A century old tale of ‘Beekeeping in the South’

In 1920 the American Bee Journal published a book called “Beekeeping In The South; A Handbook on Seasons, Methods and Honey Flora of the Fifteen Southern States”. Written by Kennith Hawkins, a Beekeeping Specialist and “Former Special Agent in Bee Culture”, this book paints a nostalgic picture of what it took to keep honey bees in the south a century ago. While major players of today’s industry like the infamous Varroa mite are missing from this text, it is surprising to see just how well the author’s advice holds up in today’s beekeeping industry. Below is an excerpt from this book, a chapter entitled “What a Beginner Must Learn”, shared here with permission from the American Bee Journal.

– – – –

What A Beginner Must Learn
The cover for Beekeeping in the South when it was originally published in 1920.

The fundamentals of beekeeping are simple. Only the details require time to learn. To be successful in beekeeping, one must accomplish these three things:


  1. Build up your colonies to the peak of storing strength coincident with the beginning of bloom of your most important honey plants
  2. Prevent any division of strength or storing instinct of the colonies thereafter
  3. Conserve the strength of the colony at all other seasons of the year, to prepare again for No. 1 the next bee season

Anyone who can master those three details will be a successful beekeeper anywhere. This is particularly true of the South.
There are several ways these methods can be learned in detail. One is to work for a season in the bee yard of a successful beekeeper, after you have first mastered the theory of beekeeping. Another, harder, but often best in the long run, is to buy a few bees and work it out yourself, with the aid of other beekeepers and by attending conventions and beekeeping demonstrations.

Building Up Colonies
Stimulating colonies is a good deal like giving a man medicine. If the conditions are right, the medicine stimulates the body to action. If conditions are wrong, no medicine will help. So in beekeeping, one must supply a few simple conditions and let the bees do the rest. No colony will build up well in spring to reach proper strength at the right time without a young queen. Therefore, requeen at least every 2 years. No colony can build up if not supplied with sufficient food, either natural or artificial, secured the fall before, to last through the period of rest and until natural stores are available again in spring. Therefore, one must learn to gauge the amount of supplies within the hive and to feed the bees when necessary. No colony can build up properly unless the queen and bees have ample comb room for brood and surplus honey. Therefore, one must learn to enable the bees to produce really good combs and learn how to supply them at the right time to expand the brood nest and storage room. Given a young queen, ample stores and sufficient room, the swarming problem becomes less. The proper presentation of these necessities to the bees most frequently stops swarming.

“Home and queen mating yard of J. L. Leath of Corinth, Mississippi.”


Preventing Swarming
Of as much importance as room, stores, and a young queen, is the time of giving this additional room so vital to swarm prevention. A beekeeper should figure that he has failed in the case of every swarm which issues. Giving the needed brood or surplus room too late is certain to induce swarming. Every beekeeper must have an acquaintance with the principal honey plants of his locality and the time of their bloom. When this is available, he can tell just when to give added brood room and can gauge the building up of his colonies to have the peak of this expansion coincident with the first honey flows. The added surplus room must follow then, else all previous efforts are lost. The method of giving this additional surplus room, especially in comb honey production, bears vitally on the success of swarm prevention.

Getting The Maximum Crop
Given “strong colonies of strong bees,” as Dr. Miller says and after giving the bees ample brood room and the first storage room, a crop failure still looms ahead for the beginner, if he does not gauge the speed of the incoming honey. Too much surplus room will result in unfinished section; too little, in swarming and a loss of part of the crop which might have been secured. No beekeeper can succeed in honey production or in swarm prevention if he tries to operate his bees without sufficient supers and hive bodies. Penurious beekeepers who try to run the season through with only two supers, juggling these between the hives and the honey house for filling and emptying, are in the class with the beekeeper who puts on one super and who takes it off only in the “full moon of June.” Sufficient equipment is absolutely essential. Better run fewer colonies with ample equipment, than so many with a shortage of things essential to good beekeeping practice.

“Figures from the U.S. Census and U.S. Bureau of Crop Estimates.” Note, that in 1910, there were a reported 38,895 beekeepers in Florida.

Conserving the Bees
The beekeeper’s “New Year” begins with the cessation of the honey flow for the season. His efforts from then on gauge far more than is frequently credited, the success he may have another season. Toward the end of the honey flow is the best time to requeen colonies, when the period of broodlessness coincident with requeening does not interfere with the strength of the colony immediately before a honey flow. This is also a time to discourage too much brood rearing, when there is nothing ahead to demand more bees. The introduction of young queens insures brood later, in the fall, when young bees are so essential to produce a strong colony to love through the period of rest, whether winter temperatures are low or not. This is also the period for removing supers and preparing the bee yard for another season, as well as preparing the honey crop for the market. Cooperative marketing associations will soon enable the beekeeper to sell his crop at a fair price without the losses incident to poor salesmanship so frequent in the beekeeping past.

“Mrs. Grace Allen’s backlot bees, Nashville, Tenn.”

Wintering the Bees
Whether the beekeeper be in the land where snows fall and temperatures drop low in winter, or in a land of sunshine, winter is the time for the conservation of the bee. At this time good beekeeping makes definite plans for the next spring. Ample stores for winter and the succeeding spring, until natural honey is available, are essential. Space for the bees to heat and care for in the winter should be reduced to a minimum. Remember that a temperature of 57 degrees F., requires work on the part of the bees to prevent lower temperatures in their cluster. The more of this work they do, the more the colony loses in numbers and in the vitality of its individuals. Have good hives, tight water-proof covers, reduced entrances, and protection by fence or trees, against the prevailing winds of winter days. If your part of the South is where snow falls and temperatures drop low, your bees might profit from being packed. Send for the government’s free bulletin on “Wintering Bees Outdoors.”

“Suit worn by a Florida Inspector.”

The Theory And Practice
The theories of successful beekeeping have been stated in the first paragraph of this chapter. Learn them well first. This will enable you to separate the chaff from the wheat in what you read, or what you are told by beekeepers who may not be as well posted as they believe. Given the mastered theory, the practice will not only become easy, but will prove the most interesting study you ever attempted, if you are destined to be a beekeeper. If you are not, give up beekeeping right now. There are already too many men and women masquerading under the title “beekeeper”.
Subscribe for bee papers and get one or two of the better bee books, which give results of practice, and not theory alone. Attend the short courses for beekeepers and witness demonstrations in handling bees made by the bee culture extension men. If there are no such meetings near you, take the initiate and arrange for some. Begin to put your theories into practice modestly, search your practices for a confession of fault as you go. Above all, remain open-minded about your beekeeping methods and you will be sure to succeed. In any event, invest modestly at first and make the bees keep you.

– – – –

Many thanks to Susan Harris, Master Craftsman Beekeeper for bringing this work to our attention!


Posted: December 15, 2018

Category: Agriculture, Natural Resources
Tags: Bammerma, Beekeeping, Honey Bees, UFHoneyBeeLab

Subscribe For More Great Content

IFAS Blogs Categories