François Huber was a notable Swiss beekeeper and entomologist best known for developing the “leaf hive” or “Huber hive.” It allowed hive inspections without destroying the comb and causing the colony to abscond.
He also made significant contributions to our understanding of the reproductive behavior of queen bees, the swarming of bee colonies, and the construction of bee comb.
This article is part of our series on the top game-changing beekeepers in history.
|Born||2 July, 1750|
|Place of Birth||Geneva, Republic of Geneva|
|Died||22 December, 1831|
|Notable beekeeping contributions||Invented the Huber hive. Furthered scientific knowledge of bee biology. Wrote Nouvelles Observations sur les Abeilles.|
The early life of François Huber
François Huber was born in Geneva in 1750. He was born into a wealthy, high-profile family that made numerous notable contributions to the theological, scientific, and artistic community. His father, John Huber, was an accomplished poet, musician, sculptor, and painter.
François was a keen learner and attended the Collège de Saussure until his eyesight began deteriorating at fifteen. He was sent to a small peasant village near Paris to recover. Although François enjoyed his time in recovery, his sight continued to worsen until he could only see light. He was affected by amaurosis, which caused him to lose his sight entirely over time.
He married Marie-Aimée Lullin in 1776, against the will of her father. In addition to being a loving wife, she was his secretary, reader, and observer.
What were François Huber’s notable contributions?
François Huber developed an interest in studying honey bees from the works of Charles Bonnet and René de Réaumur. However, it was François Burnens that gave Huber the direction he needed. Burnens would suffer from hive attacks to make one observation, so Huber began working on a better solution.
1. The Huber hive
The Huber hive was also known as the leaf or book hive. It was invented by Huber in 1789 and was a huge leap forward from the popular skep and log hives at the time.
A leaf hive was a fully movable frame hive with comb that could be inspected like pages in a book. Dividing colonies was much easier. For the first time, beekeepers could divide hives without them swarming. They could also remove honeycomb while leaving the brood intact.
The leaf hive had twelve vertical frames or boxes running parallel and joined together. It was the inspiration for Petro Prokopovych and then Lorenzo Langstroth to build an improved version which is still commonly used today. You can learn more about the Langstroth hive here.
“The use of the Huber hive had satisfied me that with proper precautions, the combs might be removed without enraging the bees and that these insects were capable of being tamed to a surprising degree. Without knowledge of these facts, I should have regarded a hive permitting the removal of the combs as quite too dangerous for practical use.”– L.L. Langstroth in Langstroth on the Honey-Bee, 1860.
2. François Huber’s scientific observations
Huber was a pioneer in the field of melittology. His innovative hive design allowed him and his assistants to observe honey bees in their natural environment without disturbing them.
He did scientific research with the help of his wife, René, and his devoted servant, François Burnens.
Huber’s observations included that:
- Queens would battle until one remained in the hive.
- Drones were killed once summer ended.
- Bees could communicate with their antennae .
- Confirmed Schirach’s previous work that worker bees could lay eggs and royal jelly played a part in queen rearing.
- The effect of cell dimensions on insect shape and how larvae spin silk to make cocoons.
- Queen bees mate in the air, not in the hive.
During his life, Huber also studied wax and its production. He proved that honey was an essential part of the wax-making process. He also discovered how wax sheets were released from the honey bees’ abdomen.
Quick Tip: Do you enjoy learning about scientists with an obsession for honey bees? Discover how Eva Crane advanced our understanding of the honey bee and beekeeping.
3. New Observations on the Natural History of Bees
Huber’s observations were published in Geneva in 1792. Titled Nouvelles Observations sur les Abeilles, or New Observations on the Natural History of Bees, his work was well received by the scientific community. Charles Darwin quoted it in his book On the Origin of Species.
The paper is broken into a series of letters which the team at Bee Professor have summarized below:
Summary of Huber’s Letters 1-4
LETTER I: On the impregnation of the queen bee
Huber describes experiments and observations on bees, including the challenges of observing them in the hives currently being used in his time. He suggested constructing “book” or “leaf” hives to enable a more detailed viewing of bee behavior.
Huber then discusses the topic of queen bee fertilization, examining different opinions of naturalists on the subject. He recounts experiments to prove that male bees are not necessary for the fertilization of eggs in the hive.
Huber concludes that previous researchers who claimed the queen bee could fertilize herself were not careful enough in their experimentation.
Through experimentation, Huber found that queens in hives without males or confined with them remained sterile, but those allowed to leave their hives and mate with males returned with evidence of impregnation and became fertile.
Huber speculates on the purpose of having a large number of male bees and why copulation cannot occur within the hive.
Tip: Another scientist who advanced our understanding of queen bees was Karl von Frisch. One study he conducted was into the role of pheromones in the hive.
LETTER II: Sequel of observations on the impregnation of the queen bee
The letter reports on experiments conducted in 1787 and 1788. They established that the queen bee is fertilized by copulation with a male bee and that copulation takes place outside the hive in the air.
Huber attempted to observe copulation directly but was unsuccessful despite trying various methods, such as cutting part of the wings and covering the eyes of virgin queens.
Artificial fertilization was also unsuccessful. However, the scientists discovered a male bee’s sexual organs remain with the female after copulation, providing conclusive proof of the event.
LETTER III: The same subject continued – observations on retarding the fecundation of queens
Huber reports two experiments involving queens. First, he discovered that if a drone does not fertilize her until the twenty-fifth or thirtieth day of her life, her ovaries become vitiated so that she can only lay drone eggs.
In the second experiment, he observed a queen bee that was agitated for thirty-four days due to confinement and the inability to mate. After being released and fertilized, the queen bee only laid eggs of drones, not workers.
Huber attributes this to the prolonged confinement and delayed fertilization, but it is uncertain which factor caused the queen bee to only lay eggs of drones.
François Huber observed that when fertilization took place within the first sixteen days, both species of eggs were produced.
Huber also conducted experiments in which two queen bees were confined and then released after 30 days, one in a hive with workers and males and the other without males. Both queens laid eggs that developed into drones, not workers.
Huber’s letter discusses observations of naturalists regarding queens laying only male eggs. This occurrence may cause a hive to become overrun by drones.
LETTER IV: On M Schirach’s discovery
This letter is about Huber’s observations on the conversion of common worms into queens. He also discusses the differences between his observations and those of Schirach. Huber provides evidence contradicting Schirach’s belief that only three-day-old worms can be selected for royal treatment.
Summary of Huber’s Letters 5-8
LETTER V: Experiments proving that there are sometimes common bees which lay fertile eggs
The experiments conducted in 1788 aimed to prove the existence of fertile workers in beehives. Eggs and larvae in two queenless hives provided evidence that eggs were being laid either by queens of small size or by fertile workers.
The bees were examined individually to determine their specific characteristics to test for fertile workers. They discovered fertile workers in the hive. The ovaries of the fertile workers were smaller, more fragile, and composed of fewer oviducts than those of queens.
Huber conducted experiments on bees and observed that fertile workers are produced in hives that have lost the queen. In such cases, royal jelly is produced in large quantities to feed the larvae that will replace the queen. Huber suspected that particles of royal jelly might be accidentally or instinctively dropped into adjacent cells containing worker larvae. This extra sustenance would cause their ovaries to expand and allow them to lay eggs.
Huber conducted experiments to test this hypothesis and found worker bees that had received royal jelly in small portions could lay eggs. He identified the specific bees laying eggs and found they were among six bees next to the royal cells. Huber concluded that the presence of royal cells is a crucial factor in producing fertile workers.
LETTER VI: On the combats of queens
Huber looks at competition between young queens for dominance and how supernumerary queens are eliminated from a hive. He believes the queens are entrusted with eliminating their rivals because working bees might be unable to reach a consensus on which queen to destroy.
Huber discusses the behavior of bees during queen bee combat and describes combat between two queens, one impregnated and the other virgin. The virgin queen mortally wounds the impregnated queen, thereby winning the contest for the throne. Huber concludes no queen can insinuate herself into a colony because bees guard the entrance to their hive and prevent any outsiders from entering.
Huber describes experiments conducted to understand how bees receive a new queen when the reigning one is removed. They initially do not realize the queen’s absence, but after a few hours, they become agitated and rush around the hive.
- Queens introduced within 12 hours of the old one’s removal will result in the hive surrounding her to keep her captive until she dies.
- If 18 hours elapse before substitution, the bees initially reject the new queen but gradually disperse and release her.
- After 24 hours, a new queen is well received and treated like the previous one.
Huber also discusses worker bees killing male drones in the summer months. He saw worker bees dragging drones from the hive and stinging them to death.
LETTER VII: Sequel of experiments on the reception of a stranger queen.
Huber expresses admiration for the observations of M. de Reaumur. He agrees with most of Reaumur’s work but notes a few exceptions regarding the reception of a stranger queen substituted for the natural one.
Huber’s experiments indicate that if a stranger queen is immediately substituted, the usurper is ill-received, but after 20-24 hours, the bees will receive any female replacement. He disagrees with Reaumur’s observation that bees are disposed to give a welcome reception to any female seeking refuge.
LETTER XIII: Economical considerations of bees
This letter discusses the advantages of using the new leaf or book hives to cultivate bees.
Huber argues that traditional methods of forcing bees to produce honey and wax are cruel and harmful to their populations. The leaf hives allow easy observation and management of the bees without disturbing them. He stresses the importance of respecting bees and maintaining their populations to maximize productivity.
Huber explains the method of forming swarms in beekeeping, first introduced by M. Schirach. This technique involves producing young queens early in the spring. If artificial swarms are created before males are present, the young female bees will remain sterile, and the hive will perish.
Huber describes how bees construct their combs with a uniform distance for optimal warmth and space. He argues that leaf hives are the best construction for beekeeping because they allow for better observation and manipulation of the bees.
How did Huber spend his later years?
François Huber spent his remaining years in Lausanne, where he continued studying honey bees. He had a special interest in stingless Mexican bees and received a colony to observe from Captain Hall.
Huber died in 1831 in his daughter’s arms, Marie Anne de Molin.
Huber played a considerable role in developing our understanding of honey bees. His blindness makes the work he achieved all the more remarkable.
Huber’s invention of the leaf hive and detailed research into bee anatomy was ground-breaking. He greatly influenced the development of modern beekeeping techniques and laid the foundations for future researchers like Langstroth.
If you enjoyed this article, also read our profile on Moses Quinby. He was a prolific inventor, author, and beekeeper who played a huge role in advancing beekeeping. Another article to read is our biography of Jan Dzierzon.