Lorenzo Langstroth Made Life Simpler for Beekeepers

Having had enough of being cooped up inside on one perfectly pleasant day last week, I bolted at quitting time and headed for Sharon Woods Metro Park to soak up the sun, revel in mild breezes, and watch members of the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association extract honey from a beehive.

Spectators of all ages stood back as a park ranger lit a smoker and blew a few puffs of smoke through the hive box to drive bees away.

Sharon Woods ranger smoking the hive box

Then, one volunteer beekeeper gently removed each frame one at a time. The frames held honeycombs, some of which still had bees inside the cells.

Honeycomb with bees inside some of the cellsNext, he took each frame over to his wife to prepare the comb surfaces for extraction.  After she used a special fork-like tool to scrape off the wax that had filled in the cells…

Scraping off the wax from honeycomb cells

…another helper placed the frames into the drum of a metal extractor to spin the honey out of the frames. Spinning honey out of the frames with an extractor

Centrifugal force released the honey from the cells, making it run down the walls and collect at the bottom of the extractor, where it would eventually be removed through a tap. The wax combs within the frames stayed intact, so the bees could reuse them.

Inside of the extractor, before spinning framesAs I snacked on a piece of sticky honeycomb, I thought about how someone from my Oxford days had made such a lasting impression on beekeeping. The hive that was being smoked, pulled apart, and put back together again was made following his principle. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth was his name.

Born in Philadelphia on Christmas Day of 1810, Langstroth graduated from Yale in 1831 and was ordained a minister. While living in Andover, Massachusetts, he developed an interest in beekeeping. To learn about his new hobby, he read Virgil’s Latin writings on bee culture. He also taught himself French to read more contemporary works on bees.

But experience taught him the most valuable lesson. Prying off the cover of a hive was no easy business. Propolis, a waxy brown resin that bees collect from the buds of trees and use to plug crevices in the hive, quickly hardens into a strong glue when packed between wood surfaces. Beginning in 1848, to make things easier and more profitable for fellow beekeepers, Langstroth started working on a way not only to extend the space around the walls of the hive, but also to extract the combs without disturbing the bees as much. His plan was to hang an evenly spaced series of parallel wooden frames within a rectangular hive box by their top bar, extending the ends and fitting them into the tops of the front and rear walls. Bees could build honeycombs in the frames without the propolis bonding them together or to the hive walls. Beekeepers could slide frames in and out of the box, making both bee inspection and honey extraction much easier. By 1851, Langstroth had figured out the details of what he called the moveable-frame hive, which revolutionized beekeeping and the honey industry so much that it continues to be used today.

1852 was a big year for Langstroth. Besides applying for and receiving a patent for his invention, he published the first edition of what was to become his landmark book, A Practical Treatise on the Hive and Honey-Bee, also known as Langstroth on the Hive and Honey-Bee. Chapters covered the physiology of the honey bee, buildings of bees, bee hives, handling bees, natural and artificial swarming, rearing the queen, the apiary, shipping and transporting bees, feeding and wintering bees, comb foundation, beeswax, diseases, and handling and marketing honey.

Conveying practical information and sound advice in a simple way, Langstroth’s book became an important manual for beekeepers. It is also considered the first scientific and popular book on beekeeping in the United States.

During my Special Collections Librarian days at Miami University, I was forever pulling different editions of Langstroth’s book from the shelves of the Covington Collection so that I could share them with others. A copy of the 1860 third edition, clad in brown cloth with a bee blind-embossed in the center of the front and back covers, lives at the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library. Last Saturday, I spent some time at my usual hangout, Table 3 in the Reading Room, reacquainting myself with Langstroth’s work.

Seeing the picturesque illustration on the frontispiece, titled “So work the honey bees,” took me back to my days working in Rapunzel’s Tower, making fascinating discoveries in virtually every filing cabinet drawer and row of the stacks.Frontispiece of Lorenzo Langstroth's A Practical Treatise on the Hive and Honey-Bee, Ohio Historical Society Archives/LibraryOHS also has the fourth edition of Langstroth on the Hive and Honey Bee, revised, enlarged and completed by Charles Dadant & Son and published in 1899. Wouldn’t this green clothbound book with its gold-embossed cover and spine make an elegant addition to a bookshelf? Spine of the fourth edition of Langstroth on the Hive and Honey Bee, Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library

I paged through one more Langstroth-related publication that day. Inside the front cover of Richard Colvin’s A Small Treatise Containing Some Important Facts with a Few Practical Directions for Managing the Bee and Hive, Compiled by Permission from Langstroth on the Honey Bee, published in Baltimore in 1859, there’s an advertisement for Langstroth’s Patent Moveable Comb Bee-Hive, which was manufactured and sold five miles west of Delaware, Ohio. With a box cover and an observing glass in the rear, the hive cost $3.50. Advertisement for Langstroth's Patent Moveable Comb Bee-Hive, in A Small Treatise Containing Some Important Facts with a Few Practical Directions for Managing the Bee and Hive, Ohio Historical Society Archives/LibraryIn 1858, Langstroth, his wife and their three children moved to Oxford, Ohio and set up housekeeping in an eight-room brick house that was built just two years before. For the next 28 years, Langstroth lived in the Greek Revival cottage with classic pilasters, pediments, and a fan-shaped window over the front door, continuing to breed and research honey bees in the aviary he constructed on his 10-acre property. To encourage bees to visit, he planted a “honey garden” of flowers, as well as buckwheat, clover, and apple and American Linden trees, around his home.

Photo by Jim Bricker

Photo by Jim Bricker

This National Historic Landmark at 303 Patterson Avenue in Oxford is home to Miami University’s Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching. This charming little place was one of my favorite destinations during my lunchtime walks. Always glad to lend a helping hand, my friend Jim from Special Collections strolled over on his lunch hour one day last week and took this photo of Langstroth Cottage for me.

Langstroth’s nerves got the better of him and he gave up on beekeeping in 1874. He lived his last years in Dayton; after his death in 1895, he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery there. His grave is marked by a granite headstone inscribed in memory of “The Father of American Beekeeping.”

To read more about Lorenzo Langstroth, see America’s Master of Bee Culture: The Life of L.L. Langstroth, by Florence Naile, and “The Bee-Man” of Oxford and Langstroth Cottage: Commemorative Impressions of Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth.


This entry was posted in Books, History, Nature/Outdoors, Ohio, Ohio History Connection (formerly the Ohio Historical Society). Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Lorenzo Langstroth Made Life Simpler for Beekeepers

  1. yourothermotherhere says:

    That was interesting. Everything about bees is interesting really. We need them so much and think so little about them. I hope something is done soon about the dwindling bee populations or there is going to be a huge problem with pollination around the globe.

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