Restocking Honeybees

In this blog I examine the influences upon beekeepers to restock their apiaries honeybees at the time of the Isle of Wight disease.

Mr Woodley and Restocking

Let’s first look at Mr Woodley’s experiences, he writes in 1917:-

“I, as a scourged member of the craft, am not chastened by being wiped out [by the “Isle of Wight” Disease], or nearly so, twice…I set about repairing the damage at the outset with some success; in fact, by using formalin and Lysol in equal proportions spread on strips of thin board and pushed in at the entrances twice weekly of many of my hives, the first spring of the outbreak of “Isle of Wight” disease I preserved every stock so treated, and I quite thought I had got a remedy, and had a good take of honey from these hives, but the following winter and spring I lost most of them.  Then I bought new swarms, both English and Dutch.  Both strains were hived in disinfected hives, boiled frames, new foundations.  Again using most of the advertised remedies, I had a fair take of honey.”1

The first episode of the Isle of Wight disease which Mr Woodley experienced had quite a demoralising impact on him.  He wrote to his landlord in March 1915 to advise he would give up his tenancy of his out-apiary at Michaelmas.  He adds quite a down-beat postscript at the end of his letter:-

“I am very sorry to give up the garden but all my bees have died with the Isle of Wight Disease at Stanmore and nearly all my stocks at Worlds End.  I don’t think there is a stock alive with in Beedon parish.”2

Something changed Mr Woodley’s mind slightly because he must have communicated with he landlord later that year about the out-apiary land.  His landlord writes back to Mr Woodley on Oct 29 1915:-

“I understand that you wish to give up the small plot of land which you know occupy in North Stanmore for bee-keeping, but you are willing to keep it on at a reduced rate of 5 shillings a year as an allotment garden; I am willing to accept your offer.”3


I would almost speculate that Mr Woodley was hoping to revive his out-apiary one day and he was holding the plot of land until such a time that the Isle of Wight disease was gone.  Maybe the swarms of “English and Dutch” bees Mr Woodley bought, appeared to have been in good health and reasonably believed that the Isle of Wight Disease was receding.  However, the following winter the Isle of Wight Disease reappears, he writes:-

“The winter of 1915-16 reduced me to a few stocks, and as the spring advanced these developed symptoms of “Isle of Wight” disease”

“Mr. Lee sent me a bottle of Bacterol, and after a few days’ use the…“Isle of Wight” disease, cleared out, I trust for all time, and if we have got a real permanent remedy for the bee plague…Surely there are brighter and happier days for bee-keepers coming in the future.”4

Mr Woodley was stoically restocking honeybees regardless of the impact of the Isle of Wight Disease.  Honeybees had Mr Woodley’s attention for most of his life; without honeybees Mr Woodley wouldn’t have a business and certainly nothing to write about in his column; customers depended on him for honey and readers would miss his writings.

Berkshire Bee-keeping Association and Restocking

The disease and the problems of the First World War had a toll on at least on one bee-keepers’ association.  F.B. Parfitt, the Chairman of Berkshire Bee-keepers Association (Berks B.K.A) described the situation from 1916 onwards:-

“As the malady continued its devastation of apiaries in spite of all measures taken to hold it in check it was resolved at a Meeting of the Committee held in the early months of 1917 to suspend the operations of the Association until such time as prospects for successful beekeeping became more hopeful, to invest the bulk of its available funds in War Loan, and to issue to Members and others the advice not to re-stock for the time being, it being felt that to be continually bringing in fresh stock had only the effect of adding fuel to the flames and keeping the disease among us, and. that the best policy was to allow the trouble to wear itself out for lack of material whereon to operate.  This conclusion should have been sent to all Members and former Members; but unfortunately, the instruction to do so was not carried out.”5

Still, the decision to suspend the Berks B.K.A did come after an attempt to commence restocking honeybees, Parfit writes:-

“An attempt was made during 1915 to secure bees from some northern point in Scandinavia with the idea that such might prove hardy.  War conditions caused a failure of private attempts, and the Board of Agriculture declined to render any assistance.  However, by the efforts of two members of the Committee a small importation of bees from the north of Sweden has been secured during the past season, though at a considerable cost.  Members who might like to experiment with this variety can secure queens raised from the imported colonies and from other carefully selected stock by applying to the Hon. Sec. who has at his service many years of experience in this phase of beekeeping.”6

Berks B.K.A would later discover that by suspending their Association meant they later couldn’t fully take advantage of Government programs because they had lost their status as the organisation of expertise for bee-keeping in the County.  In his report of 1921, Parfitt writes:-

“That the members of the Berkshire Beekeepers’ Association inAnnual Meeting assembled hereby resolve to place on record(1) their deep regret that the Horticultural sub-Committee of the Agricultural Instruction Committee of the Berkshire County Council did not before launching their scheme for instruction in Beekeeping take counsel of and consult with the Committee of this Association and thus make use of its accumulated experience gained by many years’ oversight of and care for the Beekeeping Industry of the County of Berkshire.”7

Berks B.K.A’s position in 1916 was not to restock until such a time that the Isle of Wight Disease had gone; although it is difficult to gauge how many members of the association received this advice.  This advice did not change until the Association resumed service in 1921.

The Government and Restocking

From the start of the outbreak of the Isle of Wight disease in 1904, the Board of Agriculture’s response could be described as uninterested.  William Herod-Hempsall (editor of the British Bee Journal) describes in 1917 the government’s approach to Isle of Wight Disease:

“Considering the present position generally, the outlook for the industry is most promising.  At the same time bee-keepers have a legitimate grievance against the Administration for its almost complete indifference to their difficulties.  No encouragement has been given to them, no research work of any importance has been initiated or financed, and nothing has been attempted to combat disease upon lines that have been so successful in dealing with animal and plant diseases.  The Board of Agriculture would do well to reconsider the steps which it might take even at this late hour, to foster this important minor agricultural industry, and for a start it might do well to examine what action the Governments of other States have taken, for it could learn much from them.” 8

Honey For Sale in 1916

Still, it wasn’t until 1918 that the Government felt that is was in the national interest for the country to restock on honeybees.  Britain was ‘complacent’ in terms of food production when it entered the War in 1914, relying heavily on the merchant fleet to provide the nations’ food.9  In 1916 both Britain and America had a bad harvest and in 1917 the German U-boat campaign intensified and sunk about 200,000 tonnes of merchant shipping10.  In Britain, the availability of food was getting precarious and food rationing commenced in January 1918, with the first food to be rationed being sugar.  It is worth noting that honey became sought after and Herrod-Hempsall comments on this:-

“Bee-keeping should be taken up vigorously during the present food shortage.  Honey can be used in every case where sugar is usually employed, even to jam making.  It replaces glycerine, so urgently needed for munitions; it saves butter and margarine.  There are plenty of second-hand bee-hives to be had, or new ones can be made at home from boxes and other waste wood.  If the honey is sold instead of being used in the home, it now realises 2s. per lb. when extracted, and up to 3s. 6d. per section when sold in the comb, thus showing a handsome profit on the outlay.”11

Britain’s second coalition government under Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Autumn 1916) had an interventionist approach to the economy which was a stark contrast to earlier administrations who to look a ‘laissez faire’ or hands-off approach to agriculture.  A new President of the Board of Agriculture was appointed, a Food Production Department created and local War Agricultural Committees were formed to implement policies.12  Resultantly, the Board of Agriculture had new interest in apiculture, they wrote in 1919:-


“Owing to the “Isle of Wight” disease the stocks of bees in this country have been depleted to an alarming extent.  The production of honey has decreased seriously, and the fruit crops have suffered through the non-fertilisation of blossom owing to the lack of bees.

With a view to remedying this state of affairs, the Board of Agriculture in 1918 engaged the services of a Bee Expert, and a scheme to restock the country with bees was initiated.”

“It appeared from the evidence that hybrid Dutch and Italian bees possess a high measure of resistance to “Isle of Wight” disease.  The Board therefore developed a scheme for the introduction of Dutch bees for stocks land Italian queens for breeding.

In February last the Board’s expert proceeded to Holland to purchase Dutch colonies in skeps and he succeeded in securing 268 skeps, which were brought over in March without the loss of a single colony.”13


In conclusion, both Mr Woodley and Berks B.K.A attempted to restock honeybees during the height of the Isle of Wight Disease.  Mr Woodley was persistent in restocking and trying to bring on his stocks during the Great War.  Berks B.K.A’s attempts at restocking were thwarted by the difficulties of the War and the lack of assistance by the Board of Agriculture.  It wasn’t until Berks B.K.A resumed operations in 1921, that the Association could properly contribute to restocking honeybees.  The Board of Agriculture only became interested in directly supporting Bee-keeping during the final years of the Great War when the Britain’s food supplies were close to breaking-point.  The Board sourced honeybees from Continental Europe and primarily from Holland.  After 1922 the Board of Agriculture became indifferent to bee-keeping once more as it reverted back to ‘laissez-faire’ policies for agriculture.



1  British Bee Journal, 1917, page 30

2 Lockinge Estate Archive, 23 March 1915, Letter from Mr Woodley to Col. Colebrooke-Carter.

3  Lockinge Estate Archive, 29 October 1915, Letter from Col. Colebrook-Carter to Mr Woodley.

4  British Bee Journal, 1917, page 30

5  Berkshire Bee-keepers Association, 1921, The 37th Annual Report 1916-1921

6  Ibid.

7  Ibid.

8  Royal Agricultural Society of England Journal, 1917, The Present Position of the Bee-Keeping Industry, Volume 78, page142

9  Soper, M, 1995, Years of Change, Farming Press, page 41

10  Ibid.

11  Royal Agricultural Society of England Journal, 1917, The Present Position of the Bee-Keeping Industry, Volume 78, page144

12  Ibid.

13  British Bee Journal, 1919 page 419


4 thoughts on “Restocking Honeybees

  1. Thank you for these historical accounts. I find them most interesting. Over here in the U.S., I taught a section on the history of beekeeping at my local club’s beginner’s class. I included a brief talk on Isle of Wight Disease. Thanks for adding to my knowledge base.

    1. It’s interesting that you were taught about the Isle of Wight disease. I wonder what you were told about it?

      1. Not much in the way of details other than it decimated the bee populations in Isle of Wight. It’s the opener for the explanation of the Federal Honey Bee Act of 1922 which prohibited the importation of honey bees from other countries. Nowadays it is also heard leading up to lectures on our current lack of genetic diversity in honeybees.

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