Reverend Langstroth and Beehive History

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Honeybees at the hive.
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The inner workings of a beehive.
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Colorful hives mounted on a truck make for a wonderful spring sight.

Every cloud has its silver lining. The Rev. L.L. Langstroth’s silver lining was that he found bees and beekeeping to be an effective antidote to nearly debilitating clouds of malaise. As a meticulous student of the hive, the Philadelphia clergyman and private school principal discovered a way to use bee space to great advantage and designed what amounts to the modern beehive – the modular boxlike structures seen wherever bees are raised throughout much of the world.

Bee space – defined as the space that is neither large enough or small enough to encourage bees to build comb or seal with propolis – was discovered by European apiarists prior to Langstroth’s putting it to work. Looking at beehive history, Langstroth discovered that he could use this approximately 3⁄8 of an inch to make working the hive and collecting honey a relatively simple proposition.

In the years leading to Langstroth’s discoveries, European bees had been typically sheltered in fairly elaborate bee houses, open-chamber boxes, crude dome-shaped skeps, or hollowed logs. With all of these structures, the comb was sealed to the hive with wax, and hive components were sealed to one another with propolis, making it difficult to work the hives and collect honey without disturbing the bees to the point that they would go on the attack. In the United States, the open-chamber box hive had reached some level of popularity, but the beekeeping enterprise was depressed, in general.

In the mid-1800s, Langstroth discovered he could employ bee space to make it easy to remove his hives’ covers and later to make it possible to remove the hives’ comb-filled frames with ease. Langstroth also discovered that it was possible to increase honey yields in healthy hives by stacking several boxes of frames atop one another, while restraining the queen in the lowest with a device called a “queen excluder” that allowed workers to pass, but not the queen.

Portability, removable frames and modular construction with readily available materials made Langstroth’s hives a big hit when he began selling them after patenting the design in 1852. His four-sided removable frames saved bees’ lives (they didn’t get riled when you took out the comb) and increased their honey production because it was possible to harvest the honey without destroying the comb – meaning the bees no longer had to expend energy and consume honey to create new wax.

Langstroth never profited from his patent, as it proved too difficult to defend, and its popularity led to many “tweaked” designs that were themselves patentable. Nonetheless, Langstroth is still referred to as the Father of American Beekeeping. His legacy is evident in orchards and backyards, on urban rooftops and flatbed semis moving from one pollinating job to another, and in the faces of beekeeping enthusiasts and bee club members around the world.

Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on .