History
Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild

The honey bee is not native to the Santa Clara valley, so when did they arrive?. Some information as to how this came about is given by John Muir in his 1894 book "The Mountains of California" in Chapter 16, "The Bee-Pastures". (For out of area history check the History web links.)

How long the various species of wild bees have lived in this honey-garden, nobody knows; probably ever since the main body of the present flora gained possession of the land, toward the close of the glacial period. The first brown honey-bees brought to California are said to have arrived in San Francisco in March, 1853. A bee-keeper by the name of Shelton purchased a lot, consisting of twelve swarms, from someone at Aspinwall, who had brought them from New York. When landed at San Francisco, all the hives contained live bees, but they finally dwindled to one hive, which was taken to San José. The little immigrants flourished and multiplied in the bountiful pastures of the Santa Clara Valley, sending off three swarms the first season. The owner was killed shortly afterward, and in settling up his estate, two of the swarms were sold at auction for $105 and $110 respectively. Other importations were made, from time to time, by way of the Isthmus, and, though great pains were taken to insure success, about one half usually died on the way. Four swarms were brought safely across the plains in 1859, the hives being placed in the rear end of a wagon, which was stopped in the afternoon to allow the bees to fly and feed in the floweriest places that were within reach until dark, when the hives were closed.

In 1855, two years after the time of the first arrivals from New York, a single swarm was brought over from San José, and let fly in the Great Central Plain. Bee-culture, however, has never gained much attention here, notwithstanding the extraordinary abundance of honey-bloom, and the high price of honey during the early years. A few hives are found here and there among settlers who chanced to have learned something about the business before coming to the State. But sheep, cattle, grain, and fruit raising are the chief industries, as they require less skill and care, while the profits thus far have been greater. In 1856 honey sold here at from one and a half to two dollars per pound. Twelve years later the price had fallen to twelve and a half cents. In 1868 I sat down to dinner with a band of ravenous sheep-shearers at a ranch on the San Joaquin, where fifteen or twenty hives were kept, and our host advised us not to spare the large pan of honey he had placed on the table, as it was the cheapest article he had to offer. In all my walks, however, I have never come upon a regular bee-ranch in the Central Valley like those so common and so skillfully managed in the southern counties of the State. The few pounds of honey and wax produced are consumed at home, and are scarcely taken into account among the coarser products of the farm. The swarms that escape from their careless owners have a weary, perplexing time of it in seeking suitable homes. Most of them make their way to the foot-hills of the mountains, or to the trees that line the banks of the rivers, where some hollow log or trunk may be found. A friend of mine, while out hunting on the San Joaquin, came upon an old coon trap, hidden among some tall grass, near the edge of the river, upon which he sat down to rest. Shortly afterward his attention was attracted to a crowd of angry bees that were flying excitedly about his head, when he discovered that he was sitting upon their hive, which was found to contain more than 200 pounds of honey. Out in the broad, swampy delta of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the little wanderers have been known to build their combs in a bunch of rushes, or stiff, wiry grass, only slightly protected from the weather, and in danger every spring of being carried away by floods. They have the advantage, however, of a vast extent of fresh pasture, accessible only to themselves.

This chapter is available on the web and contains more interesting descriptions of bees in California. More information on the writings of John Muir are also available on the web.

Note: According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis calculator of the historical value of money, $105 in 1855 would be roughly equal to $2014 in 2004. A sum that far exceeds the current cost of beginning beekeeping with a single hive.

Web Links

California State Historic Landmark 945
"First Successful Introduction of the Honeybee to California" Historic Landmark Plaque located at Terminal C of the San Jose airport.

A Taste of Beekeeping History
Nice general front page that links to multiple aspects of beekeeping history.

History of Beekeeping in the United States
A bit of U.S. history from The Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium.

The Hive and the Honey Bee
Want to read Langstroth's book that introduced the "modern" hive? Gain insight by reading Quinby's book " Mysteries of bee-keeping explained..." written in 1853 (same year as Langstroth's publication)?. After that try Doolittle's " Scientific queen-rearing as practically applied..." giving the state of the art in 1889. This and much more from the E. F. Phillips Beekeeping Collection at Mann Library of Cornell University. They now have the full text of 10 books available online, but the aim is to have "every major pre-1925 beekeeping work in the English language"!

Santa Clara Valley Beekeepers Guild
March 8, 2005