In the May, 1879, issue of Gleanings in Bee Culture, A. I. Root proposed a revolutionary idea-the sale of live bees by the pound. He had lost many of his bees, and had nearly a ton of honey in sealed combs just right for building up new colonies. He thought that if he could buy live bees by the quart, it would be a practical means of re-establishing his apiary. By counting and weighing a hundred bees, he came to the conclusion that a quart of bees would weigh approximately a pound, and proposed to pay a dollar a pound for live bees delivered to him at shipper's risk.
He even went so far as to devise a cage in which they might be shipped and described it as follows:
Get a wire cloth screen such as is used to cover dishes to keep flies away. They can be had from any tinsmith, for a few cents each, and can be had of different sizes. Cut out a piece of board so as to just fit inside, and then make a large hole in the center of the board, so as to leave, in fact, only a ring of wood. Tack a piece of tin on the bottom of the board so as to cover this hole, and then fasten a low flat bottle in the center of the hole. A couple of wires twisted around its neck, with the ends tacked into the wood will hold it. Now the space between the wood and the bottle is to be filled with candy. The candy must not be put in until it is nearly cold, or it may break the bottle. Fill the bottle with water, put in a large wick and the bees will have pure sugar, pure water, and plenty of pure air while on their journey, and the shape of the package is such that the expressman will not be likely to tip it over or throw anything on to it.
A drawing of the package was shown along with the description. He further proposed to open a department for publishing the names of those who wished to buy or sell live bees. Thus was a start made in a new direction, a start which was to require a very long time to reach serious proportions, but which in time was to establish an important branch of the beekeeping industry.
In the next issue the editor told about two shipments of bees which came to him as a result of the announcement. One came from Nebraska without water and with bees nearly all dead; the other from P. L. Viallon, of Louisiana, with not much better success. These were very probably the first shipments of live bees separate from the hives in which full colonies were moved. Queens with a small number of escorts were at that time commonly shipped by express.
The winter of 1880-81 was an unfavorable one for wintering bees and heavy losses occurred. In the April, 1881, issue of Gleanings, the editor announced that Italian bees were worth $2 per pound for April, $1. 50 for May, $1. 25 for June, and $1 for July. In the same issue appeared a list of twelve beekeepers from New York to Texas, who would supply live bees at these prices.
This cage for shipping live bees was first suggested by A. I. Root in 1879.
In the June number, the editor illustrated a new cage for the purpose of shipping live bees, and also a tin funnel for shaking them into the cage. He reluctantly announced that the price must continue at $2 per pound as in April, due to the very heavy demand. In that issue is first raised the question of the weight of bees, as to whether or not they have been gorged with honey. P. L. Viallon, the correspondent, pointed out that this question must be settled in order to avoid later difficulties. He stated that as much as 25 per cent difference in weight of a given number of bees is possible through the taking of food. Root assumes that enough bees will be added to insure that the customer will get full weight in live bees at the end of the journey.
Although package shipping thus received an auspicious start, many failures resulted. In some cases the bees went through with hardly any loss; at other times nearly all were dead on arrival. Viallon appears to have been the first to achieve fairly dependable results by means of using candy for feed. He described it as follows:
I take twelve ounces of powdered white sugar, four ounces of Louisiana brown sugar, one tablespoonful of flour, and two tablespoonfuls of honey, stir well together, and add just enough water to make it like thick mush; then bring it to the boiling point, or if too much water is added boil it a minute or two; then stir it well until it begins to thicken, and pour quickly into each cage.
While this same candy was used for stocking queen cages, it served also for the packages. A variation in the amount of boiling, or some other detail, often resulted in the loss of the bees through failure of the candy, and so many losses occurred that interest soon lagged.
Where syrup was used with a wick, it often happened that the wick became clogged and the bees starved on the journey because they were unable to get the food, or it was wasted by feeding too fast.
The real reason why package shipping did not develop at that time was for lack of consistent demand. Only in seasons of heavy winter losses, when bees were needed for replacement, was there a satisfactory market for the bees. Under such conditions there was no incentive for any shipper to prepare for a demand which might not appear. Accordingly, the idea of shipping live bees in combless packages was all but forgotten for many years, although the business of queen rearing continued to thrive. For a period of about thirty years consideration of the subject dropped out of the magazines.