The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Fall 1969, Volume 15, Number 4
Rita Larkin, Editor

John S. Harbison: Pioneer San Diego Beekeeper

By Lee H. Watkins

Images from the article

When John S. Harbison, with his partner, Mr. R. G. Clark, arrived in San Diego aboard the "Orizaba" with one hundred and ten colonies of bees on November 28, 1869, he had long been recognized as California's leading beekeeper. His appearance in San Diego County was the beginning of a chapter in his life that was destined, within seven years time, to make him the largest producer of honey in the world. His success in capitalizing on the vast honey potential of San Diego County, along with his extensive campaign of selling bees to the residents of the county was the major force in making San Diego County the greatest honey producing county in California by 1874. The State of California at that time became and has remained the leading honey producing state of the Union.

His was a rare genius that combined theory with practice. During the great explosive development of modern bee­keeping in the latter half of the nine­teenth century America, he made several important basic contributions to apicultural industry, especially with his "section honey box," which was an intregal part of his patented "California Hive," developed during the winter of 1857-58. His hive, soon to be known to all as the "Harbison Hive," was described and illustrated in great detail in his book, The Beekeeper's Directory, Or The Theory And Practice Of Bee Culture, published by H. H. Bancroft and Co. in San Francisco, April, 1861. He also published a number of papers on beekeeping and was the leading figure in organizing The Pacific Apiarian Society in 1860, the first beekeepers association west of the Mississippi River.

His methods of operating numerous apiaries were developed during his Sacramento years. By 1870 he owned about two thousand colonies of bees with most of the apiaries strung south of Sutterville along the Sacramento River. At this time anyone operating more than one hundred hives of bees was considered a large beekeeper.

During the 1870's and 1880's in the sage and buckwheat regions of San Diego County, Harbison was able to bring his organizing skills into full play. By 1878 his success in comb honey production had encouraged so many others to take up beekeeping that there were some twenty-three thousand colonies of bees in the county.

Harbison has often been credited with bringing the first honeybees to California (the honeybee, Apis mellifera, is not a native of the Western Hemisphere but was imported by the early colonists from Europe,) but this honor belongs to the botanist Christopher A. Shelton, who arrived in San Francisco aboard the steamship "Isthmus" on March 14, 1853, with twelve colonies of bees. He immediately took them to San Jose but only one hive survived. It did well, casting three swarms the first summer. There is no record of any other honeybees being successfully imported until William Buck brought thirty-six hives from New York via the Panama Route arriving November 30, 1855. Only eighteen of the hives were alive when he reached San Jose. Buck made three more importations arriving with his last shipment on February 20, 1858, with one hundred and nineteen colonies of which it was reported that seventy-five survived.

J. S. Harbison brought in his first shipment of bees aboard the "Sonora" on November 30, 1857, to San Francisco where he transferred them to the river boat "New World" for Sacramento arriving there on December 2. Of the sixty-seven colonies he started with from the Harbison apiary near Newcastle, Pennsylvania, only five hives were completely dead upon arrival though several more were so weak that he united them with stronger ones, so that he finally had left fifty colonies.

John Stewart Harbison, the third child of William and Margaret (Curry) Harbison, was born on a farm near Freedom, Beaver County, Pennsylvania, on September 29, 1826. With his older brother W. C. (William Curry) and his younger, Andrew, he grew up on a farm in the Chenango township of Lawrence County, where his parents had moved during his childhood. All three brothers followed in their father's footsteps and learned the nursery trade as well as that of beekeeping. John was seriously interested in apiculture by his seventeenth year and gave intimations of his future attainments by constructing an improved version of the new John Weeks' "Vermont Chamber Hive," which in itself was a great improvement over the log gums, skeps and box hives used by the farmers in Western Pennsylvania. This occurred several years before the invention of the modern moveable frame hive in 1851 by Rev. Lorenzo L. Langstroth, and made known to the beekeeping world through his famous book, The Hive And The Honey Bee, published in 1853.

In 1854, when a serious drought caused fifty per cent of his bees to perish, Harbison decided to try his luck in the gold fields of California. Traveling via the Nicaragua route he arrived in San Francisco aboard the "Sierra Nevada" on November 20. After a few weeks of digging in the Campo Seco region in Calaveras County, he moved to Sacramento and started working in the Sutterville sawmill of T. F. Gould & Co., on December 5. There he was employed until the fall of the following year, but he had other ideas in mind. Within a few weeks he sent East for seedling fruit trees and seeds. Upon their arrival in late February of 1855 he opened a nursery on the property of Jefferson Lake in Sutterville. Though his was not the first nursery in the Sacramento area, he did bring in many of the first fruit trees that helped form the early orchards in that region. He evidently did a considerable business, as his freight bill during the fall of 1855 and the spring of 1856 totaled $8,600.

After considerable thought and planning on how best to import honeybees into California he returned to the family farm in May, 1857; there, during the month of June he transferred the bees into specially built small boxes and then left them to fill up with honey during the summer. Late in October a large hole was cut in the side of each box and a sort of screen porch added so that if the bees became too hot in the hive they could cluster off the comb. Harbison took sixty-seven of these small boxes by riverboat and then by rail via Philadelphia to New York from which port he sailed with his bees on November 5, 1857, aboard the steamer "Northern Light."

From the apiary he established on the east bank of the Sacramento River in Sutterville he sold, by the first of April, 1858, sixteen of his colonies for one hundred dollars gold each. The remaining thirty-four hives he divided as rapidly as their strength would permit, ending the season with one hundred and twenty colonies, of which he sold all but six. According to the detailed records kept in his Daybook during the trip West, it had cost him eight hundred eleven dollars and ten cents to bring his bees to Sacramento. Using a Dickerson windmill as his power source, he sawed out and nailed up at a cost of about two dollars each the hives in which he sold his bees. His gross from the sale of bees during the 1858 season was thirteen thousand dollars.

Harbison returned to Pennsylvania at the end of the season to bring another lot of bees to California. Months before he sailed though, he had sent to his brothers, W. C. in Pennsylvania, and Andrew in Illinois, detailed instructions as to how to construct small hives with moveable frames that would fit his new "California Hive." Apparently Harbison was the only one to con­struct special small hives for the long trek to California. By so doing his freight charges were half those paid by the other importers using ordinary sized bee hives.

He left the home apiary near Newcastle on November 15, 1858, with twenty-three boxes containing forty-six swarms. In the meantime Andrew, from their apiary near Centralia, Illinois, prepared thirty-four boxes in the same manner and shipped them by rail to New York, where they were waiting when John arrived. He sailed for Aspinwall on December 6 aboard the "Illinois." From Panama the bees were brought to San Francisco aboard the "Golden Age," arriving on December 29, with the journey ending in Sacramento on December 31.

Though the bees had been confined in their hives for forty-seven days without additional food or water, only eleven colonies were dead on arrival. Due to the extremely bad weather during Janu­ary, there were but sixty-two left alive by the middle of March, plus the six hives wintered over in Sacramento. Harbison was able to divide and increase these sixty-eight colonies to a total of four hundred and twenty-two by early fall. Of these he sold two hundred and eighty-four for one hundred dollars each.

Harbison wrote in his book (page 43) that between October 1st, 1858, and April 1st, 1859, one thousand colonies of bees were shipped to Cali­fornia from the East Coast via the Isthmus of Panama; however, because of improper care en-route and after arrival, scarcely two hundred of the hives were alive by May, 1859.

Most of these shippers knew little or nothing about the care of honeybees, simply buying hives in the East for around five dollars each, tacking screens over the bottoms and entrances, and loading them on boats for San Francisco, expecting to sell them for at least one hundred dollars per hive.

These virtual failures were ignored when the word got around that Harbison had grossed nearly $30,000.00 from the sale of bees in 1859. This touched off the greatest mass movement of honey­bee colonies the world has ever seen. During the winter of 1859 and I860 it is estimated that between seven and ten thousand colonies were brought to California, most of them being shipped from New York Harbor and all traveling via the Isthmus of Panama Route.

The California newspapers called it the "bee fever," stating that every steamship arriving in San Francisco had beehives piled on its decks. Over one thousand colonies arrived during the last week in January, 1860; the "Sonora" docked on Friday with four hundred hives aboard and the "Orizaba" arrived the following Monday with six hundred and fifty more.

Drawn by the magic name of Harbison, a large percentage of the importers took their bees directly to Sacramento. That spring at least one thousand hives of bees were located on vacant lots in the city, becoming soon a public nuisance.

These large imports broke the market and by January some hives were selling for as low as four dollars each. Harbison, with his established reputation, kept selling his bees for one hundred dollars each until early September when he announced that he would lower his price to eighty dollars.

Though approximately one thousand types of bee hives were patented in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century, the "Harbison hive" was the only one that became standard in any large area (California in this case) during the period from 1860 to about 1890.

Several of the new apicultural inventions spelled the eventual doom of Harbison's hive, but its disuse was mainly brought about by the honey extractor, invented in 1865 and introduced into California in 1871. Harbison had designed his hive to produce comb honey only. With the extractor it became possible to produce more surplus honey with less difficulty, especially during poor honey seasons. Honey in liquid form was also easier to package, store and market.

With his unfailing business sense, Harbison was the only American patentee of a bee hive to make large profits from his invention. While other hive inventors were content to sell individual, county and state rights to beekeepers, leaving them to make their own hives and find their own bees, Harbison had the vision not to stop there; he built hives by the thousands, filled them with bees and then sold them for premium prices.

It is an almost universal belief among non-beekeepers that very little labor and skill is required to be a successful beekeeper. Harbison's success indicates the falsity of this still widely held myth. Disease and drastically lower prices for bees and honey, along with the overcrowding of the bee ranges in the Sacramento area, soon drove the speculators and the seekers for a quick buck out of the business. Harbison, unperturbed by these events, increased his holdings during the 1860's, and by the end of the decade was operating about two thousand colonies with most of his apiaries scattered along the Sacramento River below Sutterville. He re-entered the nursery business specializing in locust and Lombardy poplar trees but selling all types of nursery stock.

Clark and Harbison established their partnership in November, 1869, with a contract running for four years, in which Harbison agreed to furnish one hundred and ten colonies of bees, the required bee supplies, and the necessary financing to transport and keep the bees in San Diego County. Clark was to have complete charge of the apiaries, and the partners were to divide equally the surplus honey and any increase in the colonies whether from natural swarms or by artificial division. Clark was an experienced beekeeper as he and his brother had purchased bees from Harbison in 1860 and had conducted an apiary in the lone Valley, Amador County.

The first apiary of Clark & Harbison was established on the R. S. Pardee farm, near what is now the town of Lakeside some nine miles northeast of San Diego. Pardee, having purchased in the summer of 1869 a few hives of bees from a peddlar who had brought a wagon load of bees down from Los Angeles County, was so impressed by the amount of fine white honey they made that he wrote to his friend R. G. Clark of his success. Clark in turn became interested and traveled to Sacramento where he succeeded in getting Harbison to risk venturing into an unknown territory.

Mr. Harbison stated later that neither he nor Clark knew in 1869 the floral source of the honey Pardee had harvested. Harbison accompanied Clark and the bees to the Pardee farm but returned to Sacramento in a few days. Clark spent much of his time the first year exploring the county from the sea coast to as far back as Julian, and from the Mexican border well into the northern part of the county which then extended into much of what is now Riverside County. He came to the conclusion, and it was a correct one, that the mountain sages, Salvia mellifera (the black, or button sage), and Salvia apiana (the white sage) were the most important honey producers.

During the 1870's many small apiaries were located close to the Coast, but the main honey range was the area running from about fifteen miles in from the Coast east to Volcan, Cuyamaca and Laguna mountains, and extending from below the Mexican border north well into Monterey County. It was into this uninhabited region of small valleys, flats and ravines that the beekeepers moved in force, taking up government land wherever they found water and a piece of land flat enough to put up a small house and to set out their rows of bee hives. Many soon had their vegetable garden, a cow and a few fruit trees, demonstrating the possibility of farming in this desolate back country.

By 1873 Clark & Harbison had sold three hundred colonies of bees to the residents of the county with most of them going at twenty dollars per hive; thus, practically every farmer and many townspeople were in the bee business. Many were successful and the number of bees in the county grew rapidly. Harbison imported from his Sacramento apiaries one hundred and fifty-four colonies in November, 1871, for Clark & Harbison, then in the fall of 1872 and the spring of 1874 imported five hundred and forty hives for his own apiaries. When the contract between Harbison and Clark expired in November, 1873, they split the bees and the apiary sites evenly and operated separate outfits after that date.

In the spring of 1874 Harbison moved with his wife and daughter, Florence, to San Diego County, taking up a homestead near the Sweetwater River twenty-three miles from San Diego in a little valley now known as Harbison Canyon. He built a two story house in December, 1875, at the corner of 12th and C Streets in San Diego into which the Harbison family moved early in 1876. This was to remain his home until his death over thirty-five years later, October 12, 1912, at the age of eighty-six.

The impact of Harbison's apicultural activities on the industrial economy of San Diego County was a major one, for the beekeepers, more than any other group, were the first to open up the back country to agriculture. When Clark & Harbison appeared on the San Diego scene only thirty-two hives of bees were recorded on the County Assessor's roils. By 1873 they had one thousand one hundred and eighty colonies in four apiaries which produced over thirty tons of comb honey, while the total colonies in the county had risen to one thousand eight hundred and fifty-four. During the 1874 season Harbison alone had two thousand colonies in the county, located in five apiaries. Some writers have claimed that Harbison operated up to six thousand colonies, but Harbison himself stated that his maximum was three thousand seven hundred and fifty hives, placed in twelve locations from near the Mexican border north into the area of Fallbrook. At the peak of his operations fifteen men were employed to take care of the bees.

In 1874 beekeeping became a major industry in the county. Two sawmills were kept busy a good part of the year turning out beehives, frames, section boxes and shipping cases. Honey production for that year was nearly one-half million pounds. Several San Diego merchants engaged in buying and selling honey the beekeepers hauled into town in their wagons. A few of these buyers were: A. Pauly & Sons; Steiner, Klauber & Co.; Hamilton & Co.; and later A. Wentscher.

The Annual Report of the Chamber of Commerce stated that 2,075,000 pounds of honey were produced in 1878. That same year but 1,050,000 pounds of wool were marketed. The season of 1884 surpassed that of 1878, with a total of 2,177,590 pounds. Indicating a trend toward extract honey, a trend in which Harbison never participated, over one million pounds of the honey shipped that year was liquid honey in cans and barrels. The honey crop for the entire thate that year was about nine and one-half million pounds, with San Diego leading all the other counties.

As early as 1873 California produced so much honey that the Pacific Coast markets could not absorb it all. Instead of holding his crop or selling it off cheaply, Harbison in October inaugurated a new practice that was to result in tremendous consequences for the beekeeping industry in California and the United States. He loaded on a steamship in San Diego 21,000 pounds of his comb honey destined for Chicago. In San Francisco the honey was transferred to a freight car, filling it to capacity. After the honey arrived in Chicago Harbison sold it to C. O. Perrine, a wholesale honey dealer, for twenty-seven cents a pound.

Harbison was the first to use the new trans-continental railroad for shipping large amounts of honey, and in the years to follow he sent well over one hundred cars to the Eastern markets.

In a few years the Harbison two-pound sections of comb honey could be found in stores from Boston to Baltimore. In 1876 he shipped over twenty-five carloads, with one train of ten cars going to New York. The arrival of one hundred tons of California sage honey under the Harbison label was a sensational feat that created a great amount of favorable publicity for Harbison and San Diego. A large portion of the honey he sold on the Eastern markets that year was produced by other San Diego beekeepers. He spent several months in the East that fall placing carloads of honey in many of the major cities and wrote to his cousin and manager, J. H. Harbison, that he could sell twice as much honey if he had it.

The first car of comb honey he sold in Chicago in 1873 had a very important side effect in that it revolutionized the retailing of comb honey in the Eastern markets. In 1873 the American bee­keepers east of the Mississippi were still marketing most of their honey in boxes containing about five pounds of honey and comb, covered on one or two sides with glass. Harbison's smaller and more convenient two pound sections were quickly adopted soon after their appearance in the grocery stores in the Chicago area, and by the next season a number of patents were applied for on sections in imitation of Harbison's, varying in size from two pounds down to twelve ounces.

After some years of experimentation with various sizes and shapes the square, one pound section became, and still is, standard. Harbison never changed his section, contending that his was better able to stand the rough handling incurred in shipping long distances by rail By 1889 it had been forgotten that Harbison was the inventor of the comb honey section and when the question arose in the bee journals he wrote one of his infrequent letters to the American Bee Journal pointing out that he had invented the comb honey section in 1857.

A meeting of the beekeepers in San Diego County was called by Harbison at Horton's Hall on the afternoon of November 23, 1875. On that day he had to testify at the Webb murder case, so the beekeepers gathered and immediately ajourned to meet again that evening in order that Harbison might be present. He had asked the beekeepers to meet mainly to consider what action to take regarding the "no fence" law passed by the State Legislature on February 14, 1871, which gave protection from the trespass of cattle or sheep only to owners of cultivated land. The beekeepers felt that those who had taken up government land for an apiary and a house should have protection also for their bee range. As a result of this meeting the beekeepers circulated a petition and obtained three hundred signatures from the residents of San Diego County, the only opposition coming from the cattle and sheep men. Harbison commented on this conflict of interest and of that between the beekeepers and fruit growers in the American Bee Journal (October 5, 1889, p. 628) as follows:

"The introduction of bee-keeping in this county in a great measure destroyed the sheep and cattle business, and now in turn the fruit and vineyard industries have destroyed bee-keeping, over a large extent of the county."

There had been complaints that honey­bees were a public nuisance in the City of San Diego as early as September 1, 1876, as well as the charge that they were destroying fruit on the trees. It was in the fall of 1884 that the conflicting interests of the beekeepers and fruit growers became acute upon the filing of a law suit by Major Levi Chase against the beekeeper Mr. J. E. Castle. On January 27, 1885, after the trial date had been set, Mr. Castle capitulated, agreeing to move his apiary away from the vicinity of Major Chase's property and to pay the court costs. The result of this suit and another against the beekeeper Gustave Bohn, of San Bernardino County, in the fall of 1885 convinced the fruitgrowers that they were right, though evidence by experts had been presented in the Bohn trial demonstrating that honeybees could not harm grapes or fruits with unbroken skins.

Some of the fruit growers became impatient with the slow processes of the law, and as the number of beekeepers refused to move, there occurred a number of night raids with kerosene and matches, and several apiaries were destroyed by arson. Mr. Harbison, in the same letter in the American Bee Journal quoted above, wrote that within one year he had lost about 350 hives from arson and had killed or broken up 700 more to pacify the fruit men.

By the late 1880's Harbison had considerable investments in real estate and orchards himself, as well as being active in the Harbison Wholesale Grocery Company. Though he had 500 colonies of bees in 1893, most of them were rented out. One hundred colonies were still in his possession when he died.

John S. Harbison stands unique among American beekeepers for he was a pioneer in three basic facets of what has been called, "the Golden Age of American Beekeeping." He was a major contributor to the theory of bee culture with his inventions and in his development of new tools and methods that characterized the remarkable advances made in nineteenth century apicultural science. Secondly, he had the genius to put his theories into practice and become the largest producer of honey in the World during the 1870's; and thirdly, it was he who opened up the great retail markets east of the Mississippi needed to absorb the tremendous honey crops produced in California.

Truly, Harbison was worthy of the title often bestowed upon him during his life time by the Press as well as by members of the bee industry-"King of the Beekeepers."


Lee H. Watkins was born January 25, 1908, in Selma (Fresno County), California. His father, R. L. Watkins, was a beekeeper in Selma from 1900 to 1950 and Lee from early boyhood worked bees with his father and a brother, Joaquín. He attended the University of California, majoring in philosophy and social sciences, but continued in commercial beekeeping, retiring from beekeeping as an enterprise in 1941 and moving to Berkeley.

In Berkeley he conducted his own research mostly in Cultural Anthropology, but also a considerable amount in Apiculture.

In February of 1952 he accepted a position as Apicultural Assistant to Dr. Harry H. Laidlaw, Jr., and worked with him in the bee breeding program at the University of California at Davis before retiring in 1964.

Since retiring he has devoted his time to research in early American beekeeping history, especially Californian, improving the apicultural library holdings and collecting manuscript material related to California beekeeping for the University of California library at Davis.

He is a prolific writer and at present is compiling a bibliography of the history of American beekeeping for the Agricultural History Center. He also is interested in the sciences of human behavior with an anthropological approach.