"If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live."
Honey bees are among the most recognizable and beneficial of the insects that live in North America. But these insects are not even native to the Americas. Like most of the livestock associated with American farms, honey bees were imported by European settlers.
Prior to the arrival of the Old World settlers, honey bees were unknown to Native Americans. In fact, several early American writers, including Thomas Jefferson, reported that honey bees were called “white man's flies.” The name was recognition that the appearance of honey bees in America was associated with the arrival of the Europeans.
There was a close association between the westward migration of Europeans and the establishment of wild colonies of honey bees. Native Americans were said to have noticed that shortly after colonies of honey bees were discovered, white settlers would not be far behind.
So when did the first colonies of honey bees arrive in the New World? These bees probably came from England and arrived in Virginia in 1622. By 1639 colonies of honey bees were found throughout the woods in Massachusetts. Some of the colonists who arrived at Plymouth likely brought bees, as well as sheep, cows and chickens on the trip across the Atlantic.
Once the bees were introduced, they, like other insects, were able to increase their range by moving into new territory. Honey bees increase colony numbers by swarming. Swarms are able to fly several miles to establish a new colony.
Such migrating swarms brought honey bees to Connecticut and Pennsylvania by the mid 1650s. Honey bees had swarmed their way into Michigan by 1776 and Missouri, Indiana, Iowa and Illinois by 1800. In the next 20 years or so, bees had made their way to Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, as well as Wisconsin.
Further westward migration of the honey bee was slow. In 1843 it was reported that there were no honey bees beyond Kansas. However, Mormons arrived in Utah, and the first bees were taken there on the back of a wagon in 1848. So successful was this introduction, it was reported that a considerable amount of honey was being made in the southern counties of Utah. By 1852 the swarms had reached Nevada.
Bees were finally introduced into the Pacific Coast states by using a sea route along the East Coast and crossing Panama, before using the Pacific Ocean for the final part of the journey. It was in 1853 that botanist C. A. Shelton used this route to introduce the first honey bees into California. Only enough bees from 12 colonies survived to establish one colony, but it was enough to allow history to credit him with starting the honey bee industry in the golden state.
Transporting colonies of bees either by sea or land in the 1700s and 1800s was not easy. The sea voyage from England lasted six to eight weeks, and it was not easy to keep bees alive for that length of time while confined. Many of the attempts to transport bees were unsuccessful as many stories relate.
For once in our history, the introduction of a foreign insect has a happy ending. After all, honey bees are a very important part of agriculture in this country, and we really can't do without them. Even if they do sting us once in a while!
Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).