“King of the Beekeepers”

Some readers may recall a past post about the steamer “Orizaba” which brought many new residents to San Diego from points north in the late 19th century. One of the more interesting passengers on that steamer in November 1869 was John Harbison, who came with his business partner R. G. Clark. It was notable because among the possessions these two gentlemen brought with them were 110 colonies of honeybees.

Harbison already had a national reputation as an apiarist. He’d patented what came to be called the “Harbison Hive Box” in 1859 and authored a groundbreaking textbook on the subject in 1861. He had flourishing hives and honey businesses in his home state of Pennsylvania and in northern California when he turned his attention to San Diego.

He met with the same success here. Within a couple of years he was shipping honey from his San Diego County operation across the country. He was selling colonies and hive boxes to other apiarists as well, encouraging a burgeoning industry in the county and the state.

“In 1874 beekeeping became a major industry in the county,” according to a 1969 article in The Journal of San Diego History. “ 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.”

Harbison had surely earned his nickname, “King of the Beekeepers.”

Honey production isn’t as dominant in these parts today as it was then. Still, San Diego County today ranks third among all other counties in the nation in honey production, according to the county farm bureau’s website. So John Harbison’s name and contributions live on in today’s local apiarists and in the Harbison hive box design many of them use. His name lives on as well in the place near the Sweetwater River that was home to his local hives, Harbison Canyon.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the article, “John S. Harbison: Pioneer San Diego Beekeeper,” by Lee H. Watkins, which appeared in The Journal of San Diego History in its Fall 1969 issue, and the 1888 book, The City and County of San Diego Illustrated and Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Pioneers.

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