Honey bees are not native to North America. They were originally imported from Europe in the 17th century. In a letter written December 5, 1621 by the Council of the Virginia Company in London and addressed to the Governor and Council in Virginia, “Wee haue by this Shipp and the Discouerie sent you diurs [divers] sortes of seedes, and fruit trees, as also Pidgeons, Connies, Peacockes Maistiues [Mastiffs], and Beehives, as you shall by the invoice pceiue [perceive]; the preservation & encrease whereof we respond vnto you…” (Goodwin 1956; Kingsbury 1906:532). The Discovery left England November 1621 and arrived in Virginia March 1622, the other ships the Bona Nova and the Hopewell were a month behind and arrived at Jamestown in April. From Jamestown the honey bees multiplied and spread out creating a feral honey bee population (invasive species) in North America that thrived well into the 20th century.
Two years later Newbury, Massachusetts initiated a municipal apiary intended to be a combination educational experiment station and welfare program. The apiary was placed on a farm rented by John Davis. The apiary was a failure but later attempts to domesticate feral bees were more successful. In Virginia, an apiary was established by George Pelton in 1648.
“For bees there is in the country which thrive and prosper very well there; one Mr. George Pelton, alias, Strayton, a ancient planter of twenty-five years’ standing that had store of them, he made thirty pounds a year profit of them; but by misfortune his house was burnt down, and many of his hives perished, he makes excellent good metheglin, a pleasant and strong drink, and it serves him and his family for good liquor: If men would endeavour to increase this kind of creature, there would be here in a short time abundance of wax and honey, for there is all the country over delicate food for bees, and there is also bees naturally in the land, though we account not of them” [Goodwin 1956; Maxwell 1849:76; Riley 1956].
By the last quarter of the 17th century the honey bee had spread northward into all areas of New England and the Middle Colonies. In Pennsylvania, the Swedish immigrants “often get great store of them [honey bees] in the woods where they are free for any Body. Honey is sold in the Capital City for Five Pence per Pound. Wax is also plentiful, cheap, and a considerable Commerce” (Bidwell and Falconer 1925: 32).
Rather than honey, most of these bees were kept for the production of beeswax which became an important 18th century Virginia export. In a 1743 report to the Board of Trade, Governor Gooch stated that the wax was exported to Portugal and the Island of Madeira (Chandler 1925:238). The total amount of beeswax exported from Virginia in 1730 (just over one hundred years since the first import of honey bees to North America) was 156 quintals, equal to 156,000 kilograms, or about 343,900 pounds (Pryor 1983:20). In 1739, a shipment of five tons of beeswax yielded £12,500 in hard currency which was vital to the colony’s economy.
Apiary practice in the 17th and 18th centuries as fairly inefficient and this may be why beeswax was chosen as the export product rather than mead. Bees were kept in straw skeps. In the late summer, they would kill the bees and harvest the honey and beeswax, destroying the hive. Most beekeepers only kept a single insulated skep throughout the winter, and this meant that even though the beeswax as highly profitable, production volumes were low. In 1739, the average hive (skep) produced only about 2 lbs of beeswax and 10 pounds of honey but with nearly 200,000 skeps producing in Virginia, that was a burgeoning export business. Most colonists didn’t use the products of their hives themselves opting instead to sell that product (often to pay debts). Today, we think of bees as critical to agriculture and pollination and some Virginia colonist understood these benefits but in the 18th century, most bees were seen as farm animals to be raised and harvested for profit.
Prior to the mechanized extraction of honey, the honeycombs were simply crushed to remove the honey. This created a substantial amount of honey laden crushed beeswax which had to be extracted by rinsing the honey out of the wax with warm water. The byproduct of this effort was honey water which was often fermented not by the masters of the farm but rather their slaves. So while the masters were selling beeswax to pay for Madeira, their slaves were enjoying the nectar of the gods.