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From the Serial Set: Biography of the Honeybee

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Springtime in Washington, D.C. is the perfect time to learn about something new. I’ve learned through working with the Serial Set for nearly three years that sometimes, the most interesting tidbits of information are hidden where you would least expect.

A volume published in 1858 contains the “agriculture portion” of the Commissioner of Patents annual report. The purpose of this report was to “[collect] agricultural statistics…[and promote] agriculture and rural economy.” (S. Exec. Doc. 30, pt. 4 at p. iii (1858) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 928.)

Amidst documents detailing the lives of plants and animals, I came across “Nature and Habits of the Honey-Bee,” which began with a short, sweet poem from The Village Curate.

Photo of title page of report section, with a poem from the Village Curate quoted.
Photo of title page of report section, with a poem from the Village Curate quoted. (S. Exec. Doc. 30, pt. 4 at p. 107 (1858) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 928). Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

Introduced as a creature that has “attracted the attention of naturalists, moralists, and divines, as well as the inquisitive minds of all [humans],” the life of the honeybee is narrated scientifically and sociologically. (S. Exec. Doc. 30, pt. 4 at p. 107 (1858) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 928.)

This chapter of the report is accompanied by a plate of illustrations detailing the phases of a honeybee’s life and the structure of their honeycomb.

Photo of Plate II, numbered illustrations surrounding a drawing of a honeycomb, entitled, "The Honey-Bee, Illustrated."
Numbered illustrations surrounding a drawing of a honeycomb, entitled, “The Honey-Bee, Illustrated.” (S. Exec. Doc. 30, pt. 4 Plate II (1858) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 928). Photo by Bailey DeSimone.

Discovering this insight into the lives of honeybees made me wonder if there are any other resources at the Law Library that mention honeybees. The first piece of legislation I found was the Honeybee Act of 1922 (42 Stat. 833), which prevented the importation of adult honeybees into the United States for the sake of protecting the current honeybee populace from disease. The only exception to this law was if honeybees were imported for the sole purpose of scientific study by the Department of Agriculture. Otherwise, honeybees that had been imported were unfortunately required to be destroyed.

According to the agriculture report, the first of the three seasons of the calendar year where beekeepers could harvest the honey was between May and June. July-August and September-October are the other two, but the report stated it is wise to not disturb the bees more than twice. Spring honey, however, is “by far the best.” (S. Exec. Doc. 30, pt. 4 at p. 120 (1858) reprinted in Serial Set vol. 928) Chapter 11 of Title 7 of the U.S. Code specifically focuses on honeybees, where this law is also mentioned. (7 U.S.C. §§ 281-282.)

The next time you stir a spoonful of honey into your tea, I hope you think of Apis mellifica, the honeybee. The Library is also home to The Hive and the Honeybee, a print and digital collection of manuscripts and publications related to the history of beekeeping. For further research among other collections, consult the Bees, Pollination, and Climate Change reference guide.

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  1. This is fascinating, thank you! How can I view the entire report? When I follow the links provided, I am asked for admin credentials for an academic institution — I am a 501 (c)(3), Minnesota Children’s Press. May we be credentialed?

    Also, do you have any handwritten letters on this topic in your archives that we could get copies of? Our nonprofit runs a free, public letter writing park and we like to offer interesting primary source materials on our outdoor deck to inspire correspondence! Many thanks! Anne

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