Tag Archives: Agriculture

Which came first, bees or crops? Why does it matter?

Abstracts:
Flying insects, particularly bees, transfer pollen to flowers to facilitate plant reproduction. The Western or European honeybee (Apis mellifera) may get the most attention because of the honey they produce, but other bees pollinate vegetables, berries, and other fruits on which we all depend. Adding the natural history of bees to the agricultural history of food production underscores the fragile relationships between pollinator, plants, and humans.

Les insectes volants, en particulier les abeilles, transfèrent le pollen aux fleurs pour faciliter la reproduction des plantes. L’abeille à miel occidentale ou européenne (Apis mellifera) attire souvent le plus d’attention en raison du miel qu’elle produit, mais d’autres abeilles pollinisent les légumes, les baies et les autres fruits dont nous dépendons tous. Ajouter l’histoire naturelle des abeilles à l’histoire agricole de la production alimentaire souligne les relations fragiles entre les pollinisateurs, les plantes et les humains. (Google Translation)

Fliegende Insekten, insbesondere Bienen, transportieren Pollen zu Blumen, um Pflanzenreproduktion zu ermöglichen. Die Westliche oder Europäische Honigbiene (Apis mellifera) mag am meisten Aufmerksamkeit genießen aufgrund des Honigs, den sie produzieren, aber auch andere Bienen bestäuben Gemüse, Beeren und andere Früchte von denen wir alle abhängig sind. Das Hinzunehmen der Naturgeschichte der Bienen zur Agrargeschichte der Nahrungsproduktion unterstreicht die fragilen Zusammenhänge zwischen Bestäubern, Pflanzen und Menschen.

Keywords:
bees – pollination – crops – beehive – agriculture – the environment

Flying insects, particularly bees, transfer pollen to flowers to facilitate plant reproduction. The Western or European honeybee (Apis mellifera), native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, often receives the most attention because of the honey that results from their pollen-storage system. Yet other bees bear the burden of pollinating vegetables, berries, and other fruits on which we all depend.

Stereograph of an apiary in the Foothills of San Gabriel (Mission San Gabriel Arcángel), Los Angeles County, California, circa 1878. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Plants and insects developed mutually beneficial relationships over millions of years. The plants depended on insects to reproduce through the transfer of pollen from pollen grain to flower stigma, as the insects ate the plants’ pollen and nectar. Bees, a flying insect, became distinct by gathering and storing pollen to feed themselves and their young. DNA research confirms that bees coexisted with flowering plants from the beginning of flowering plants 130 million years ago. Archaeologists find evidence of bees in fossilized resin (amber).

Baltic Amber with Fossil Inclusions. Size 5,5 cm. April 22, 2014. Wikipedia Commons.

All bee species (about 20,000) evolved along with plants in localized biospheres, but only those classified in the genus Apis are technically honeybees. Millenia before humans moved Apis mellifera around the globe, squash bees, bumble bees, and solitary bees, among many others, pollinated crops, including crops native to the Americas, i.e., squash, pumpkins, cranberries, tomatoes, avocados, and potatoes, to name a few. Native bees pollinate plants in their ecosystem more efficiently than does the popular Apis mellifera. In fact, the imported European or Western honeybee completes with the native species for pollen, and humans give Apis mellifera an advantage through special treatment to ensure honey production. This puts other bees more proficient in plant pollination at a disadvantage.

Stereograph of an apiary at Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, circa 1875, with elder Henry Clay Blinn holding a frame. The individual beehives appear to be made of stackable boxes with removable frames in the style patented by Lorenzo L. Langstroth in 1852. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Do museums interpret the complexity of human intervention in the natural process of pollination?

Often interpretation focuses on honeybees, and the artifacts of the beekeeper who worked with them. In North America, colonists imported Avis mellifera to ensure access to honey and to sustain crops imported with the bees. When honeybees swarmed into hollow trees, the beekeepers sometimes cut out the tree and moved the pollinators closer to their gardens, orchards, and clover fields and moved the honey source closer to their kitchen table.

A hollow log-type beehive that likely began as a refuge for a swarm of honeybees in the “garden state” of New Jersey, U.S.A. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.


Humans intervened further in the lives of pollinators by designing different types of homes for bees. The most lasting example of innovation resulted from close and persistent observation of bee behavior. Lorenzo L. Langstroth’s 1852 U.S. Patent for an improved method of constructing beehives revolutionized beekeeping at the time. Langstroth established the concept others have called “bee space” and his basic removable-frame-in-hive design remains an industry standard.

At least one patent holder took inspiration from bees’ natural homes, but only the form, not the function. An 1869 U.S. Patent confirms that tree-hives captured the imagination of Charles E. Spaulding. He explained that his “honey-boxes of a round form…conform more nearly to the natural depositories of the wild bee” and that they “correspond to hollow limbs, which are sought out by the bees in their natural or wild state.” Spaulding, a cheese-box maker in Theresa, New York, thought in the round anyway (the common form of cheese boxes), but his improved hive suited human need more than that of bees. Security features to reduce the likelihood of theft and exterior artwork advertised his product while appealing to consumers. Bee behavior influenced his innovation little.

C. E. Spaulding, “Bee-Hive,” U.S. Patent 89,896 (May 11, 1869, antedated April 8, 1869). The top half contained the honey-boxes, the bottom half, the hives. The top could be rotated to close the passage between hive and honey. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Rarely do museums address the other side of the honeybee story.

Pollinators evolved with other native vegetables and fruits. Intimate relationships between native bees and native varieties developed over time, and native bees do not naturally pollinate invasive species. Neither do honeybees (technically an invasive species in parts of the globe) pollinate native species that they did not evolve in tandem with.

In fact, honeybees undermine the natural relationship of native species because honeybees compete for pollen to produce honey which can undermine the work of less numerous native pollinators in their natural habitat. Humans bear some responsibility for ensuring balance between the bees that exist to pollinate, and those that exist to produce honey. Exploring this reality increases opportunities for history museums to interpret the environment, and agriculture.

In museums that do not interpret agriculture as either their focus or as a topic relevant to their mission, staff can still link their collections to link natural history and the history of domestication. Specifically, advertisements or decorative arts featuring beehives provide a hook to discuss relationships between honeybees, domestication, natural and domesticated plant pollination, and human manipulation of the process. Discussion of foodways in historic houses may naturally lead to the topics of bees and pollination. Those discussions can provoke more thought by distinguishing between food on the table, between imported plants compared to native species, and between imported and native bees. Namely, crops such as grain (wheat, rye, oats) and maize (corn) remained dependent on the wind to move pollen. Humans cultivating these crops did not have to manage hives as market gardeners and truck farmers did (and still do). These comparisons beg for explanation of both natural history and the history of domestication.

Practice your powers of observation by identifying the fruits in this painting by a Mexican artist, and then explore the types of native species that cohabitated with them. Find a still life of foods from your museum’s home (or use your own well-researched foodways program as the basis). Then put the food on a plate in a historic house interpretation that prompts conversations about plant propagation through the natural act of pollination specific to your site (bee-specific about both the local and the imports). That paints the most comprehensive picture of bees and their direct relationships to food supplies historically and today.

Bodegón con frutas (con alacrán y rana) [Still life with fruit (with scorpion and frog)], 1874, by Hermenegildo Bustos (1832-1907), Guanajuato, Mexico.  WikiCommons.

In conclusion, most market-garden and truck-farm crops (i.e., cabbage, green beans, and black-eyed peas); berries (i.e., strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries); and orchard crops (i.e., apples, grapes, pears, peaches, and plums), depend on the mighty pollinator, the native bee, to survive and thrive. Bees also pollinate crops that livestock eat (buckwheat, clover), and crops that produce the fibers we wear (cotton and flax). Bees also pollinate the flowers of matured plants that then yield seeds for the next year’s crop. For these reasons, native species play a significant role worthy of consideration to enrich conversations that the honeybee otherwise dominates.

Sources

Goulson, Dave. A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees (2014); for an excerpt see Goulson, “The Beguiling History of Bees,” Scientific American (April 25, 2014),

Horn, Tammy. Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (2005), 

Langstroth, Lorenzo L. “Improved Mode of Constructing Beehives.” Patent No. 9,300 (October 5, 1852),

_______. Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee: A Bee-Keeper’s Manual (originally published in 1853),

Spaulding, C. E. “Improvement in Bee-Hive.” Patent No. 89,896, May 11, 1869, antedated April 8, 1896.

Debra A. Reid
Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan

What is the relevance of animal traction in the 21st century? Some experiences from the 65th World Ploughing Championship in Einsiedel (Germany)

Zusammenfassung (Abstract):

Basierend auf selbst gemachten Erfahrungen der 65. Pflügerweltmeisterschaft im baden-württembergischen Einsiedeln im Jahr 2018, stellt der Autor die Frage nach der Relevanz von tierischer Anspannung im 21. Jahrhundert. Während in Einsiedeln eine Zuordnung derselben eher in agrarhistorische Zusammenhänge oder als schmückendes Beiwerk deutlich wurde, kann aus den Erfahrungen von Institutionen wie Tillers International oder der modernen Forstwirtschaft eine weitaus höhere Relevanz nachgezeichnet werden. Letztlich plädiert der Autor für eine Stärkung der Tierischen Anspannung nicht nur in einer kulturhistorischen, sondern auch auf der praktischen Ebene.

Keywords

Animal Traction – World Ploughing Championship – Oxen – Horses – Sustainability – Forestry – Agriculture  

On September 1st and 2nd 2018, the 65th World Ploughing Championship took place at the Einsiedel farm estate in Germany. The world´s best ploughers from more than 30 countries competed in stubble and grassland competitions, each with reversible and conventional ploughs and of course – with tractors.

Grassland competition at the World Ploughing Championship 2018 (picture: Claus Kropp)

Alongside the championship itself, the organizers presented a vast supporting program ranging from old-timer tractor shows, regional delicacies, performances and speeches as well as demonstrations of cutting-edge agricultural technology. Another part of the supporting program was the Baden-Württemberg Open Competition for Horse Ploughing and the Hohenheim Field with steam plough demonstrations, featuring the motto “Soil Cultivation in Changing Times”.

Ploughing team at the Baden-Württemberg Open Competition for Horse Ploughing as part of the supporting program of the World Ploughing Championship (picture: Claus Kropp)
Ploughing with draft oxen and (re)constructed medieval plough at the Hohenheim Field Days (picture: Claus Kropp)

Coming from the Lauresham Open Air Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology in southern Germany, we were able to become part of these Hohenheim Field Days with one of our draft oxen and a (re)constructed medieval plough. We also had the chance to present our work and research at the (re)constructed Early Medieval manor with an information desk alongside those of other institutions, associations and museums. Besides being busy with ploughing demonstrations and talking to many interested visitors, I had the chance to take a closer look at the way animal draft power was presented and valued within the event. I asked myself: what is the relevance of animal traction in the 21st century? Judging from the event itself, you could say it is just a relic of a time long gone, a nice thing to have and to preserve as part of our cultural and historical heritage. This can be emphasized with the fact that even the State Horse Ploughing championship was only listed in the supporting program.

I agree one hundred percent that animal draft power is a valuable part of our agricultural past and that agricultural museums need to preserve this knowledge and these practices. In this respect it was right to schedule our ploughing presentation within the “Soil Cultivation in Changing Times” of the Field Days. I nevertheless completely disagree that animal draft power does not play a valuable role in the 21st century and I would have wished that it had been presented not only as a relic of the past but also as an innovative and effective way to cope with the sustainability challenges of our present time. Let me emphasize this with some examples: Looking at the long work of Tillers International in Africa and other continents, it can be strongly stated that – considering the circumstances – ploughing with draft cattle can still be the most economic and efficient way of soil cultivation – not to speak of the most sustainable. The traditional utilization of cattle as three-use-animals (meat, milk and work) plays a key role in this respect. This can also be said for some aspects of modern forestry: In many ways horse- and to some extent also ox-logging once again became effective modern ways of working through a new understanding of sustainable forest management.

It is well known that logging with draft animals ensures far better soil protection than larger forestry machinery (e.g. Harvester) could ever accomplish. It can also be an economic and valuable alternative to heavy machinery when working in steep terrain. I myself had the great opportunity to meet one of the most experienced oxdrivers from France, Philippe Kuhlmann, and he showed me very impressively on his farm that there is no better alternative for him than ox-logging considering his forests lie in the middle of the Vosges Mountains. Both the cows (from which he also produces tasty cheese and which he still milks by hand) and the males (be it bulls of oxen) are used for logging purposes. This was another key moment for me to understand that even in our high-tech society draft animals can play their part.

Vosges cattle working at the farm of Philippe Kuhlmann (picture: Claus Kropp)

Coming back to my experiences at the World Ploughing Championship, I can onlyplead strongly to promote draft animal power in a different way in the future: strengthen the value of it as an important part of our cultural history but at the same time emphasize the use of it today – and tomorrow. In a way, the organizers of future large scale events like this could learn from the way agricultural museums operate around the globe in opening a window onto our past and providing pathways towards our future.

Claus Kropp
Manager Lauresham Open Air Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology
(Germany)