Working the Land: A San Gabriel Valley Apiary, ca. 1878

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While greater Los Angeles in the late 19th century was an agricultural empire, including vast tracts devoted to wheat and other field crops; stocked with cattle, sheep and horses; and planted to oranges, lemons and other fruits, it might come as a bit of a surprise to know that bee-keeping was a popular endeavor in parts of the region.

A recent post focusing on a photograph of competitive cyclist Frank Cooper of Monrovia noted that his father was an bee-keeper for many years.  The photo highlighted in this post was taken about 1878 by Alexander C. Varela and titled “An Apiary on the Foothills of San Gabriel.”

Three very long and curved rows of wooden beehive boxes stretch toward the lower elevation of the San Gabriel (then more commonly called the “Sierra Madre”) Mountains.  A couple of men and a small boy sit on boxes in the foreground.  On one of the boxes, next to one of the gents, are what appear to be sliced-open fruit, although it could well be some hives.  At the background left is a two-story white dwelling.

SV No 163 An Apiary On The Foothills Of San Gabriel 2010.438.1.1
This circa 1878 stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead collection was taken by Alexander C. Varela and shows an apiary (bee-keeping operation) in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, perhaps at the Sierra Madre Villa hotel in modern east Pasadena/Sierra Madre.

Varela and Carleton Watkins took several photographs from about the same time of an apiary at the Sierra Madre Villa hotel, located in the east Pasadena/Sierra Madre area and opened by William P. Rhoades and his father-in-law, William Cogswell about five years before this photo was taken.  A post on the Villa was published on this blog last September.

There was a bit of bee-keeping craze in the region during the late 1800s and early 1900s, though apiaries have been part of our local agricultural scene ever since, though with little attention.  In Carbon Canyon, between Orange and San Bernardino counties where I live, apiaries have occasionally sprung up in the Puente Hills range there and in the canyon bottom.

Much attention in recent years has been paid to what has been termed as “Colony Collapse Disorder” when reports of significant declines in bee populations were widely published.  The concern about pesticides, fungicides and insecticides, as well as varroa mites wreaking havoc on colonies led to speculation about the future of plants pollinated by bees.

A page on the Environmental Protection Agency website discusses the CCD phenomenon. An article from last September in Slate magazine includes discussion that the CCD problem may not be as threatening as once believed and that bee populations are on the rise.  A recent post from last month in “The Balance”, however, suggests that the problem is still pronounced and the future uncertain.

As to the photographer Varela, he was born in Spain in 1839 and migrated to America while in his late teens.  A longtime federal government clerk, Varela married Catherine Sousa, sister of the famed bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa.  In the 1870s, Varela decided to leave his employment with the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. and ventured to California to try his hand at photography, which was a notoriously difficult business to maintain.  He was in Los Angeles for a brief period about 1878 and then moved to San Jose, where he practiced for a short time.

Varela then sold his business and inventory to Isaiah W. Taber, a San Francisco based photographer who reissued many of Varela’s work under his own name, which was a common practice.  A Varela original can easily be discerned, however, because of his distinctive handwriting in labeling his images.

Varela returned to the nation’s capital and to the safety of a government job.  Notably, his son Arthur became a photographer in the employ of the federal government.  Varela died just shy of his 76th birthday in 1915, but left behind a number of high-quality, well-composed photographs of greater Los Angeles, of which the Homestead collection has several dozen.

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