2010 Philadelphia Honey Festival

Reprinted from the Germantown/Mt. Airy Newspaper

Philadelphia has a long history of beekeeping, laying claim to the father of modern beekeeping, L.L. Langstroth. The Philadelphia Honey Festival took place this weekend, celebrating the 200th anniversary of Langstroth’s birthday. With events ranging from a viewing of Langstroth’s papers at the American Philosophical Society, to honey extraction demonstrations and cooking classes, there were events for a wide range of interests.

The Honey Festival was sponsored by the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild and took place at locations across the city, including the installation of a memorial plaque at Langstroth’s home on Front Street, as well as events at Wyck, the Bartram house, and the Unitarian Church in Germantown.

Langstroth invented one of the first successful movable frame hives – an invention that allowed the beekeeper to remove pieces of the beehive at a time, resulting in minimal injury to bees (and the beekeeper’s back). The hive encourages bees to produce more honey, and enables removing wax and honey without destroying the bees’ home..

Shortly after Langstroth invented his hive, the honey extractor and pre-built wax frame were invented, allowing the beekeeper to run a honey production business. Modern beekeeping businesses also often offer pollination services to large farms.

Langstroth’s contributions to beekeeping led to incredible advances in the national production of honey. Honey became a major soft drink sweetener around World War I, and by World War II it’s use was restricted, as it was used so extensively in baking that there were shortages, according to “The ABC’s and XYZ’s of Beekeeping.”

In Langstroth’s time there was great controversy over the best size of beehive, and his design won out. According to beekeeping author Peter Sieling, in attendance at the conference, Langstroth was influenced by German beekeepers, as a friend translated beekeeping German publications on his behalf. After refining his technique, he successfully at produced large amounts of honey, but became embroiled in legal battles over the patents for his hives.

Langstroth collected many newspaper clippings that mentioned his legal battles, many of which are archived at the American Philosophical Society in Old City Philadelphia. A descendent of Langstroth donated around 300 documents from Langstroth’s attic to the APS. Langstroth’s collection included numerous engraved prints of hive designs, ranging from skeps to complex contraptions resembling complex kitchen cabinetry, as well as snippets of German publications.. Descendents of L.L. Langstroth were in attendance at the viewing of his papers.

The APS was founded by Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram, modelled after the Royal Society of London. Franklin was an early proponent of “buy local,” especially honey and other sources of sugar, such as apples and beets. He observed that the region was forced to import cane sugar and molasses from the West Indies, and if they could only produce their own sugar, they could be more independent. European colonists imported and encouraged honey bees so much so that Native Americans referred to honey bees as the “white man’s fly”, according to one of the old books at the APS viewing.

The Honey Festival also provided a series of fascinating lectures, including university professors and the editor of Bee Culture, Kim Flottum, who spoke about the challenges of keeping bees in cities.

It is legal to keep honeybees in Philadelphia, but has not always been. A condition causing the mass die-off of honey bee colonies, called Colony Collapse Disorder, has hit beekeepers across the country, spurring renewed interest in beekeeping. Many beekeepers have turned to treatment free beekeeping, which requires the beekeeper to avoid using antibiotics or feeding the bees high fructose corn syrup (bees are fed sugar syrup to save weak hives from dying off). As honey is partially digested flower nectar, a honey made from high fructose corn syrup is chemically different than honey from flowers.

According to Kim Flottum, many beekeepers report stronger hives in the city. Few people keep bees in the city, so there is less competition for food, and disease spreads slower. Strains of honeybees kept in the northeast are docile, but stronger, larger beehives mean beekeepers must work harder to be considerate of their neighbors. For example, bees will find their water source in spring, which they visit through the year. The beekeeper should provide water early, lest they find a neighbor’s pool.

Flottum advised beekeepers to be careful of the direction they point their hives, as the bees fly quickly out the front door – placed correctly, they pollinate gardens and trees, placed incorrectly, they fly out over the neighbor’s deck. While docile, people often swat bees like flies, which incites stinging. At the Wyck hive, there were demonstrations where a dozen people stood around the hive and no one was stung. Big jerky movements make the bees think you are an invading bear.

Gary Sieling is a resident of Mt. Airy, and comes from a family of beekeepers. He sells beekeeping books at http://www.makingbeehives.com. Anyone interested in beekeeping is encouraged to check out the Philadelphia Beekeeper’s Guild, at http://www.phillybeekeepers.org/.

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