Beekeeping Made easy       A short History of Beekeeping Part II

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The story of modern beekeeping equipment does not go back  more than 150 years.  Primitive beekeeping did not required all the tools and equipment that are now designed for the hobby beekeeper and the commercial beekeeper.     The tools of the trade prior to the modern day included axes for cutting trees open, saws, knives and something for protection.    

The introduction of commercial beekeeping (the production of a lot of honey) brought a need for equipment that would make taking care of bees easier and more efficient.  Listed below are a few of the items which have been developed and as just as important to making it possible to process large quantities of honey.


This is an early smoker.  It was made by the Funsten Brothers Company in St. Louis, Missouri.    It was adapted to work with bees by some beekeepers.  The Funsten company made this item to fumigate furs.    This particular smoker is 36 inches from the tube barrel end to the handles on the bellows.




It was known early that smoke had an effect on bees.  Old bee veils had a hole in the face of the net so the beekeeper could use a pipe to blow smoke on to the bees.  The bee veil shown here is over 100 years old and has such a device sewed into the netting. 

This method was quite inadequate however because not enough smoke could be generated and directed where needed.   According to Pellett no practical method of using smoke efficiently existed prior to 1875.  Quinby had devised a device which was a tube which was held in the teeth.  He describes how to build it in the following excerpt from his book The Mysteries of Bee-Keeping Explained.  "Get a tin tube five-eights of an inch diameter, five or six inches in length; make stoppers of wood to fit each end, two and a half or three inches long, tapered at the ends.  With a nail-gimlet make a hole through them lengthwise; when put together, it should be about ten inches in length.  On one end make notch, that it may be held with the teeth, which is the most convenient way, as you will often want to use both hands.  When ready to operate, fill the tube with tobacco, ignite it, and put in the stoppers; by blowing through it, you keep the tobacco burning, while the smoke issues at the other end.  This requires blowing almost constantly to keep it burning."

In 1875 Quinby added a bellow to his tube of tin.   He is given credit for the first smoker.  But was he?  I can not answer that question but the smoker shown above existed prior to that date and was adapted to smoking bees.  No record exist of  by whom or when.  

Other improvement followed rapidly. 

To the left is The Simplicity Smoker described in the 1880 issue of ABC of Bee Culture largely written by A.I. Root.     This smoker was evidently created in 1877.  He states, "You will observe from the cut above, that we have in reality retained the kettle idea, but the smoker is small and made of tin.  To prevent its being overturned, we have given it a large base, like an oiler.... "  "The shape of the upper part, or funnel, is such that there is very little danger of any fire getting out, even if no wire cloth is used over the mouth, and if you first give it a puff to dislodge any loose matter, there will be very little chance of blowing ashes or fire among the bees."


The clark cold blast smoker was offered for sale in 1879.  Evidently in the year of 1879, two individuals introduced smokers based on the cold blast principle. They were a Mr. J.G. Corey of Sanata Paula, California and Norman Clark of Sterling,  Illinois.  The 1880 issue of ABC of Bee Culture provided readers with plans to build their own smokers using the cold blast principle.

20 years later the most popular smoker was the Bingham smoker.   It was designed by Mr. T. F. Bingham of Farwell, Michigan  and based upon the original smoker of Quinby.   

The A. I. Root company introduced what was called the improved Root smoker.  These smokers were of the hot blast principle.  The blast of air from the bellows is blown through the fire.

The difference between the two is quite marked.  In the cold blast smoker the air is conducted from the bellows through a tube to a point ahead of the fire.  What happens is the vacuum created by the blast of air pulls the smoke along with it.  Thus the smoke is cool.  In the hot blast smoker, the air is blown through the fire, produces more smoke and faster, but the result is a hot smoke.   In fact the hot blast smoker can become a blast furnace if pumped air is continuous. 

The smoker in use today is unchanged since the introduction of the improved Root smoker.  Modification have been made but the general construction remains unchanged.







Prior to the development of foundation, the beekeeper would design frames with a guide for the bees to build comb.  The Langstroth frame included a "V" or triangular guide for the bees to build in straight comb.     Getting good straight comb was a difficult accomplishment.   It was found that if a frame without foundation was placed between two frames with comb, that the bees would generally build straight comb.  But in many cases, the bees would build drone comb much to the annoyance of the beekeeper who wanted worker cells.  If you look at the frames from a plate in Langstroth's book, you will see the "V" or triangular guides under the top bar.  

This was an improvement but still did not solve the problem. The inventor of  foundation was Johannes Mehring, a German. He produce a crude press to impress wax wafers with indentations like the bottom of cells.   This first attempt at foundation was 1857.

By 1876 A. I. Root hired a man by the name of A. Washburn to develop metal rollers with impressions for a mill.  This attempt was considered a complete success.   Again, there is some controversy over who was the first to develop a foundation mill.  A. J. Cook,   a noted professor at Michigan College of Agriculture, indicated that the invention really belongs to Frederic Weiss in 1873.  Weiss's machine evidently made foundation which was about six inches long with a shallow wall raised between the cells.  (From Pellett's History of American Beekeeping)

In time the rolls became larger.  Wax sheets were prepared by dipping a board or plate into a tall vessel of melted wax.   The plate was rubbed lightly with soap and water and immersed in cold water before being dipped into the wax.  The wax sheet would then be stripped from the plate and taken to the rollers. The rollers were covered with a lather made of soap and water to prevent the wax from sticking.  The sheets would then be squared and trimmed.   It was a hand made product.  Produced as Root writes in the 1880 ABC in Bee Culture,  "Two men after a little practice, will roll it about as fast as it can be dipped.  This means one sheet at a time.

The production of wax foundation today is still very labor intensive.  Modern wax plants such as those at A. I. Root and The Walter T. Kelly have a number of specialized machines designed to speed up the process and produce a product that is very uniform from sheet to sheet.   These factories have machines that now produce wax sheets in rolls which are then feed into rollers that put the impressions into the wax and into cutters that trim and in some cases imbed wire into the foundation.   As the wax sheets now come off the line, individual sheets are gathered by hand and packed into boxes.  Individual thin paper sheets are placed between each sheet of wax.  

A new introduction to the foundation story is the use of other materials.  At one time, light aluminum was used as a base and coated with a very thin layer of wax.   Then, an attempt was made to mould plastic into sheets to replace wax foundation completely.   

In the mid 1920's the A. I. Root began to introduce a foundation made of three layers.  The middle layer was a slower melting wax than bees wax.  Much concern was express by the British about the contamination of wax as a result of this type of comb being melted down later and sold as beeswax.  

In 1963 the Dadant & Sons Company introduced a plastic base comb foundation.  It was called "Duragilt" as is still sold today.

Today one can find plastic used in foundation and frames and used together in a one piece unit.   The names used were "Plasticell",  "Rite-Cell" and "Pierco."   Natural wax foundation still outsells the plastic foundation but many commercial beekeepers are using the more expensive plastic because it is less labor intensive to put into frames or no labor if the plastic and frame are one.

The Honey Extractor

In 1865 Major Hruschka, an Austrian, recognized that centrifugal force could free honey from comb.  The common story is that he was watching his son sling some comb in a basket around his head.  The honey was thrown out of the comb and thus was born the idea of the extractor.   Is this a true story?  We really don't know but the fact remains that Hruschka recognized the principle.

Once it was reported in the American Bee Journal in 1868, many jumped on the band wagon to build a device that would remove honey from comb without injuring the comb.   Dadant immediately set about building an extractor in the United States.  We really don't know who was first in the United States because so many beekeepers tried building their own before a manufacturer began producing them.  We do know that in addition to Dadant, Quinby, Langstroth, and Root.  Root began selling the "Novice Extractor" and in the 1880 ABC's book describes how to build one. 

  H.O. Peabody of Boston, Mass. is credited by Pellett as having been the first manufacturer to offer extractors in the United States for sale.   This extractor is shown to the left.  The idea quickly spread, and many manufacturers in the United States, England, and the mainland of Europe began producing them for the beekeeping market.    Extractors have gone through a revolution from the merry-go-round design called a radial extractor to the horizontal shaft ferris wheel type extractors used by commercial beekeepers as a part of a conveyor system which ejects extracted frames and loads frames with honey in one motion.  

Uncapping honey

At one time all honey to be extracted had to have the cappings removed by a cold knife, a knife warmed in a hot water bath, or operated by steam.    When electricity became available, electric uncapping knives came upon the market.  The Stollers of Latty, Ohio developed a unique uncapping affair in the 1940's.  This uncapper operated with two guillotine knives to slice the capping from a frame.  It was not accepted by the beekeeping public.   Two automatic uncappers seem to have survived the test of many beekeepers and are found in use today. 

One is a Cowans uncapper.  It is constructed of heavy stainless steel and uses a gravity slide feeder to feed combs into a slot operated by a chain drive allowing a frame to slide into the slot and then be carried downward between steam or electric heated knives.  After passing through the knives, the frame is moved along a rail where it is removed and placed into an extractor.

The other is made by Dakota Gunness.   This uncapper is operated by using rotating chain flails that cut the cappings from both below and above the frame as the frame passes on a conveyor between the rotating frail.