A discourse, intended to commemorate the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus; delivered at the request of the Historical Society in Massachusetts, on the 23d day of October, 1792, being the completion of the third century since that memorable event. : To which are added, four dissertations, connected with various parts of the discourse, viz. 1. On the circumnavigation of Africa by the ancients. 2. An examination of the pretentions of Martin Behaim to a discovery of America prior to that of Columbus, with a chronological detail of all the discoveries made in the 15th century. 3. On the question, whether the honey-bee is a native of America? 4. On the colour of the native Americans and the recent population of this continent.
Belknap, Jeremy, 1744-1798., Massachusetts Historical Society.
Page  117


MR. JEFFERSON, in his notes on Virginia, has said, that "the honey bee 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 ex|tended themselves into the country, a little in advance of the white settlers, The Indi|ans therefore call them the white man's fly; and consider their approach as indicating the approach of the settlement of the whites." He allows that "in Brasil there is a species of honey bee, without a sting, but that it is very different from the one we have, which perfect|ly resembles that of Europe." The facts ad|duced by this respectable author are true; but they will not warrant his conclusion that "the honey bee, meaning the one resembling that of Europe, is not a native of our conti|nent."*

Page  118There 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 perish|ing at sea, he wrote an account of his discov|ery on parchment, which he enclosed in a cake of wax, and put into a tight cask, com|mitting the whole to the sea, in hope of its being driven on shore or taken up. This wax 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 ac|count of the revenues of the empire of Mex|ico, before the arrival of the Spaniards, as described in its annals; which were pictures drawn on cotton cloth. Among other arti|cles he exhibits the figures of covered pots, with two handles, which are said to be pots of "bees honie."* Of these pots, two hun|dred are depicted in one tribute-roll, and one hundred in several others.

This account is confirmed by a late history of Mexico, written by the Abbe Clavigero, a native of Vera Cruz, who from a residence of Page  119 thirty-six years in Mexico, and a minute in|quiry into the natural history and antiquities of his country must be supposed to be well informed, and competent to give a just ac|count. He tells us, that a part of every use|ful 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 inhabi|tants of the southern parts of the empire.* He also says, "that though they extracted a great quantity of wax from the honey comb; they either did not know how, or were not at the pains to make lights of it."

In his enumeration of the insects of Mex|ico, he reckons six different kinds of bees which make honey,* four of which have no stings, and of the other two which have stings, one "agrees with the common bee of Europe, not only in size, shape and colour; but also in its disposition and manners, and in the qualities of its honey and wax."

In the account given by Purchas, of the travels of Ferdinando de Soto, in Florida, it is observed, that when he came to Chiaha, Page  120 which by the description was on one of the upper branches of the Mobille, [now in the state of Georgia] he found among the provi|sions of the natives "a pot full of honie 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 honey bees 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 wild luxuriance and afford a plenty of food, for this useful tribe of insects. The inference is, that bees were not imported by the Span|iards; 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 illumina|tion 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; if Page  121 therefore if these had been considered as articles of subsistence or of commerce; the sanguine spirit of the first adventurers would have rath|er led them to think of finding them in Amer|ica, than of transporting bees from Europe to make them.

As to the circumstance of the bees "ex|tending themselves a little in advance of the white settlers," it cannot be considered as a conclusive argument in favour of 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 buck wheat, af|ford 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 neighbourhood of "the white settlers," and are able to increase in numbers, as well as to augment their quan|tity of stores, by availing themselves of the labour of man. May it not be from this cir|cumstance that the Indians have given them the name of "the white man's fly;" and that they "consider their approach (or frequent Page  122 appearance) as indicating the approach of the settlement of the whites?"

The first European settlement in Virginia was made about seventy years after the expe|dition of Soto, in Florida, and the first settle|ment in New England was ten years posterior to that in Virginia. The large intermediate country was uncultivated for a long time af|terward. The southern bees therefore could have no inducement, to extend themselves very far to the northward, for many years af|ter 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 an Indian termination.

Josselyn, who visited New England first in 1638, and afterward in 1663, and wrote an account of his voyages with some sketches of natural history in 1673, speaks of the honey bee in these words, "The honey bees are Page  123 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 honey bee is a na|tive of America, and that its productions were found by the first European visitors as far northward as Florida and Georgia. It is al|so true that bees were imported from Europe into New England, and probably into Virgi|nia; but whether, if this importation had not taken place, the bees of the southern parts would not have extended themselves norther|ly, 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 Eng|land, in a wild state, in the trunks of hollow trees, as far northward as cultivation and set|tlements have extended, which is nearly to the forty-fifth degree of latitude.

Page  124I have made 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 culti|vation extends, the bees may find their way to the northward of the lakes and river of Ca|nada, even though none should be transport|ed thither by the inhabitants.