In Celebration of Rev. Langstroth

They gave Lorenzo Langstroth sort of the bum’s rush in “bee school” yesterday. He invented the hive that revolutionized beekeeping and is still in use 150 years later, the instructors noted during the first of four classes that will lead to state certification as a beekeeper. With a lot to cover in four hours, they then moved on to bee pollination, hive location or some such.

Lansgstroth markerIntrigued, I came home determined to learn more about the acknowledged “Father of American Beekeeping.” The initial Google search produced the image of this street marker that I immediately remembered from one of my morning ambles through Philadelphia on our visit there in the fall. I’m a sucker for historic markers. I’ve been known to turn around if I pass one as I zip along at 60 mph. I strolled past this one on Front Street, near the intersection with Chestnut, along the Philly waterfront. It told about this guy who invented a new beehive in 1852 and wrote a manual for it that advanced beekeeping and honey production worldwide. Interesting, I thought at the time, and ambled on.

Langstroth, who was born in Philadelphia in 1810, must have been a weird kid, or at least that’s what the neighbors must of thought as they watched him spend hours on his hands and knees playing with ants on the sidewalks outside his house. While later studying just up the road at Yale, Langstroth transferred this fascination with small, social insects to bees when his saw a friend’s hive in 1838. He brought home two colonies. For most of his life, Lorenzo Langstroth would never be without bees.

After moving around New England as a Congregational minister, Langstroth returned to Philadelphia in 1848 where he set up a two-acre apiary on the west side of town. He immersed himself in his bees, mostly at first as a distraction from his periodic “head troubles” and bouts of depression. Lansgstroth watched how they moved in and out of their hives, and he read everything anyone had written about them.

Lansgrtoth with hives
Lorenzo Langstroth shows off his invention in his apiary in the 1850s. Photo: American Philosophical Society

There’s some debate now as to whether Langstroth discovered “bee space” or merely applied it to invent the first practical, man-made hive. Bees like to have precise 3/8-inch gaps in their hives to move around. They fill anything wider with propolis, a resinous substance that bees make by mixing wax with pollen and tree sap. It hardens into a glue tougher than anything you get out of a bottle, and it made early beekeeping difficult and often fatal to the bees.

People have been keeping bees in boxes and containers almost since there were people. Clay pots were the preferred containers in North Africa 9,000 years ago. Art in the tombs of Egyptian emperors 4,500 years later shows a variety of vessels used as beehives. Skeps, cone-shaped structures made of branches and leaves, and hollow logs were common in Langstroth’s day.

No matter the design, though, the bees got very angry when beekeepers tried to extract the honey by tearing into the propolis. Keepers found it a lot less painful to simply kill the bees first.

Langstroth was “pondering” all this while walking late one afternoon from the apiary to his home two miles away. “The almost self-evident idea of using the same bee-space…came into my mind, and in a moment the suspended movable frames, kept at a suitable distance from each other and the case containing them, came into being,” he wrote in a reminiscence published in 1893. “I could scarcely refrain from shouting out my ‘Eureka’ in the open streets.”

He patented a wooden box that opened from the top and had removable frames 3/8 of an inch apart on which the bees would build their combs of honey. The frames could be lifted out the box to extract the honey with a minimum of disturbance. His Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey-Bee, published a year later, provided unsurpassed practical advice on bee management.

The simplicity of the Langstroth Hive made it easy to copy. Quickly, beekeepers around the world adopted it, despite Lanstroth’s efforts to end infringements of his patent.

Endlessly imitated and modified, the Langstroth Hive helped make commercial honey production and bee pollination large-scale industries. By the 1880s, most American beekeepers used some form of the Langstroth Hive. By the late twentieth century, more than 100 American crops and one-third of the American food supply depended on bee pollination and the Langstroth Hive.

Langstroth in 1858 gathered his family and moved to Oxford, Ohio. There, between continued struggles with illness, he devoted his time to beekeeping and research, writing articles and playing chess. In 1863, Langstroth became one of the first Americans to import the Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera ligustica), whose queen bees he and his son sold to beekeepers across the United States. Today, the Italian bee is the most popular commercial bee in North America because it is less aggressive than other subspecies.

In 1874, Langstroth retired from beekeeping.  He died 21 years later while giving a sermon at the Wayne Avenue Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio, where he lived with his daughter.

That’s Isa, on the left, and her sister, Olivia, standing behind their tricked out Langstroth Hives.

Here are the words on Langstroth’s tombstone in Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery:

“Inscribed to the memory of Rev. L.L Langstroth, ‘Father of American beekeeping,’ by his affectionate beneficiaries who, in the remembrance of the service rendered by his persistent and painstaking observations and experiments with the honey bee, his improvements in the hive, and the literary ability shown in the first scientific and popular book on the subject of beekeeping in the United States, gratefully erect this monument.”

We had our own celebration yesterday of Langstroth and his invention. Our nieces, Isa and Olivia, came from Hillsborough to trick out the two Langstroth hives that will be in my backyard. Olivia wanted her hive to look like a home and painted window with curtains and flower boxes. Her older sister chose an abstract design of splotches of bold colors.

The bees, who are scheduled to arrive on March 24, won’t mind. The whimsy of it all would also probably please the reverend.


Author: Frank Tursi

Author, Journalist and mayor pro temp of Swansboro, NC

One thought on “In Celebration of Rev. Langstroth”

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