Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Bees of Sierra Madre Villa

Apiary at Cogswell’s Sierra Madre Villa
Ca. 1886, Carleton E. Watkins
Courtesy of the California History Room
California State Library, Sacramento

The picture above is a "cabinet photo" of the beekeeping operation at the old Sierra Madre Villa Hotel.

My search for Sierra Madre Villa beekeeping turned up an old issue of the Western Honey Bee and an article from an old timer who reminisces about early beekeepers in Los Angeles County. He lists more than a dozen beekeepers operating in the 1870's - 80's. He writes, "Nearly all of the apiaries were at the foot of the Sierra Madre, wherever a stream or spring could be found."

So, it shouldn't surprise that the enterprising folks of the Sierra Madre Villa Hotel kept bees -- the old hotel being amply supplied with water from the nearby stream flowing from Davis Canyon.

Apiary at Sierra Madre Villa
Ca. 1886, Carleton E. Watkins
Courtesy of the California History Room
California State Library, Sacramento

I count more than 75 of the box towers or bee hives. From what I've read, each hive may have 20,000 to 60,000 bees, depending upon what time of year it is. If all of these hives were occupied, that's a lot of bees.

At first, I was surprised to see the beekeeper in these photos walking around among all these bees without any protection. Though I don't quite understand it, there seem to be other beekeepers who work with bees without the white spacesuit and mesh helmet as protection.

Apiary at Sierra Madre Villa
ca. 1886, Carleton E. Watkins
Courtesy of the California State Library, Sacramento

This view provides a good look at what much of the East Pasadena terrain probably looked like 120 years ago. You can also see the reach of the apiary.

When I first saw these photos, I wondered why Carleton Watkins would go to all the trouble to take these pictures. Photography back in the 1880's was not exactly a casual "point and shoot" thing -- there were heavy plates and equipment to lug around. There must have been something about the apiary or the whole idea of keeping honey bees that grabbed his attention. Might be that beekeeping was kind of novel -- honey bees were relatively new to California -- introduced in 1857. Or maybe he sampled some of the Villa's honey and was taken by the little insects that produced it.

From the photo, the terrain looks a little barren to support bees. Not visible in the picture were the area's citrus groves that were downhill from the apiary. Reportedly, the Villa alone had 5,000 large orange trees. I don't know what it takes to keep millions of bees in nectar, but that's probably a good start.


Bellis said...

I had no idea honeybees were only introduced in 1857. How were the native plants pollinated before that? And your photo confirms something I've noticed in other old pictures - the foothills of the San Gabriels were pretty barren in those days. Had there been recent fires or was the chaparral cut down, do you think?

Michael Coppess said...

Thanks Bellis -- I have the same questions about pollination prior to introduction of the honeybees. Hopefully David or some of the other folks who check this blog will have an idea.
And, yes,I think the foothills, like most of SoCal, were pretty barren before water was piped down from the canyons.

Michael Coppess said...

Looking at the rather barren natural landscape it is easy to imagine the fascination with water back in the late 1800's. Wm. Cogswell, the Villa's owner, used to enjoy giving tours of the Villa's water source. I had a pretty good post on that last year:

Petrea said...

I don't have any information to add. You're my source on this! Fascinating stuff. And I love the pictures.

altadenahiker said...

Fun stuff! I knew someone grew up with a bee-keeping father. Neither wore protection. I think he said it was because they had been stung so many times they were now immune to the venom.

David Sneiders said...

Cool revisit to local beekeeping history Michael. Didn't know of this. One note is that AHB (Africanized Honey Bees) hadn't come up from south yet & European HB's are much more docile & less frequently swarm (reproduce).

Actually the pilgrims brought EHB's(Euro Honey Bee's) but Michael's right that California had em intro'd later on west coast. Indigenous Americans called em the "white mans fly" as they preceeded the settlers advance. Local pollinators indigenous to the America's sufficed just fine before current intensive agricultural practices. EHB are obsessive in visiting only one type of flower on outting, & being a super organism, very efficient. Unfortunately monoculture Ag isn't that good for the bee (or us), but I could go on & on.

Altadena Hiker is right some folks stung on regular basis have less reaction to no reaction. A Dutch dude at our community garden has our Swiss gardener sting him in back to alieve the arthritis (apitherapy).

Wish I had the land or extra space for more bee rescues/ relocations as this year was the most w/ the El Nino rains (12 & counting so far). Still getting more offers to rescue/relocate hives. Hopefully will figure out where to place em. BTW anyone hear of the new Hermon community garden establishing a bee area?

Cheers, David Sneiders-BeeRescue-Residental Beekeeping

PS You might all know but went to Earthside today, Saturday & the shade house is renovated as well as some redwood path rails. Whats up?! Will post pics later in my Picasa.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

very interest. thanks for making this information available