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bees, bee keeping, honey, wax, bee hive construction, mint, apiaries


A handwritten manuscript entitled, "Bees", compiled by Victor C. Dieffenbach, dated November 3 and November 10, 1952. Within, Dieffenbach details the various methods he knows for constructing bee hives and collecting honey.

Corresponds to:

Packet 577 a-203-1 to a-203-14



Beekeeping among the Pennsylvania Dutch in the early days did in no wise originate in their new home. Many had been apiarists in the Mother-country, and a few even brought several colonies of bees along over. While they had to be confined to the hives while on shipboard, they would be moved upon the deck on a sunny day, and given a short flight for giving them an opportunity to cleanse their impacted bodies. As the bee only voids its excrement while in flight, hence a lot of them would die if confined for too long a time. This was the prime deterrent to shipping bees; also the bees would have no way of finding their way back to the hive, since the ship was constantly moving, and they had no means of orientation, the sea looking alike, one wave like the other; and they had no place to alight and rest. And last, but not least, were the objections of the non-bee-keeping passengers, and the ship’s crew, who were afraid of getting stung.

So the bees which the settlers brought along were few, and far between. But once they were located in their new homes, and commenced to cut down the forests, so as to have tillable ground for their crops, then they would find wild bees in the hollow trees. Tall hives were made from long rye-straw; it was first wetted, so as to make it more pliable; it was then twisted by hand into a rope-like cable. One end was now fastened on a small wooden platform of boards; it had a hole in the middle, and a round stake was driven through it, into the ground. The straw would be laid on this floor in a nice coil or ring, about 18 inches in diameter; a second coil was placed on top of it, and my grandmother would sew the two coils together with home-spun linen twine, at intervals of about six inches. Meanwhile the writer was shoveling in some sand and smoothing it level with the top of the straw; the sand was then wetted, and another coil was added. This kept up, until the top was reached. The lower half was all the time getting wider, just a bit at a time. From the middle upwards it was “ei-ga-tsoga” (drawn-in) until it came to a nicely rounded apex at the top.

And now came the most delightful part of the entire proceeding. Since the hive was by now considerably bulged in the middle, it could not just be lifted up from the sandy internal support. So grandad would wink at me, and say: “Well, Vickie, do dei shtrefft!” (Well, Vickie, do your stuff) and then I would grab a club or slat, and whale the living day-lights out of that hive. This would cause the core to crumble up, and the hive could now be lifted up with a circular, twisting motion, and was set aside to dry.

These hives were of a uniform pattern, but not all of the same size or height, and they would vary considerably in diameter, but the general conformation was that [they] ended in a pointed top, so as to shed the rain. While not much time was required to twist and coil the straw, yet there was considerable labor involved. I can still see grandmother as she wound that straw - she was a big and very strong woman, and she twisted that straw until it almost creaked. Consequently all the ropes she made were much thinner and also much tighter wound than usual; and folks from distant Lancaster County and up from Union and Snyder would come and ask for the hives made by: “the big woman that twists them so hard, no water could get in!”

I have been told by an old man, a Mr. Bomberger, that some folks used to put glue into the water where the straw was moistened with. This would cause it to stick together, and also make it more impervious to water. I had never heard of it; and I was too small when my grandparents made hives to remember that - I never had bothered to inquire. But, since grandfather was a real inventive genius, I imagine that if any glue was used, he would have used it in making his hives, if he thought it would be an improvement.

But as the hive was built round and round, one coil at a time, I could hardly wait until he would give me the wink to get my stick.

Some of the very finest hives or skeps came from France and Scotland; they were very hard to obtain and quite expensive. Once the skeps were occupied by the industrious bees that had been transferred from their leafy abode in the near-by forest, the hives were set in a row on a plank, or on some poles laid lengthwise on a row of rocks, so as to keep them off the ground and also to prevent vermin from hiding underneath.

Since 99 9/10 % of the public are even to this day afraid of getting stung - or like a boy once said: “See heu schliffera in era schwentz! (They have splinters in their tails!)” So it was no hard job for an enterprising young man to acquire an apiary in those days. Every once in a while a neighbor would drop in and tell him of how he had cut a tree down, only to find it full of bees, and he could not get near it any more. When the bee-man came to the mill, the miller told him that a Mr. so-and-so had been there a few days ago and told him to be sure and tell “that young bee-man”, to come and remove a swarm of bees that were hanging from the ridge-pole in his attic; and so it progressed.

Also the colonies in the hives would become crowded and clogged with young bees, brood, and honey, and out they swarmed. All that the bee-man needed to do was to cut off the branch with the cluster of bees on it, and lay it on the ground and set an empty skep over it, and he had one more colony in his bee-yard.

There was no frame or comb in those hives, and the bees would build in the new combs in a hap-hazard way - any old way they desired.

When honey was wanted for use, several of the heaviest hives would be closed up at night, when all the bees were inside. There was a small hole in the lower stand of straw, where the bees went in and out; the hole in the top, where the stake had been was usually closed by a plug made with a flange - a shoulder or projection on it to keep it from falling down through the hole, and also to keep the water from entering the hive. Some would only lay a board or a flat stone over this hole. This answered the purpose in a way; but if it was accidentally knocked off, then strange bees (bees that did not belong in that hive) could enter, and would start to rob the hive, killing the lawful occupants and carrying out the honey, and soon a free for all would ensue.

The next day a quantity of brimstone or sulfur would be placed in a big iron pan and the hive that had been closed the night before would be set over it; once the sulfur was set on fire the fumes would penetrate all through the hive and the bees would die. Then, the combs would be cut out, one at a time, the dead bees brushed off, and the honey-combs that were the nicest were put in a big crock for future use. All the combs containing brood, pollen, and all left-over pieces were left for the bees to clean up. This they did in a short time, and left everything nice and clean.

Since all the bees of a colony were killed every time that some honey was taken out, the bee-keepers finally got the idea of making a hive of boards, and have a separate compartment for comb-honey above the brood-chamber, which could then be left intact and undisturbed. Even in their wild or native state, while living in a hollow tree, the bees had all their brood in the lower part of the combs, with the pollen stored above it, and the honey at the top. So they patterned their new hives accordingly, having a partition or dividing floor about three fourths way up, thus forming a lower or brood-chamber of approximately 18 inches each way and a top or honey-chamber, of 18 x 18 x 10 inches in size, plus an inch for the top or cover and an extra inch for the partition; this was what is in modern parlance called “a box-hive”, and for a number of years illegal, as the frames could not be removed or moved in the hive.

These hives were usually made of pine or of poplar, 1 1/8 inches thick (to make them warmer) and they had a loose cover that could be lifted off. (if one could get it loose). The lower part had a pane of glass tacked on in the rear, and the rear side of the hive was hinged like a door, so one could watch the industrious bees while at work. The upper part had a removable board in the rear, fastened by means of small hooks. That is how my grandfather's hives were made; some were just nailed up like a box - hence the name "box-hive."

Although this saved a lot of work when honey had to be taken from the hives, but the prime factor was that no bees were killed by using these hives.

When my grandfather wanted to remove some honey he would select several hives that were heavily loaded and would open them in the rear; then with the point of his knife he would pry out a small strip of wood from the upper edge of the dividing board and slip in a narrow strip of either tin or of glass (one would do as well as the other) so as to cover the hole or holes in the middle of the partition where the bees entered the upper chamber from below. Now no more bees could come up. Then he closed the door, and in the front, up under the cornice (the hives had a projection all around and a moulding) he pulled out a small wooden plug, 3/8 inches in diameter; here the bees now confined in the upper story would emerge, one by one, until finally all would be out. Nowadays we have a bee-escape, made with steel springs, to fasten over the hole; it allows the bees to pass out, but then the springs flip back into position and the bee on the outside cannot get back in any more.

This contraption had not been invented in grandfather’s day - he trusted to luck and to his experience. Hardly any bees ever re-entered the hive through that hole, sine they had not been accustomed to use it; instead they freely mingled with the busy host entering by the regular entrance. After a few days he would lift off the lid or cover and blow in a few puffs of smoke; and remove all the honey. His hives had a few nails driven aside the center-holes and then bent across; these were so closely spaced that while the worker bees could squeeze up through, yet the queen with her abdomen distended with eggs could not get between those nails. Thus his comb-honey was kept free from brood. I really believe that my grand-sire, unknowingly, was the progenitor of the modern queen-excluder. He never seemed to feel superior or puffed-up about such of his inventions - he simply delighted in seeing how to devise some handy gadget. But the nice, clean and white honey he had in the top of those hives - all new combs and white, and very good-looking; and it tasted exactly like it looked - nice and sweet. He let me eat all I wanted. Do I remember the time when I was busily engaged in chewing the wax and plunked a fresh hunk into my mouth - too much in a hurry to notice one lone bee underneath? I’ll never forget how she stung, and I spit it all out, and cried; I got scolded for wasting that much honey; and the scolding hurt worse than the sting had.

Still later he and my Dad, and my Uncle, John Dieffenbach made hives with removable frames. These were double-walled, and were filled in between with chaff or some very fine sawdust. “Des wanra schprow: kawr”. (These were chaff-hives.)

They also made some frames that were about two inches wide (I mean the top and the bottom bars) and were covered on both sides with heavy yellow, unbleached muslin; they also were filled with chaff or sawdust. In the late Fall a few of the outside frames full of honey would be taken from the brood-chamber and these “cushions” were inserted in their place; this afforded added protection from the cold in Winter.

These hives were so superior to any hives on the market in that era, that they immediately found a ready sale for them. They were in such demand that Dad and Uncle made a saw-buck, mortised together; it had a fine table-top and a four inch blade with very fine teeth; the wooden pulley on the mandrel had a groove in it and a narrow leather strap was twisted until it formed a rope. Power was furnished by means of the gears from the old farming-mill. “Ya, de windweal un der Oldt Bauer de hen helfa fer de euwa-kawr mocha, eppes sechtsich yohr tswick! (Yes, the old farming mill and Der Oldt Bauer helped to make the bee-hives some sixty years ago.

The gear was bolted to an upright member of the buck, and when one turned the crank that tiny saw would start humming like a bee; it was only used for light work. Putting together those hives - tacking the muslin on those frames, is where the writer learned to drive a nail so it goes in straight and never comes out any more to have a look-see at the person that drove it in.

Every little scrap of wax had to be saved; if one was done chewing on it, you would put it in a little box on the window-sill; later it was all melted and formed into tiny cakes about the size of half a dollar and half an inch thick. These we sold to the ladies in town to use in their work-baskets. “Ya, see hen wax in eram nay-korreb cot.” (Yes, they had wax in their sewing-kit.) We got ten cents a piece for them.

One day when the sun was shining nice and warm and the bees were hanging down in front of the hive, a little boy came and stood and watched them; whether the devil prompted him to do it, or why, I don’t know. But all of a sudden the little boy spat right spaug into the middle of that bunch of bees.

And boy oh boy! How they stung him; and he ran off and cried - and it hurt like - well, I know how it felt - the boy was me.

Mark Lebo, a saw manufacturer of Phil. (he originally hails from Snyder County) just told me that when his grand-father’s bees would be swarming some one would take hand fulls of mint tea and throw it among the flying bees; then they would hang on a tree.

I remember that my own grandfather would take a hand-full of mint, and rub it all over the inside of an empty hive before he used it for hiving a swarm. Later I saw an old man using peach-leaves in the same manner; he said: “Sell mocht de box goot reecha, no doon see liever drin bleiva! (That makes the box to smell good, then they sooner stay in!”

I told him that if he opened another hive and got just one frame with eggs or unsealed brood in it, and would insert that frame into the new or empty hive the bees put into it would not leave. He just looked at me, and I could see the doubtful look in his eyes. I said to him: “Do you think that if all the folks in this little town would leave their houses en mass - all at one time - they would leave the babies in their warm cradles? Do you think they would desert them? “No”, he said - “No I’ll be damned; they wouldn’t!”

Nov. 10. 1952 Der Oldt Bauer


Signed in Dieffenbach's pen name of "Der Oldt Bauer" (The Old Farmer).


English and Pennsylvania German

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Dieffenbach on Bees, November 10, 1952



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