of plain white or manila paper so they could make sketches. Neatness mattered. As Carver explained, the grading scale “only applies to neatness, as some will naturally draw better than others.”
Neatness equated to accuracy, and with accuracy came knowledge. Farm families could vary their diet by identifying additional plants they could eat, and identify challenges that plants faced so they could correct them and grow more for market.
Carver understood how the landscape changed between the seasons, and exploring during winter was just as important as exploring during summer. Thus, it is appropriate to apply Carver’s directions about observing nature to the winter landscape around us, and to draw the winter botanicals that we see, based on directions excerpted from Carver’s Progressive Nature Studies (1897). (Items in parentheses added to prompt winter-time nature study - DAR and DE, 3 Jan 2018.)
Leaves – Are they all alike? What plants retain their leaves in winter? Draw as many different shaped leaves as you can.
Stems – Are stems all round? Draw the shapes of as many different stems as you can find. Of what use are stems? Do any have commercial value?
Flowers (greenhouses/florists) – Of what value to the plant are the flowers?
Trees – Note the different shapes of several different trees. How do they differ? (Branching? Bark?) Which trees do you consider have the greatest value?
Shrubs – What is the difference between a shrub and a tree?
Fruit (winter berries) – What is fruit? Are they all of value?
Carver worked in greenhouses and encouraged others to use greenhouses and hot beds to start vegetables earlier in the planting system. The sooner farm families had fresh vegetables, the more quickly they could reduce the amount they had to purchase from grocery stores, and the healthier the farm families would be.
THF213726 / George Washington Carver in a Greenhouse, 1939.
In 1910, Carver included directions for work with nature studies and children’s gardens over twelve months. Selections from “January” suitable for nearly all southern states” included:
Begin in this month for spring gardening by breaking the ground very deeply and thoroughly
Clear off and destroy trash (plant debris) that might be a hiding place for noxious insects.
Cabbages can be put in hot beds, cold frames, or well-protected places.
Grape vines, fruit trees, hedges and ornamental trees should receive attention (pruning, fertilizing)
Both root and top grafting of trees should be done.
THF213314 / Pamphlet, "Nature Study and Children's Gardens," by George Washington Carver, circa 1910.
Carver illustrated his own publications, basing his botanical drawings on what he observed in his field work. He conveyed details that his readers needed to know, be they school children tending their gardens, or farm families trying to raise better crops.
THF213278 / Pamphlet, "Some Possibilities of the Cow Pea in Macon County, Alabama," by George Washington Carver, 1910 / page 12.
Edible wild botanicals, also known as weeds, appeared in late winter. Carver encouraged everyone from his students at Tuskegee to Henry Ford to consumer more wild greens year round, but especially in late winter when greens became a welcome respite from root crops and preserved meats which dominated winter fare. His pamphlet, Nature’s Garden for Victory and Peace, prepared during World War II, featured numerous drawings of edible wild botanicals, also called weeds. Americans could contribute to the war effort by diversifying their diets with these greens that sprouted in the woods during the late winter and early spring. Carver illustrated each wild green, including dandelion, wild lettuce, curled dock, lamb’s quarter, and pokeweed. Following the protocol used in botanical drawing, he credited the source, as he did with several illustrations identified as “after C.M. King.” This referenced the work of Charlotte M. King, who taught botanical drawing at Iowa State University during the time of Carver’s residency there, and who likely influenced Carver’s approach to botanical drawing. King’s original of the “Small Pepper Grass” drawing appeared in The Weed Flora of Iowa (1913), written by Carver’s mentor, botanist Louis Hermann Pammel.
THF213586 / Pamphlet, "Nature's Garden for Victory and Peace," by George Washington Carver, March 1942. To learn more about Carver, consult these biographies:
Hersey, Mark D. My Work is that of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011.
Kremer, Gary R. George Washington Carver: A Biography. Santa Barbara, Cal.: Greenwood, 2011.
Kremer, Gary R. ed. George Washington Carver in His Own Words. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1987.
McMurry, Linda O. George Washington Carver, Scientist and Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
To read more about Carver and Nature Study, see:
Carver, G. W. Progressive Nature Studies. (Tuskegee Institute Print, 1897), Digital copy available at Biodiversity Heritage Library, https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/98621#page/132/mode/1up
Harbster, Jennifer. “George Washington Carver and Nature Study,” blog, March 2, 2015, https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2015/03/george-washington-carver-and-nature-study/
Debra A. Reid is Curator of Agriculture and the Environment at The Henry Ford. Deborah Evans is Master Presenter at The Henry Ford.
As part of our continuing partnership with Google Arts & Culture, we are excited to announce the September 13, 2016, launch of “Natural History,” our third themed release on the platform! This is an interactive, dynamic and immersive discovery experience covering the diversity and fragility of nature, featuring over 170 online exhibits and 300,000 artifacts from dozens of cultural heritage institutions. You might wonder why The Henry Ford is included in this release, alongside some of the world’s most esteemed natural history museums. The answer is that though natural history is not a collecting focus for us, the stories we tell of American innovation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness often intertwine with the flora and fauna around us—in fact, many of our stories cannot be told without careful consideration of the environment in which they transpired.
Our participation in the release includes three online exhibits telling such stories. “The Many Facets of John Burroughs” tells the story of the famed naturalist and author who became close friends with Henry Ford in his later life. The challenges faced by Henry Ford’s rubber-growing venture along the Amazon River in Brazil from the 1920s through the 1940s are explored in “Fordlandia.” And last, “Yellowstone, America’s First National Park” chronicles the development of this attempt to share America’s natural wonders with the masses—even before the birth of the National Park Service.
Our presence also includes close to 300 individual artifacts from our collections. These include objects related to each of our exhibit themes, but also significant individual artifacts such as John Muir’s pocket compass, two science texts used by the Wright Brothers and their family, and George Washington Carver’s microscope. In addition, we were very pleased to discover during our research for this project three shadowboxes of seashells collected by legendary innovator Thomas Edison in Fort Myers, Florida, an unexpected find we documented earlier this year on our blog. Prints (including several each by John James Audubon and Alexander Wilson), photographs, and other items highlighting the natural world round out our participation.
Visit g.co/naturalhistory to check out all the exhibits and artifacts within this brand new Natural History experience.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
A little over a year ago, The Henry Ford embarked on a project to digitize material related to John Burroughs (1837–1921), an American naturalist who was good friends with Henry Ford and a member of the Vagabonds (along with Henry, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone). As often happens with our collections, we found more material than we were expecting. Last summer, we reported on the 250 or so items we had digitized at that point; we’re now happy to share that we’ve just wrapped up the project, with nearly 400 total items from our collections digitized. One of the last additions was this photograph of the statue of Burroughs that was installed at Henry Ford’s estate Fair Lane—a sure sign of the esteem in which the naturalist was held by the auto magnate. Browse all of these items—mainly photographs and letters, but also essays, poetry, scrapbooks, periodicals, notebooks, and postcards—in our Digital Collections.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.
To tell the story of this artifact, we have to take a journey. A journey back in time and then a journey into nature. We have to visit a time in U.S. history when western land expansion had reached its near completion and U.S. citizens had only just begun to realize the natural wonders that these lands encompassed. To begin this journey, let’s explore what it means to innovate with a question:
When you think of historical innovators, who do you think of?
Henry Ford? Thomas Edison? These two historical titans of industry shaped the 20th century with technology that they endlessly, feverishly, worked on to improve. How about John Burroughs?
John Burroughs (1837–1921) was an American naturalist who wrote frequently and with a literary sensibility on nature and the environment. He joined the Vagabonds, and as a result took a number of camping trips with Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone. Henry Ford also provided his friend Burroughs with multiple Ford vehicles, including a Model T touring car, to assist him in his nature studies. We’re currently digitizing selections from our collections related to Burroughs, such as this photograph of a sculpture of Burroughs created by C.S. Pietro. You can see Pietro working on what appears to be the same sculpture in another photograph. Thus far, we’ve digitized over 250 photographs, letters, writings, and postcards documenting Burroughs’ life, including his travels, famous friends, and retreats—browse them all on our collections website.
Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections and Content Manager at The Henry Ford.