The “foremost bee man in the world…”

Portrait of John Harbison, circa 1888

John Harbison left his mark on San Diego County. He did it mainly by raising and selling colonies of the insect which some supporters, with good reason, like to call the world’s greatest pollinator: the honeybee.

In November 1869 Harbison arrived in San Diego on the steamer Orizaba with his business partner R. G. Clark. Among the items they brought with them were 10 colonies of honeybees.

Harbison at that point already had a national reputation as an apiarist. He’d patented what came to be called the “Harbison Hive Box” in 1859. Then he’d written a groundbreaking textbook on the subject, The Beekeeper’s Directory on the Theory and Practice of Bee Culture, 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.

Within a couple of years he was shipping honey from his San Diego County operation across the country. He sold 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.”

By 1885, according to the book, Picturesque San Diego, published in 1887,  honey production had reached 2,679,747 pounds, making San Diego County “the chief honey-producing county in California.” That came out to roughly 1.3 million tons of honey. Of that total, over 1 million tons were exported across the country.

It’s not hard to see why late nineteenth century San Diego newspapers used phrases like “King of the Beekeepers” or “the foremost bee man in the world” when describing John Harbison.

Honey production isn’t as dominant in these parts today as it was then. Still, San Diego County produced over $4.4 million in honey and other apiary-related products in 2020, according to the most recent statistics available from the county agriculture department.

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 fall 1969 issue of  The Journal of San Diego History, the 1887 book Picturesque San Diego, by Douglas Gunn, and the 1888 book, The City and County of San Diego Illustrated and Containing Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Pioneers, by Leberthon and Taylor.

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Mission Valley Snapshot

Here’s another view of San Diego from way back, 137 years to be exact. The San Diego Union of November 8, 1885 ran an article entitled “Mission Valley and the Mission” that provided a view that might surprise many readers today: “Only a few miles from the city is the Mission Valley. It is still very sparsely settled. Herds of cattle graze along the river banks on ranges, which, to a large extent, remain unfenced. The hill sides are, generally speaking, devoid of improvements. In the little canyons there are bee ranches.”

That view of what was then a rural, sparsely populated area also included this: “At the head of the valley, visible at a long distance and overlooking the country for miles, is what remains of the old Catholic mission. While the buildings are practically demolished, enough of the front elevations remain to make a striking feature of the landscape.”

That written description of the mission ruins is borne out by the photo below, taken two years later for Douglas Gunn’s book, Picturesque San Diego:

The mission buildings would eventually be partially restored by the local Catholic archdiocese in 1891 to house a school for Indigenous students. That school would be moved to Banning in 1907. The entire mission would be fully restored in 1931.

Sources for this post included historic San Diego newspapers, the aforementioned book Picturesque San Diego and the website of Mission San Diego de Alcalá.