To Bee or Not To Bee

Neighbours gathered at a chopping bee.

(Photo credit: Library and Archives Canada/PA-051552)

What do you do when there's more work on tap for a single day than a family can reasonably be expected to do in a month and the consequences of even a minor delay could spell disaster? If this was the late 19th century in Ontario, the answer would be simple: You hold a work bee and invite all of your neighbours to participate. And chances are they would knowing that the next time they found themselves in a similar predicament you would do the same for them.

There were work bees for absolutely everything back then from sewing quilts, making maple sugar and preserving berries to chopping wood (see photo above), harvesting wheat, raising barns, building fences, erecting homes, plowing fields, pulling stumps, and the list goes on. Some of these bees seem to have been solely for women -- there isn't much evidence that men stuck around when wool was being carded and spun, for instance -- while others appear to have involved the entire family although they were not necessarily all engaged in the same tasks. It would have been uncommon, for example, for the women who attended stumping bees to pull a single stump from the ground. Their tasks at those events would have been more along the lines of providing food and refreshments to the labouring men as well as binding any wounds that cropped up during the day.

Although the primary focus of these bees would have been to get an overwhelming amount of work done as quickly and as efficiently as possible, they also provided a much needed break from days of endless, lonely toil. Women, in particular, seemed to have lived their lives in isolation as they laboured from dawn to dusk with the cooking, baking, cleaning, gardening and child rearing. Their only respite came in the form of church socials and work bees where they could socialize with other neighbourhood women without being accused of shirking their domestic duties.

The highlight of these work bees would come at the end of the long days when weary neighbours would somehow find the strength to dance and play music and just generally make merry before sunset signalled the time had arrived for them to all go their separate ways in the full knowledge that they would be getting together again in the coming weeks to participate in yet another work bee and partake in the socializing that went along with it.

In The Haweaters, two work bees are alluded to, both of them by Annie Amer. The first is a sugaring bee that had been held earlier that same year and the second is a stumping bee that was fast approaching. Both would have been standard activities for the era and Annie's obvious enthusiasm would have been shared by many.


Based on the real-life 1877 killings of two members of one family by two members of another, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain the prosperity they know they deserve in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.