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Are Honey Bees Native to America?
I put this under the section "Philosophy" because it is mostly speculation and does not really apply to anything practical. I will preface this with the statement that I am agnostic on the conclusion. I find the evidence interesting though and so I reprint some previously published information and some of my own speculation. So first a bit of observation on my part.
Also, I would like to point out the hypocrisy of the war in "invasive" species by invasive European humans. The ecology of North and South America have been changed. That was several centuries ago. The ecology had found a new normal and we are living in it. Trying to eradicate parts of the current ecosystem because we have decided they are invasive is foolish, and destructive to the environment. If you are one of those European Americans who feel this way, you need to go back to Europe and leave America alone. I'm not saying we need to bring in more species that don't belong, but for every "invasive" species you can point to as destructive there are hundreds that were beneficial. Honey bees, if they are exotic to the Americas are one of the most beneficial.
Vikings were here around 1000 A.D. If there were no honeybees here at the time, I have no doubt they would have brought them. Vikings without mead are no Vikings at all... The Chinese could have brought them in 1421. No doubt the Spanish brought them sometime after 1500 or so, perhaps as late as the 1600s. But the manifest that is often quoted says they arrived in Virginia in 1622. I consider it very unlikely that the first honey bees arrived in 1622. Earlier introduction fits the facts better than 1622. But being native also fits the facts.
I'm Lakota and one of our words for bee is "wichayazipa". Beeswax is "wichayazipa wigli" which means literally "bees fat". Bumble bee is Wichayazipa hinsma. Honey bee is "wichayazipa thunkce". That is as opposed to words like "wichayazipa zi" (yellow jacket) and "chanhanpi" (sugar). I ask people from other tribes all the time, and have always gotten similar results. They have words for bees, honey and beeswax that are not made up words like the words for monkey or cow or horse. For instance the word for monkey translates "dog man" (shunka wicasa) and horse is "great dog" (shunkawakan) and cow is "female meat" (pte win) while the word for a buffalo cow changed from "female meat" to "real female meat" (pte winyelo). These European things have made up names. Jefferson, who I admire greatly is the only root source I can find for the "white man's flies" name and I can find no Indian tribe who used such a made up name.
Another possibility for bees in North America is the Chinese who in 1421 spread all sorts of things all over the planet. I point these out because some of what is in the following articles might be explained by these earlier migrations of people and creatures. But it is also possible that there were honey bees here already. Certainly we have found honey bees in America in amber from 14 million years ago, so there were honey bees here then and they may or may not have continued. The matter was left open until people just stopped asking the question and decided to assume. Here are some historic references for your enlightenment.
IS THE HONEYBEE NATIVE OF AMERICA?
A Discourse Intended to Commemorate the Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. By Jeremy Belknap.
Delivered at the request of the Historical Society of Massachusetts on the 23rd of October, 1792
Dissertation No. 3, on the question whether the honeybee is a native of America.
Mr. Jefferson, in his notes on Virginia, has said that “The honeybee is not a native of our continent. The Indians concur with us in the tradition that it was brought from Europe, but when and by whom we know not. The bees have generally extended themselves into the country, a little in advance of the white settlers. The Indians called them the white man’s fly; and consider their approach as indicating the approach of the settlement of the whites.” He allows that “in Brazil there is a species of honeybee without a sting, but that is very different from the one we have, which perfectly resembles that of Europe.” The facts adduced by the respectable author are true; but they will not warrant his conclusion that “the honeybee, meaning the one resembling that of Europe, is not a native of our continent.”
There is one circumstance in the history of Columbus which proves that bees were known in the islands of the West Indies, at the time of his discovery. When on his first return to Europe he was in danger of perishing at sea, he wrote an account of his discovery on parchment, which he inclosed in a cake of wax, and put into a tight cask, committing the whole to the sea, in hope of it’s being driven on shore or taken up. This was procured in the island of Hispaniola, which he had visited, and it was one of the first fruits of his discovery.
The indefatigable Purchas gives us an account of the revenues of the Empire of Mexico, before the arrival of the Spaniards, as described in its annals; which were pictures drawn on cotton cloth. Among other articles he exhibits the figures of covered pots with two handles, which are said to be pots of “bees’ honey.” Of these pots, two hundred are depicted in one tribute-roll, and one hundred in several others.
This account is confirmed by the late history of Mexico, written by the Abbe Clavigero, a native of Vera Cruz who from a residence of thirty-six years in Mexico, and a minute inquiry into the natural history and antiquities of his country must be supposed to be well informed, and competent to give a just account. He tells us that a part of every useful production of nature or art was paid in tribute to the kings of Mexico, and among other articles of revenue he reckons “600 cups of honey” paid annually by the inhabitants of the southern part of the empire. He also says, “that though they extracted a great quantity of wax from the honeycomb, they either did not know how or were not at pains to make lights of it.”
In his enumeration of the insects of Mexico, he reckons six different kinds of bees which make honey, four of which have no stings, and one of the other two which have stings, one “agrees with the common bee of Europe, not only in size, shape and color, but also disposition and manners, and in qualities of its honey and wax.” In the account given by Purchas, of the travels of Ferdinado de Soto, in Florida, it is observed that when he came to Chiaha, which by the description was one of the upper branches of the Mobile (now in the State of Georgia) he found among the provisions of the natives “a pot full of honey of bees.” This was A.D. 1540, when there were no Europeans settled on the continent of America, but in Mexico and Peru.
From these authorities it is evident that honeybees were known in Mexico and the islands, before the arrival of the Europeans; and that they had extended as far northward as Florida, a country so denominated from the numberless flowers, which grow there in the wild luxuriance and afford a plenty of food for this useful tribe of insects. The inference is, that bees were not imported by the Spaniards; for however fond they might be of honey as an article of food, or of wax to make tapers for common use, or for the illumination of their churches, yet as bees were known to be in the country there could be no need of importing them. The report of honey and wax being found in the islands, in Mexico, and in Florida, had reached Europe and had been published there long before any emigrations were made to the northward; therefore, if these had been considered as articles of subsistence or of commerce, the sanguine spirit of the first adventurers would have rather led them to think of finding them in America, than of transporting bees from Europe to make them.
As to the circumstance of the bees “extending themselves a little in advance of white settlers,” it cannot be considered as a conclusive argument in favor or their having been first brought from Europe. It is well known that where land is cultivated bees find a greater plenty of food than in the forest. The blossoms of fruit trees, of grasses and grain, particularly clover and buckwheat, afford them a rich and plentiful repast, and they are seen in vast numbers in our fields and orchards at the season of those blossoms. They therefore delight in the neighborhood of “the white settlers”, and are able to increase in numbers, as well as to augment their quantity of stores, by availing themselves of the labors of man. May it not be from this circumstance that the Indians have given them the name of “the white man’s fly”; and that they “consider their approach (or frequent appearance) as indicating the approach of the settlement of the whites?” The first European settlement in Virginia was made about seventy years after the expedition of De Soto, in Florida, and the first settlement in New England was ten years posterior to that of Virginia. The large intermediate country was uncultivated for a long time afterward. The southern bees, therefore, could have no inducement to extend themselves very far into the northward for many years after the settlements were begun, and within that time bees were imported from Europe. That honey and wax were not known to the Indians of New England is evident from this, that they had no words in their language for them. When Mr. Eliot translated the Bible into the Indian language, wherever these terms occurred he used the English words, though sometimes with Indian termination.
Joffelyn, who visited New England first in 1638, and afterward in 1663, and wrote an account of his voyage with some sketches of natural history in 1673, speaks of the honeybee in these words: “the honeybees are carried over by the English, and thrive there exceedingly.” There is a tradition in New England that the person who first brought a hive of bees into the country was rewarded with a grant of land; but the person’s name, or the place where the land lay or by whom the grant was made, I have not been able to learn.
It appears then that the honeybee is a native of America, and that its productions were found by the first European visitors as far northward as Florida and Georgia. It is also true that bees were imported from Europe into New England, and probably into Virginia; but whether if this importation had not taken place, the bees of the southern parts would not have extended themselves northerly, or whether those which we now have are not a mixture of native and imported bees, cannot be determined. It is however certain that they have multiplied exceedingly, and that they are frequently found in New England, in a wild state, in the trunks of hollow trees, as far northward as cultivation and settlements have extended, which is nearly to the 45th degree of latitude. I have made an inquiry of several persons from Canada, but have not learned that bees were known during their residence in that country. It is, however, not improbable that as cultivation extends, the bees may find their way to the northward of the lakes and rivers of Canada, even though none should be transported thither by the inhabitants.
Still American Bee Journal June 1923 (Vol 63 No 6) page 300