This article was originally titled Honey Bees not Native to North America published November 11, 1999 on the blog On Six Legs. The author is former Purdue University Professor of Entomology, Tom Turpin. The blog and this particular post are no longer available online. Changes to this article were made to simplify vocabulary for younger students and to update newly released scientific information regarding honey bees in North America.
White man's flies
Honey bees were imported by European settlers. 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.
Though new discoveries indicate there were honey bees in North America in ancient times (Garvey, 2009), they had become extinct by the time Europeans began moving to, and taking over, the continent.
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.
When did the bees arrive?
Honey bees are among the most recognizable and helpful of the insects that live in North America, but these insects were unknown to Native People in North America.
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 (the area in which they could live) 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, as Mormons migrated to Utah, bees came with them. The first bees were taken there on the back of a wagon in 1848. So successful was this introduction, it was reported that a large amount of honey was being made in the southern counties of Utah. By 1852 the swarms had reached Nevada.
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 they were unable to fly. There are many stories of attempts to transport bees that were unsuccessful.
For once in our history, the introduction of a foreign insect has a happy ending. Honey bees are necessary to pollinate much of the food grown on farms. They were necessary for California to become the largest agricultural producing state in America (Ricci). 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!
I often struggle to find websites with thorough explanations in simple language to help kids understand historical events or scientific concepts, so I decided to create some of my own!