What Would Langstroth Do?

Bee Culture (August) Vol. 136 (8): 19-21




Dr. Malcolm T. Sanford



One of the icons of beekeeping history is the Rev. L.L. Langstroth.  Known for designing the honey bee hive that bears his name, Langstroth was a consumate observer.  His reflections over the years are culminated in a series of books entitled:  The Hive and the Honey Bee.  The 1853 edition was called Langstroth on the hive and the honey-bee: a bee keeper's manual.  The full text of this book is found online as part of the Cornell University’s Mann Library E.F. Phillips Collection, also called “The Hive and the Honeybee.”1


In that edition, Langstroth begins with the following:  “The present condition of practical bee-keeping in this country, is known as deplorably low.  From the great mass of agriculturalists, and others favorably situated for obtaining honey, it receives not the slightest attention.”  A reason for this statement was his assessment of the state of beekeeper knowledge about hives in general, and how new and experienced practitioners appeared to be scorning his newly-patented model, which eventually was to become the one most beekeepers continue to use in today’s modern beekeeping environment.


One wonders what Langstroth would think of today’s beekeeping climate.  Would he also refer to it as “deplorable.  It’s easy to conclude that he might, but for different reasons, considering the transformation of the activity over the last 20 years.  Yes, 2007 is the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the Asian honey bee mite, Varroa destructor.  Since then, beekeepers have seen their craft metamorphose from a let-alone, pesticide-free activity to one where only active treatment sometimes using some of the world’s most toxic substances will keep their bees alive.  


Now days Varroa control is almost an after thought as in quick succession honey bees and beekeepers have become victims of other exotic organisms such as the small hive beetle.  If one adds viruses to the mix, along with effects of a raft of other pesticides in the honey bee’s environment, conditions seem overwhelming for the modern practitioner.  On top of that Colony Collapse Syndrome or CCD has appeared with resultant loss of beehives in many regions for no apparent reason.  What’s a beekeeper to do?  Perhaps it’s time to return to the basics and reread the classics like Langstroth to try to gain some perspective. 


Reading Langstroth online is a bit tedious.  The full book can be loaded onto a computer, but at least for this author, reading from a screen is not my preference.  I also have some old versions of The Hive and the Honey Bee, but they are falling apart and are not a joy to prop up in bed with.  Enter Dr. Roger Hoopingarner, Professor Emeritus, Michigan State University.  His The Hive and Honey Bee Revisited: An annotated updating of L.L. Langstroth’s beekeeping classic, published by Bee+ Books, Holt, MI (424 pp) is a welcome addition to my library.2  It’s a paper back and perfectly suited for the modern reader’s environment.  It’s also a “two-for;” one gets two perspectives in one volume.  First one from Langstroth himself, but then followed by additional remarks from a respected scientist, who began a 60-year apicultural career as a Boy Scout as a teenager.


In the Preface, Roger says he decided to use the third edition (1862, written in 1859) for a number or reasons, one being that it was authored by Langstroth himself.  Later editions were penned by others including C.P. and M.G. Dadant.  Both Roger and I contributed to the latest edition of The Hive and The Honey Bee, published by Dadant & Sons, Inc. in 1992.  He concludes, “I know you will be surprised, as I was, when I re-read this edition just how much bee biology he (Langstroth) knew!  Some of it he read from other sources, but much of it was from just good, keen observations.  He did not have the equipment or the background we have today – in many ways that makes his discoveries that much more remarkable.”


In Chapter I, the Movable-Comb Hive we read a similar introductory paragraph to the 1853 edition, but “deplorable” has been replaced by “depressed condition.”  Again, this is in response to beekeepers believing that “so called ‘Improved Hives’ are delusions or impostures; and that they must return to the simple box or hollow log, and ‘take up’ their bees with sulphur in the old-fashioned way.”  Roger reminds us that in those days beekeepers routinely killed half their colonies with sulfur fumes to extract the honey, leaving the other half to produce in the next season.


In the same section, there is a reprinting of a letter received from Samuel Wagoner about Dr. Jan Dzierzon who was the first person to declare that drones were haploid (resulting from unfertilized eggs).  “In the year 1848, a fatal pestilence, known by the name of foul brood, prevailed among his bees, and destroyed nearly all his colonies before it could be subdued.  Nevertheless, he succeeded so well in multiplying by artificial swarms, the few that remained healthy, that in the fall of 1851, his stock consisted of nearly 400 colonies.  He must therefore have multiplied his stocks more than three-fold each year.”  Roger states: “You have to wonder how many times bees may have been selected for resistance to disease.  Then we forget about the problem until the resistance characteristics have been diluted to the point the disease strikes again.  Or in recent years we have relied upon antibiotics to control the disease.  In earlier times the selection for resistance would have been one of the major roles of the beekeeper.”


Besides the chapter on the Movable-Comb Bee-Hive, the book contains those on the  following ctopicss:  The Honey-Bee capable of being tamed, The Queen, or Mother-Bee – The Drones – The Workers – Facts in the Natural History, Comb, Propolis, Pollen or “Bee Bread,” Ventilation of the Bee-Hive, Requisites of a Complete Hive, Natural Swarming, and Hiving of Swarms, Artificial Swarming, Loss of the Queen, The Bee-Moth, and other Enemies of bees – Diseases of Bees, Robbing, and how Prevented,

Directions for Feeding Bees, The Apiary – Procuring Bees to Stock it – Transferring Bees from Common to Moveable-Comb Hives, Honey, Bee Pasturage – Over-Stocking,

The Anger of bees – Remedies for Their Stings, The Italian Honey Bee, Size, Shape and Materials for Hives, Observing-Hives, Wintering Bees, Bee-Keeper’s Calendar – Bee-Keeper’s Axioms,


In the natural history section, Langstroth writes, “As the breeding cells may eventually become too small for the proper development of the young, very old combs should be removed from the hive.  It is a great mistake, however, to imagine that the brood-combs ought to be changed every year.  If it were advisable, this might easily be done in my hives, but to remove them oftener than once in five or six years, requires a needless consumption of honey to replace them, and injures the bees in Winter, as the new comb is much colder than the old.”  Roger adds that “This argument has raged up until this day.  There is little scientific data to the support the notion the cells will become so small as to affect the size of the bee.  However, the replacement of combs, as Langstroth suggests, about every five  or six years is valid.  Diseases and pesticides will build up in the old combs and can affect the development of the larvae.  The old combs do not provide warmth but generally have pollen in the combs.  The pollen is needed in the winter cluster to produce new young bees.”


With reference to finishing hives, Langstroth says, “The smell of fresh paint is well known to be very injurious to human beings, and is so detested by bees, that they will often desert a new hive sooner than endure it.  If the hives cannot be seasonably painted, paints should be used which contain no white lead, and which are mixed so as to dry as quickly as possible.”   Roger concludes that “Beekeepers still have a dilemma about paint, though most just use white paint as it is now considered ‘traditional.’  In the northern states a darker color would probably be more beneficial to the colony since the darker colors would attract more solar radiation.  There may be a little period during mid summer when the colony may benefit from white paint.  However, most of the time the hive would benefit from darker colors.”


It is important to remember that both Langstroth and Roger have gotten their experience in the temperate latitudes.  There is little question that all beekeeping is local in the sense that place and geography (climate) play a huge role how a colony can be effectively managed. 


The race of bee used is also an important issue, again reflecting a specific geography,  and Langstroth spends a good deal of time considering the Italian honey bee, Apis mellifera ligustica Spinola in his book.  Spinola is the official author of the subspecies or  race (ecotype) and according to Roger spoke of these bees as “velociores motu” – quicker in their motions than common bees.  A letter dated August 5, 1856, again from Samuel Wagoner, reflects on the bee’s qualities, as reported to him by a Captain Baldenstein.  “1.  The queen, if healthy, retains proper fertility at least three or four years.  2.  The Italian bee is more industrious, and the queen more prolific than the common kind; because in a most unfavorable year, when other colonies produced few swarms and little honey, his Italian colony produced three swarms, which filled their hives with comb, and, together with the parent stock laid up ample stores for winter.” 


Dzierdzon was also a fan it seems and The Baron Von Berlepsech confirms this, according to Langstroth, stating:  “1.  That the Italian bees are less sensitive to cold than the common kind,  2. That their queens are more prolific. 3.  That the colonies swarm earlier and more frequently...4. That they are less apt to sting.” 


The challenge of beekeepers at the time appears to have been keeping the Italian subspecies characteristics in the face of competition by the so-called common bee (probably Apis mellifera mellifera, the Dark or German bee).  Thus, Langstroth spends much time discussing breeding techniques; “Just before the young Italian queens emerge, adjust the non-swarmer to all the hives containing common drones so as to shut them in, while free egress is given to queens and workers.  As only the drones bred by the Italian queen have their liberty, all the young females will be fertilized by them.”  Roger adds “This idea was expanded by Dr. John Hogg of Augusta, Michigan in a technique he called after-hours mating.  He kept his virgins and selected drones closed up until after the normal mating time before he released them.  The advantage of this technique is  that he avoided all other drones including all feral ones, and so had more ‘pure’ mating.”


The biggest problem beekeepers had during Langstroth’s time was the wax moth.  To a great extent the development of the movable-frame hive helped beekeepers to manage the insect by keeping stronger colonies of bees that is the time-honored control for this pest insect.  His maxim was “The careless will obtain a ‘moth-proof’ hive only when the sluggard finds a ‘weed-proof’ soil.”  Colonies did not have to suffer much due to wax moth to be a major problem as many beekeepers produced comb honey at that time and the very small larvae, according to Roger, although removed effectively by the bees, often ruined the face of the comb.  This can now be effectively controlled by quickly freezing sections harvested from the bees before the larvae hatch.  He also adds that the idea prevalent in Langstroth’s day that wax moth larvae cannot live by wax alone, but must get other nutrients from the skins of caste larvae in brood combs was correct.  Thus, he concludes “combs of an old stock are more likely to be devoured than those of a new one.”


Something that is not often emphasized in books on bee management is the importance of the beekeeping calendar.  Langstroth provides a detailed one in his volume, concluding:  “I recommend to the inexperienced beekeeper to read this synopsis of monthly management, again and again, and to be sure that he fully understands and punctually discharges the appropriate duties of each month, neglecting nothing and procrastinating nothing to a more convenient season; for, while bees do not require a large amount of attention, in proportion to the profits yielded by them, they must have it at the proper time and in the right way.”


And returning to the question of what would Langstroth do, given the conditions modern beekeepers must work under, his axioms, published over 150 years ago are just as relevant, today as ever:


1st.  Bees gorged with honey never volunteer an attack.

2nd  Bees may always be made peaceable by inducing them to accept liquid sweets.

3rd  Bees, when frightened by smoke,..fill themselves with honey and lose all disposition to sting.

4th  Bees dislike any quick movements about their hives.

5th  Bees dislike offensive odor of sweaty animals.

6th  The beekeeper will ordinarly derive all his profits from stocks, strong and healthy, in early Spring.

7th  In districts where forage is abundant only for a short period, the largest yield of honey will be secured by a very moderate increase of stocks.

8th  A moderate increase of colonies in any one season, will, in the long run, prove to be the easiest, safest, and cheapest mode of managing bees.

9th  Queenless colonies, unless supplied with a queen, will inevitably dwindle away, or be destroyed by the bee-moth, or by robber bees.

10th The essence of all profitable bee-keeping in contained in Oettl’s Golden Rule:  KEEP YOUR STOCKS STRONG.  “If you cannot succeed in doing this, the more money you invest in bees, the heavier will be your losses; while, if your stocks are strong, you will show that you are a bee-master, as well as a bee-keeper, and may safely calculate on generous returns from your industrious subjects.”




1.  <http://bees.library.cornell.edu/b/bees/browse.html>, accessed June 21, 2007.

2.  <http://www.beeplusbooks.com/>, accessed June 21, 2007.