bee-keeping for women… the 1910 edition

This article was included in the early editions of the ABC and XYZ of Bee Culture, a veritable bible for bee keepers for well over the last century.  Organized like an encyclopedia with topics listed from A – Z, the Root family gathered the knowledge of bee-keeping from the first edition in 1887 through to the present.  The latest edition is the 41st revision of the book and includes edits from over 50 authors and contributors.  

A copy of this book from 1974 has just arrived at our door, chosen in particular for its delightful brown and gold cover and the fantastic black and white photos of bee-keeping throughout the century. This entry, filed under “B”, particularly caught my attention and I’ve reproduced it below.  While this article had disappeared by the time our 1974 edition was printed, I stumbled across this gem in the 1910 version. The 1910 edition can be found online in its entirety in the Biodiversity Heritage Library as it is now in the public domain.  Thank you A.I. Root and Mrs. Comstock!


Bee-keeping for Women

[It is presumed, of course, that no ordinary man would be entirely competent to write on a subject of this kind.  In looking about for some lady to do this, the authors could think of no one more able than Mrs. Anna B. Comstock, author of a charming work for beginners on “How to Keep Bees.”  Mrs. Comstock is the wife of Prof. J Henry Comstock of Cornell University, and both of them entomologists.  We engaged her to write the article and here it is:]

Two questions invariably “pop-up” at us when this matter of feminine bee-keeping is discusses: One is, “Why shouldn’t a woman keep bees?” and the other is, “Why should a woman keep bees?”  Like most other questions, these may be answered more or less rationally with proper consideration.

Taking the “why shouldn’t” question first, we are bound to confess that nowadays there is no effective reason why a woman should not do almost any thing that she takes into her enterprising little head to do.  But quite aside from the consideration of woman’s prowess, there are on or two reasons that might deter some of the faint-hearted fair from undertaking bee keeping.  There is no use of trying to gloss over the fact that there is a great deal of hard work and heavy lifting in the care of a profitable apiary.  The hard work is really no objection, as most women of whatever class are at it any way.  But lifting heavy hives is certainly not particularly good exercise for any woman, although I must confess that I have never lifted half so strenuously when caring for bees as I used to on the farm when we moved the cook-stove into the summer kitchen, accomplishing this feat by our feminine selves, rather than bring to the surface any of the latent profanity which seems to be engendered in the masculine bosom when taking part in this seasonal hegira.

There are at least two ways of obviating this feminine disability in bee-keeping.  One, practiced successfully by several women, is though the use of a Boardman hive-cart, which almost solves the problem if the bees are wintered out of doors, and do not have to be carried up and down cellar stairs; the other method is to get some man to do the lifting and carrying.  It may be the husband, the father, the brother, the son or the hired man; but as this work can be done at a time which can be planned for, it is not so difficult for the men of the establishment to give the help needed.  I am sure my husband would say that I am quite enthusiastically in favor of the man solution of this problem; but his opinion does not count for much, because he loves the bees so enthusiastically that I have to bed for a chance to work with them at all, although he virtuously points out the hives to people as “Mrs. Comstock’s bees.”

Another “shouldn’t” reason might be that women are afraid of bee-stings.  This falls flat, from the fact that women are not a bit more nervous than men in this respect.  This year when I was struggling to hive a swarm from a most difficult position, an interested man stood off at a safe distance in a most pained state of mind.  He was a courteous gentleman, and he felt that is was outrageous for me to have to do the work alone, but he did not dare to come to my aid, and I think he considered by temerity in dealing with the swarm as almost scandalous.

Thus having disposed of all the reasons I can think of why women shouldn’t keep bees, I turn gladly to the more interesting reason why she should look upon the apiary as one of her legitimate fields of labor.  There are so many reasons for this that I could not enumerate them even if a complete number of a bee journal were given to me for the purpose.  So I shall speak of just a few of the most cogent reasons.  I should put first of all, and as embracing all other reasons, that bee-keeping may be made an interesting avocation which can be carried on coincidentally with other employments; it is an interesting study in natural history ; it cultivates a calmness of spirit, self-control and patience ; it is a “heap” of fun ; incidentally it may supply the home table with a real luxury ; and it may add a very considerable amount to any woman’s spending money.  It can also be carried on as a regular business, to support a family.

But it is as an avocation that I am especially interested in the apiary.  Any woman who keeps house needs and avocation to take the mind and attention completely off her household cares at times.  There is something about the daily routine of housekeeping that wears ming and body full of ruts, even in the case of those who love to do housework better than anything else.  Talk about the servant question ! It is not the servant question, but the housework question.  If some means could be devised by which housework could be performed with inspiration, zeal, and enthusiasm, the servant problem would solve itself; but this ideal way of doing housework can be carried on only when the spirit is freed from the sense of eternal drudgery.  I am not a wizard to bring about this change; but I know one step toward it, and that is the establishment of some permanent interest for woman that will pull her out of the ruts and give her body and mind a complete change and rest.  Embroidery, lacemaking, weaving, painting, and several other like occupations, may serve this purpose in a measure; and, perhaps, if carried on in the right way, may achieve more in this line than they do at present.  But these are all indoor occupations; and what a woman needs is something to take her out of doors where she can have fresh air. Excess of perspiration induced by the cook-stove is weakening; but honest sweat called forth in the open air by an application of generous sunshine is a source of health and strength.

Bee-keeping is one of the best of these life-saving, nerve-healing avocations; it takes the mind from household cares as completely as would a trip to Europe, for one can not work with bees and think of anything else.  Some of the attributes which make bee-keeping an interesting avocation I will mention: First of all, bees are such wonderful creatures, and so far beyond our comprehension, that they have for us always the fascination of an unsolved problem.  I never pass our hive without mentally asking, “Well, you dear little rascals, what will you do next?”  Bees are of particular interest to woman for several reasons: if she likes good housekeeping, then the bee is a model; if she likes a woman of business, again is the bee a shining light; if she is interested in the care of the young, then is the bee-nurse an example of perfection; if she believes in the political rights of woman, she will find the highest feminine political wisdom in the constitution of the bee commune.  In fact, it is only as a wife that the bee is a little to casual to pose as ideal, although as a widow she is certainly remarkable and perhaps even notorious.

Another phase which makes bee-keeping a pleasing avocation for women is that much of the work is interesting and attractive.  I never sit down to the “job” of folding sections and putting in starters without experiencing joy at the prettiness of the work.  And if there is any higher artistic happiness than comes from cleaning up a section holding a pound of well-capped amber honey and putting the same in a dainty carton for market, then I have never experienced it; and the making of pictures has been one of my regular avocations.  By the way, woman has never used her artistic talent rightly in this matter of cartons. Each woman bee-keeper ought to make her own colored design for the carton, thus securing something so individual and attractive as to catch at once the eye of the consumer.

As a means of cultivating calmness, patience, and self-control the bee is a well-recognized factor.  Bees can be, and often are, profoundly exasperating; and yet how worse than futile it is to evince that exasperation by word or movement! No creature reacts more quickly against irritation than the bee. She cannot be kicked nor spanked; and if we smoke her too much, we ourselves are the losers. There is only one way to manage exasperation with bees – that is, to control is; and this makes the apiary a means of grace.

The money-making side of bee-keeping is a very important phase in arousing and continuing the woman’s interest in her work. I think woman is by birth and training a natural gambler, and the uncertainties of the nectar supply and of the honey market add to rather than detract from her interest in her apiary.  I know of several women who have made comfortable incomes and supported their families by bee-keeping: but, as yet, I think such instances are few.  However, I believe there are a large number of women who have added a goodly sum yearly to their amount of spending money, and have found the work a joy instead of drudgery.

Personally, I have had very little experience with the commercial side of bee-keeping.  Once when our maddeningly successful apiary grew to forty hives when we did not want more than a dozen at most, and the neighborhood was surfeited with our bounty, we were “just naturally” obliged to sell honey.  We enjoyed greatly getting the product ready for market, and were somehow surprised that so much fun could be turned into ready cash.  As a matter of fact, both my husband and myself have absorbing vocations and avocations in plenty, so that our sole reason for keeping bees is because we love the little creatures, and find them so interesting that we would not feel that home was really home without them; the sight of our busy little co-workers adds daily to our psychic income.  We are so very busy that we have little time to spend with them, and have finally formulated our ideal for our own bee-keeping, and that is to keep bees for honey and for “fun”.  We shall have plenty of honey for our own table, and just enough to bestow on the neighbors so they will not get tired of it; and fun enough to season life with an out-of-door interest and the feeling that no summer day is likely to pass without a surprise. {end quote}

From the Glenbow Archives, Calgary
Eliminating swarm of bees from cookhouse, a7 Ranche, Nanton, Alberta.
Date: [ca. 1910-1912]

Judging from the charm and wit in this passage, Mrs. Comstock and her husband must have been quite the pair of bee-keepers, and entomologists to boot!   I can’t pass by our little hive without now thinking “Well, you dear little rascals, what will you do next?” and we couldn’t agree more with the enthusiasm and love of these little creatures that the Comstocks shared.  If life is truly about growing your “psychic income“, then we can agree that bee-keeping is certainly one avocation that fits the bill!

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2 comments on “bee-keeping for women… the 1910 edition

  1. Love this blog – what a great article! I am even more inspired to do some bee keeping myself – wonder if I can get a hive up here and make some blueberry honey! 😉 xo

    • Thanks Wendy! I just the way she talks about how much she adores the bees – as an entomologist in 1910, she must have been ahead of her time! And there really is nothing like a good, “honest sweat” under the sun!

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