How a Tiny Fraction of an Inch Saved Millions of Lives

The fraction was 5/16 of an inch, the lives saved were those of bees, honey bees. Literally millions and millions of bees were saved by this little space, which came to be known as "bee space." The value of this small space was not finally understood until the second year of the young Queen Victoria’s reign, by a beekeeper in Poland. But there were many humane thinkers across Europe, from the late eighteenth century right though the Regency, who actively sought some means by which to prevent the killing of so many honey bees at the end of every summer.

The story of the space that kept the bees buzzing …

In the wild, honey bees will build their hives in a hollow space which provides protection to the honeycomb they construct to store food and protect their young. At some point in pre-history, humans began to domesticate the honey bee, in order to have regular access to the sweet honey they produced. Honey was the only sweetener known in most of the world until at least the 5th Century, AD, and for centuries after that only in India. Sugar did not arrive in Europe until it was brought back from the Holy Land in the aftermath of the Crusades. The Egyptians were known to keep bees, as did both the ancient Greeks and Romans, and bees continued to be kept throughout Europe right into modern times. But the hives in which those bees were kept have varied widely over the centuries. Some human-constructed beehives were nothing more than hollowed-out sections of a tree with a flat roof, known as "bee gums." Beehives of this type were used across Europe, well into the nineteenth century, though this type of hive was less common in England. Mud and clay hives had been used in Egypt and around the Mediterranean, but they do not appear to have been much used in England. The most common type of beehive used in England, right through the Regency, was made of woven straw or grass, and was usually known as a skep.

Skeps are what most people consider the traditional, classic form of beehive. Essentially, they are a large conical basket with an open bottom which are placed with the open end down. Their primary purpose was to shelter the swarm of bees which surrounded the queen bee who lived within. Initially, most beekeepers left the skep hollow and let the bees build their honeycombs as they pleased. Over time, beekeepers provided a framework of narrow wooden slats inside the skep which provided a structure to which the bees could attach their honeycombs. The skep type of beehive was still in use during the Regency, and in fact, many of you have seen at least two of them, if you have seen the BBC mini-series of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. In that film, when Lizzie is chatting with her friend, Charlotte, now Mrs. Collins, in the parlor of the Collins’ home, out the window can be seen Mr. Collins in his garden, in which stand two large bee skeps. Fortunately, those were only movie props, as skeps were an extremely inefficient beehive form, and were usually lethal to the majority of bees which lived and worked within them.

Beekeepers had no access to the bees living inside a skep, which means they were unable to check the hive for pests, parasites or disease which might harm the bees, especially the all-important queen. Thus, they could do nothing to protect or aid the bees in the hive in the event of any threat. But worse still, for centuries, beekeepers had been unable to divine a way to remove the honey and the comb from the skep without killing the bees. Right into the eighteenth century, usually in September, beekeepers would kill all their bees so they could easily take the honeycomb from the skep. The most usual practice was to dig a pit, in which sulphur was burned. This was typically done in the early evening, when the bees had returned to the hive after foraging for the day. Each honey-laden skep was held over the burning sulphur, the fumes of which poisoned the bees. The dead bees were then shaken out of the skep and the honeycombs removed. By the mid-eighteenth century, across much of Europe, especially in England, outrage was growing against this annual slaughter of these industrious, social insects. A number of compassionate and scientifically-minded beekeepers set themselves to try to find ways to harvest the honeycomb without the need to harm the bees. Most agreed that redesigning the structure of the hive was the best way to enable removing the honeycomb while still preserving the life of the bees who had worked so hard to produce it.

It was known that the Greeks had been able to harvest honey without killing the bees in the hives they used. In 1768, Thomas Wildman published A Treatise on the Management of Bees, in which he advocated a new skep design based on hives used by the Greeks. Wildman detailed how parallel wooden bars where placed inside a skep with a removable top, allowing the honeycomb to be taken out without disturbing the bees. He also described multi-storey hives which could be removed as they were filled with honeycomb, and after the swarm had moved into the lower hive to begin more honey production. In 1789, a Swiss naturalist, François Huber, invented the "leaf-hive," so called because it was constructed as a series of wooden frames joined together by strips of leather in such a way that it resembled the leaves of a book. Huber’s hive design was intended to allow him to have easy access to a hive of bees he was studying, but there were some enlightened beekeepers, even in England, who were aware of his design.

In the early nineteenth century, probably around 1806, a Ukrainian beekeeper, Peter Prokopovitsch, developed a beehive constructed of a set of frames which fit into a box, each having a narrow extension on two sides which slid into corresponding grooves, like a series of drawers. Prokopovitsch did publish plans and details of his hive design, though it is not known for certain how widely it was circulated outside of his homeland until after Napoleon led the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Prokopovitsch’s work may have been known to at least a few of the more well-informed beekeepers in England by around 1814. Just as the Regency was ending, in 1819, Robert Kerr of Stewarton, a town in Ayrshire, in Scotland, designed a beehive of octagonal shape which came to be known as the Stewarton hive. This hive had a series of wooden bars inside from which the bees could suspend their honeycomb. More importantly, it, like Wildman’s design, was a multi-storey hive which allowed the beekeeper to harvest honeycomb from one area of the hive after the bees had moved on to work in another.

The main problem with some of the early hive designs was that their inventors did not quite understand the concept of "bee space." Though not given that name when it was first discovered, it has since come to be known by that term. It is the provision of bee space in hives which finally allowed for the convenient harvesting of honeycomb with no risk to the bees who worked so hard to produce it. Bees are truly remarkably industrious little creatures and they have a tendency to fill larger open spaces in their hive with beeswax. They fill smaller spaces with propolis to increase the structural strength of their hive and to make it easier to defend. Therefore, in some of these early hives, the honeycomb was sometimes difficult to remove because the frames or bars to which it was attached were sealed into the hive structure by either beeswax or propolis. Johann Dzierzon, a Pole, was born in January of 1811, less than a month before the Prince of Wales became Regent. Ordained as a Roman Catholic priest, Dzierzon maintained a life-long interest in the study of bees, and made several important discoveries regarding their behavior. In 1838, he developed the first beehive in which the individual honeycombs could be readily managed without destroying the structure of the hive. By keeping a distance of approximately 1/4 to 3/8 of an inch between each comb-frame, the frames could be easily moved as needed, since the bees were less likely to fill gaps of that size with either beeswax or propolis. Instead, they kept spaces of that size free to allow them to move about the hive between the honeycombs. Dzierzon published prolifically and his beehive designs soon became known throughout Europe and across North America. Beekeepers adopted Dzierzon’s designs and began to improve upon them. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, a number of beekeepers, particularly in England, determined that the optimum bee space was 5/16 of an inch. When this precise fraction of an inch was left between each comb-frame in the hive, bees were the least likely to fill the space, which would have adhered the comb-frames to the walls of the hive. The frames therefore remained free and could then be reliably removed from the hive at any time without harming the bees.

During the Regency, there would have been at least a few beekeepers of a scientific bent, both in England and on the Continent, who were experimenting with their own hive design. These discerning and rational beekeepers were hoping to find a way to harvest the honey without the need to decimate the swarm of industrious insects who spent their lives producing it. We know that Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins, at least the version of Mr. Collins in the 1995 BBC film of Pride and Prejudice, was a thoughtless, insensitive beekeeper, since he was using the old-fashioned bee skep. Considering his character, that comes as no real surprise. But let us hope than any beekeepers who appear in future Regency novels are more enlightened and compassionate toward their bees, unless the beekeeper is the villain. Or, perhaps the blue-stocking heroine has devoted much time and effort to beehive design and is trying to get a neighboring landowner, maybe the hero, to adopt her hive design in order to preserve his bees when the honey is to be harvested at summer’s end. Though the term "bee space" had not been coined during the Regency, the concept was certainly being considered by at least a handful of naturalists and beekeepers. How might a Regency author employ the concept of bee space to enable the bees to keep buzzing?

For further reading:

Crane, Eva, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting. London:   Duckworth, 1999.

Kritsky, Gene, The Quest for the Perfect Hive:   A History of Innovation in Bee Culture. Oxford:   Oxford University Press, 2010.

Ransome, Hilda M., The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore. Mineola, NY:   Dover Publications, 2004.

Wilson, Bee, The Hive:   The Story of the Honeybee and Us. New York:   Thomas Dunne Books, 2004.

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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30 Responses to How a Tiny Fraction of an Inch Saved Millions of Lives

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    Excellent information! I had no idea that bees were killed off to get at the honey, I suppose with undivided skeps it makes sense that there was no way of easliy removing it.
    Bearing in mind the riddle about bees,

    What living thing is it that is no man
    And yet it doth as no man can
    And therein serveth God and man?

    it seems extraordinary that the very devout medieval society should kill them.
    Especially as it was the done thing to tell everything to the bees who would not thrive unless family news was shared. The ‘dominion over all beasts’ clause I suppose.
    Thank you!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are exactly right about the “dominion over all beasts” clause. That was the defense of the conservatives who did not want to make the effort to find a humane way to harvest the honey, for centuries. Their attitude was that God made the bees for the use of man, who could then, in turn do as he pleased with them.

      It was only during the Age of Enlightenment, when scientific thought was beginning to get equal time with superstition and religious thought, that people began to object to the annual killing of so many bees. It is particularly remarkable to me that this was allowed to go on so long, since bees were considered to be beloved of God. So much so, that as I noted in my article on candles, only beeswax candles could be burned in churches. Go figure!

      I am just glad something was finally done to allow the bees to live when the honey was harvested. Not to mention, who would want to eat honey which had been exposed to sulphur fumes? I doubt that did much to improve the taste!

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. Lori says:

    What a very interesting post! I did not know it had been standard practice to kill all the bees at the end of the season.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I was horrified when I first read it. In fact, I thought my initial source must have been wrong, so I checked several other sources, only to find they all bore out the first. My feeling is that anything humans do now to help protect the honey bee is only payback for what our species did to theirs for so long.

      Regards,

      Kat

  3. Isobel Carr says:

    Wonderful post! I shall have to keep it in mind as either a hobby for a character or a good background detail for the home farm in my next book. I hate the idea of killing off a hive though. I have friends who keep bees, and they’re simply marvelous creatures (watching them capture a swarm was AMAZING!).

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for your kind words! If a beehive does make it into one of your books, I sincerely hope your beekeeper character is one of the clever and compassionate ones who has found a way to get the honey and the comb without hurting the bees. They really are the most fascinating creatures and should not be put in jeopardy when they work so hard to produce something so sweet!

      You might also find it interesting to know that the men who took over France during the French Revolution refused to have a beehive as a symbol of the new republic, because bees were “ruled” by a queen. Not sure if that was a rejection of royalty or feminine rule, probably both! 😉

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. Louisa says:

    I love this blog for just this reason. Such wonderful information about topics many feel too obscure to research. Another one for my research notebook! Thank you! Bees are the most amazing creatures!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for you kind words, especially for appreciating the Redingote for the very purpose for which it is intended. From the time I first began reading Georgette Heyer, it was the obscure historical tidbits she often included which made her stories so intriguing to me. Having a love of the unique and obscure myself, I particularly enjoy researching such topics. I post the results of my research here in the hope they may inspire new stories from Regency authors who may not have the time or resources available to discover these little snippets of history on their own.

      Regards,

      Kat

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  6. Alison says:

    What an interesting article. As a beekeeper myself I was charmed to read Jane Austen’s letter to her sister asking about her bees. Although the destruction of hives to obtain honey was a sad fact, I can’t help but wonder that perhaps small time beekeepers were able to extract sections of comb from skeps without destroying the entire hive – the way the Russian wild honey gatherers have done (and still do). It is certainly possible since bees naturally build comb in layers, with the honeycombs closer to the outside.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you for stopping by, and in particular for sharing your observations. I do hope you are right and that many bee-keepers in the past were able to get the honey without the need to destroy the hives. I would like to think all that industry was not repaid by death.

      Regards,

      Kat

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  9. I’m still trying to track down something I recall reading about removing the upper combs under smoke to stupefy the bees which was, I think, a Tudor observation. However in the meantime, bees were plainly encouraged to survive without being harvested as this fascinating discovery shows:
    http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/worlds-oldest-beehive-discovered-in-scottish-chapel.html

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks for the link! That was truly fascinating!!! I love the idea that people, particularly working men, were willing to make the effort to provide a good home for honey bees. Although, I am cynical enough to wonder if the priest knew about the hives and sent some agile child up there periodically to harvest the honey.

      I would be very interested to know if you can find the reference that bees were just smoked instead of killed to get their honey, especially as early as Tudor times. I really hate thinking of how badly they were treated, poor little things!

      =^..^=

      • It bugs me when I know I’ve read something and can’t recall where. The penalties for having M.E. and occasional disease-attacks on the memory. I am wondering actually if it may have been late Medieval in one of Chris Dyer’s books; or it might have been in one of Alison Sim’s books. Can someone send me some time for Christmas please?

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          I know the feeling! I now have read so many books in my life that I can no longer always remember the source of a reference. I could do it when I was in college, but I had also read fewer books then, and on a more limited range of subjects. Oh, sigh.

          But your comment reminded me of a great remark, for which I cannot remember the source. A fellow who was buying lots of books wished he could also buy the time to read them! I sometimes wish I could.

          =^..^=

          • Wouldn’t it be nice…..
            I suppose, in theory you could buy time if you paid a home-help to do all the cleaning, cooking and so on… and actually for a writer it makes sense if the writing pays enough to take out the irritations of the ‘as you’re only writing dear and aren’t busy’ from the uncomprehending friends, neighbours and even some family members…

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              OMG!!!!!!!! Do you have some of those, too?

              I have a couple and they drive me right around the bend. I find it very hard not to tell them off!! (I keep telling myself I am building character by keeping my mouth shut!)

              =^..^=

              • I have, after several years, managed to persuade my mum that I am not six, and it’s not a nice little hobby. However, there are others. We are very patient people you and I. And if we repeat this over and over to ourselves we do not reach for the garden machete. So far as I’m concerned it builds character the way Calvin builds character by riding a bicycle [yes, I am a Calvin and Hobbes devotee].
                Just smile and put them in a book as the irritating and gossipy matron. Also an irritant the sort who peek round the door with a coy “do I intrude?” and the hopes that they do. At least nowadays nobody takes offence if you lock the side door; too many tea leaves about.
                And the “you were on the phone a long time yesterday, I do hope nothing is wrong?” “Oh, the cat knocked it off the cradle” you lie, with fingers crossed behind back after having taken it off the hook. “I came to see if anything was wrong, didn’t you hear me? I knocked and rang the bell!” “No, I must have been in the garden hanging out the washing,” you lie, having bunged fingers in ears and groaned. “Was it important?” you ask, knowing that it wasn’t. “Oh no, dear, but as I know you don’t really do anything all day, only writing, and looking after your mother I thought you might just be able to hem up my curtains for me.”
                Sound familiar?

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                I am glad to know I am not the only one who has resorted to these techniques to get some writing time! 😉

                I can also identify with the sewing suggestion, too. I used to do a lot of sewing and people were always asking me to make things for them, as though my spare time had no value and I should be happy to give it up to make what they wanted. Oh, well.

                =^..^=

              • I never mind a skill exchange, but have you ever noticed when you have a neighbourhood skill exchange scheme, some people get more than they put in…

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                And I thought that only happened to me!

                =^..^=

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  11. Haven’t tracked the reference I was looking for but this is interesting, and suggests bees were not always killed: http://www.medievalists.net/2015/06/21/medieval-beekeeping/
    It does suggest driving them temporarily out of the hive with the smoke from cow dung to be able to spring clean it!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Well, that is certainly more humane that killing them! Thanks for sharing the reference!

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I also suspect that those people who became beekeepers are people like me, who don’t get stung [apart from standing on an already dead bee with bare feet and scratching an itch that was a bee which was not the bees’ fault]. I can wander through bees without them taking the blindest notice of me, beyond using me to perch on. I cannot envisage having any real trouble beekeeping in that fashion. The odd sting is good for rheumatism anyway and less painful than weekly flagellation with nettles.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          My Grandmother had your gift. She was able to walk among her beehives with no protection of any kind, and the bees never stung her, even when she was switching out comb frames. I wonder if it is attitude, or gender? She was also female and she loved her bees. Since most bees are female, maybe they picked up on those things and so felt safe when she was in their area?

          =^..^=

          • I think it’s attitude. They can smell the fear on people who are afraid of being stung, and go for them, because a frightened animal is a threat… Wapses don’t sting me either. I do know an elderly male bee keeper who puts on the veil to please his daughter but doesn’t bother with anything else. [you’d think someone who grew up seeing his gift wouldn’t fuss, wouldn’t you?]
            And of course you always have to tell your news to the bees.

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