Early Insecticide Controversies and Beekeeper Advocacy in the Great Lakes Region
Environmental History, Volume 26, Issue 1, January 2021, Pages 79–101
This article examines the debates that surrounded incidents of honeybee poisoning in the southern Great Lakes region in the 1880s and 1890s. Drawing upon the records of beekeepers and allied entomologists from Ontario and neighboring states, it analyzes the history of insecticide use, knowledge development, and risk calculation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Here, beekeepers emerge as an important and largely overlooked collective voice in the history of insecticide controversies, contributing as they did to legislation, education, and advocacy efforts on both sides of the US-Canadian border. Their actions in response to a cogent threat to their livelihoods mark them as early advocates for environmental protection. Deeply familiar with the amenities and threats of surrounding land uses for their honey crop, late nineteenth-century beekeepers pressed for prudent insecticide use and “bee-friendly” horticultural practices more than half a century before the more familiar insecticide controversies of the postwar period. By the turn of the century, these efforts had borne some success in reducing incidents of honeybee poisoning. As the frequency, quantity, and toxicity of insecticides increased in the early twentieth century, however, powerful fruit-grower interests left Great Lakes beekeepers (and their bees) to shoulder the risks of an increasingly toxic countryside or to fold their operations, as many chose to do. For environmental historians, their fight presents an early example of the effects of agricultural industrialization, and its associated environmental consequences, on minority producers and the animals they kept.