The relationship between humans and bees has certainly come along way since the first of our hunter-gatherer ancestors dipped their fingers into a hive in search of a sweet, golden substance (likely receiving a few nasty stings to remember the encounter). Like all good relationships, this story has evolved over time. As our understanding of bees grew, so too did the opportunities made possible by this relationship. In this article we share some of the milestones in beekeeping history.
100 million years ago – the bee evolved from wasp
An amber fossil discovered in Hukawng Valley of Myanmar (Burma) holds traces of the oldest bee on the planet. Scientists determined not only that the fossil is 100 million years old, but also that bees evolved from wasps and that the two species separated evolutionary paths about 130 million years ago. At the time, our own ancestors were small, rodent like creatures.
8000-6000 BC -honey as food
Famous cave paintings discovered in Valencia, Spain portray humans collecting honey. The paintings from the Mesolithic era, are one of the oldest known instances of human- bee interactions, and wild honey consumption.
3000-2000 BC- honey used in other spheres and establishment of beekeeping
The first real evidence of apiculture as an agricultural practice, was discovered in Israel , dating back almost 3000 years. Archaeologists identified well preserved cylinders in the Jordan valley, thought to have been used as beehives. Along with this discovery, remains of honeybees including drones and worker bees were also found.
Illustrations discovered in Egyptian tombs show that honey was not only used as a source of food, but also played a significant role in medicine and rituals . Scenes decorating the tomb walls depict multiple processes involving honey and beekeeping, such as extraction, preservation and removal of the combs.
1000 BC- 1500- focus on improvement of beekeeping practices
After the descension of the Egyptian empire, the Greeks, who became increasingly influential in the ancient would, brought about changes to beekeeping. Some important alterations were made to the beehives such as the introduction of horizontal fixed hives. They were cylindrical in shape and slightly elongated, made from several materials such as clay, bricks, manure, logs, wooden planks, fennel stalks, wicker twigs and cork tree. Large logs placed vertically were used as beehives later on.
However, these hives did not provide some of the advantages of the horizontal ones, such as easy extraction of the honey and beekeepers using vertical log-hives without a door, ended up killing many bees by asphyxiation when extracting honey.
1600-1700 – large scale beekeeping
In 1662 British colonialists imported the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) to the east coast of America, however took more than 200 years to reach the west coast. The bees were kept in traditional hives called skeps, which looked like pots turned upside down and were made of clay or straw. The bottom of the skep had a hole for the bees to fly in and out, while the comb was placed inside. Even though it is not used anymore in apiculture, it is the image of the ‘skep’ that is used today to represent a beehive in popular culture and animations.
Other significant events from this period was the 1637 discovery by Richard Remnant, who noticed that worker bees are females, and in 1684 when Martin John discovered that wax is not collected by the bees but rather made by them .
1700-1800- focus on innovations in beekeeping
The age of discovery saw many new findings in beekeeping. Around 1700, Huber and Bumens (Switzerland) made detailed studies on queen development, swarming, wax production, and the use of bee’s antenna. In 1853 LL Langstroth introduced the removable frames and publishes his masterpiece “The Hive and the Honeybee”, which revolutionized beekeeping. In 1857 Johannes Mehring invented wax comb foundations and in 1863, the largest provider of beekeeping supplies is founded- Dadant and Sons .
1900-today – varroa mite discovery and beekeeping enhanced by technology
In 1904 the varroa destructor was discovered in Java, however it wasn’t until 1968 that the first infested colonies were detected . By the 1970’s the mite had found its way to Europe and the fight against it continues to this day. In 1945 Karl von Frish noticed the bee waggle dance and receives Nobel prize for his discovery.
Advances in technology continue to affect beekeeping. Over the last 20 years, the digital revolution has provided beekeepers with many great tools to assist in their job. Today, it is possible to monitor your colonies remotely, inseminate a queen or kill varroa mites without the use of chemicals.
Even though beekeeping has an exceptionally long history, many of the processes have not changed dramatically. Just like in ancient Egypt, beekeepers today still use horizontal hives, and smoke to calm down the bees. It is a connection to this rich history that many beekeepers find appealing. Just like the first people to tend hives, improvements in technology continue to revolutionize apiculture. Who knows what this practice will look like in 10,000 years?
Hammad, Manal. (2018). BEES AND BEEKEEPING IN ANCIENT EGYPT. Journal of Association of Arab Universities for Tourism and Hospitality. 15. 1-16. 10.21608/jaauth.2018.47990.