Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The History of Beekeeping

        Bees have been around for tens of millions of years, providing a food source for many animals and acting as important pollinators for multitudes of plants. Scientists hypothesize that humans have been tapping this resource for at least 8,000 years based on a cave painting in Spain that depicts honey hunting. Honey hunting, simply breaking open wild hives and collecting the comb, was our earliest technique for attaining honey. It wasn’t until a few thousand years later that humans began keeping bees in man-made hives. Although this is the most popular method today, many people, mostly indigenous, carry on the dangerous tradition of hunting for honey. Attaining the honey is not as simple as it sounds; one must first find the hive before it can be raided.  One method of doing this is called “coursing” in which a hunter attracts the bees with some sweet substance. Once the bees have found the bait the people either put something on the bee such as red ochre or flour to make them more visible and then follow them to the hive (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang). Some humans relied on a bird species named the Indicator indicator, or Greater Honeyguide, that can find the hive but cannot break into it. When the bird finds a hive it chatters and flashes its white tail feathers, attracting the humans who break open the hive and give them some of the bounty. Honeyguides also use the same system with honey badgers and baboons, which are able to break into the hives. Interestingly, honeyguides are actually capable of digesting wax and mainly eat the wax and larvae that other honey-eating animals leave behind. Beekeepers in areas where honeyguides live sometimes have problems with the birds leading mammals to their farmed hives and breaking in (Martin). Honey hunting still occurs in many parts of the world today including Syria, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. The Gurung people of Nepal have been well documented in the media recently displaying their intricate offering ceremonies. These ceremonies that often include the sacrifice of an animal and many prayers to keep everyone safe. The honey is a minimal food source for them but the bees are an extremely important part of the Nepalese landscape. According to photographer Andrew Newey,  “autumn honey hunt was six weeks later than normal due to a changing climate and reduced bee population. The Himalayan cliff bee is essential for the pollination of high altitude plants and their rapidly decreasing population puts these ecosystems in jeopardy, threatening the food base for the entire region” (Newey).

Since honey has been a part of our diets since the Stone Age, it plays an important role in the mythology of many cultures around the globe. Much of this stems from preservative nature of honey, it is good forever and may crystallize but it will never rot. The human desire for immortality led people to worship this quality. It also meant that they could preserve food in it indefinitely. It was so highly prized that it was often used in rituals and given as gifts during important life events. In both Christianity and Hinduism, they call for butter and honey to be fed to newborn infants being welcomed into the world. While the Christian terms were more biblical, the belief that this act will ward off evil is still prevalent in parts of India today. (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang). This idea of milk (butter) and honey has long been equated with richness and success. Today, we know that honey can potentially contain the spores of the Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which can cause botulism in infants less than one year of age. Up until this recent discovery, the benefits of adding honey to a baby’s milk were widely studied and acclaimed for greatly improving an infant’s health (Root). 

Mountain Rose Herbs. A herbs, health and harmony c

 In marriage ceremonies all across Europe, Africa, and Hindu nations honey plays a large role. Whether given as gifts to the newlyweds or guests, eaten by or rubbed on the bride and/or groom, or given to the bride’s family to secure a marriage, honey, mead, and honey cakes provide a huge service of securing a sweet and strife-less future for the couple. On some occasions, the beehives themselves are decorated and cake is placed on top of them in order to please the bees themselves (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang) In America, significant others are even referred to as “honey”.

The third large phase of life in most cultures, death, also has rituals involving this sweet substance, particularly in Egypt. Most people have heard the story of anthropologists excavating Egyptian tombs and finding honey that was still edible, but it was not only used as a substance to bring to the afterlife but was used to preserve the body itself. The hygroscopic and antimicrobial honey, as well as the wax, was used to help preserve the mummified bodies. Honey was even put in the mouth of the deceased by a priest during the mummification ceremony. All of this was to ensure the immortality of the person who had passed on (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang).

Honey played such a large part in the mythology of cultures around the world that there are many gods and goddesses of bees. From Europe to Africa, to Asia, and South America, these deities were celebrated for love, protection, and bountiful honey harvests. In the western world more recently, the hardworking honeybee was considered a perfect model of industry. Apiary society was looked upon as an example of the ideal system of production because of the bees’ selflessness, devotion to a higher order, and the all around organization and orderliness of their society. In the fourth-century some Christians viewed the chaste worker bee as an example of how purity could lead to a more industrious life (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang).

As agriculture grew, keeping bees became widely practiced. It started accidentally when bee colonies moved into baskets and clay pots that were left out and people realized they could more or less domesticate bees. This way they did not have to go risk their lives climbing to steal honey. The tradition of honey hunting did not die there, though, since they still needed a way to obtain the bees. Using the same tracking techniques up until the mid-twentieth century, beekeepers would have to go capture a wild hive in order to start an apiary. Now, beekeepers just order the bees from a commercial apiary and receive them in the mail.

A commercial delivery of carniolan honeybees. Each cage contains 10,000 bees and a queen in her own individual cage.

Before this service, there were three ways to capture a hive; one is to shake a swarm into a container. The second is to simply cut the tree down and keep the hive in a log. Beekeepers would then add wood doors onto the holes in the log and add it to their apiary.  Many times, these logs were carved into human or animal forms.  Sometimes, they would simply cut out a door in a living tree and replace it with a removable one, going back to that tree later to collect the honey. The third technique to obtain bees, which was practiced up to just a few hundred years ago, included killing an animal and letting it rot. Many believed that bees were born from the body of a dead ox, this belief is called “bugonia”, which is Greek for “ox birth” This was because they saw bee-like insects emerging from the carcass of a dead bovine. Of course, these insects were flies that had laid their eggs in the rotting meat, not bees. 

Later, people began to develop a new hive called a skep. Skeps are made out of braided straw that is coiled into a shape similar to a basket. This method became so popular that people in Western Europe began building nooks called “boles” into their stone houses in which to keep skeps.  Once the bees had made their comb and honey in the skep, they were then poisoned with burning sulfur and the comb was removed. As one can imagine, destroying the entire colony and removing everything in the hive was not an incredibly efficient way to produce honey. As more scientific discoveries were being made about bees in the 16th and 17th centuries, people began to also discover more efficient ways of keeping bees. By 1768, a man named Thomas Wildman introduced a new kind of skep, which was made of several layers and allowed the honey to be removed without killing the bees. Although this invention spread interest in beekeeping it still was not all that efficient. In 1852, Lorenzo Langstroth patented a hive with several boxes that contained frames on which the comb was built. This hive was partially the outcome of Langstroth’s discovery of “bee space” which is the 3/8 of an inch maximum space available before the bees start building comb to reduce the space. The Langstroth is the most widespread hive around the world used today, outcompeting the Dadant hive invented in 1863. The Dadant family is still the largest distributor of beekeeping supplies to this day, though. 

Once people learned how to keep bees, they started taking them to other continents. Honeybees fall under the genus Apis, which is native “from Portugal to Japan, from the Cape of South Africa to the Arctic Circle… [The subspecies Apis mellifera is] naturally from Northern Europe, the Middle East, and all of Africa” (Delaplane 2). There are no honeybees that are native to North America, but Apis mellifera, which was imported by the Europeans, is widely spread around the continent today. Brought over in 1622, Apis mellifera mellifera, or the German black bee, was basically the only honeybee in North America until the mid-19th century when technology expedited transatlantic shipping (Delaplane 2). Although many bees reached the east coast during colonialism, it was not until 1858 that the first hives made their way to the west coast, and not until 1927 that the first European honeybees overwintered in Alaska (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang 66). Today, there are several subspecies and races that are popular within the United States with apiculturists. The European honeybee also reached Australia and New Zealand and replaced the native honeybee in South America during colonialism (Stewart, Tabori, & Chang 67-69). This spread of Apis mellifera, poses a threat to native insect and animal populations, particularly in Australia where they compete for forage with native nectar-collecting insects and for nesting sites with possums, bats, and birds. There are now regulations around where one can take honeybees in the country and plans to destroy wild hives in wildlife conservation areas (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang 73). It will be interesting to see if this trend catches on in America anytime soon. 

Looking for some more resources on honeybees? Here are some of my favorites:


Atkins, E. L. (1975). The Hive and the honeybee. Hamilton, IL: Dadant.

First lessons in beekeeping. (2007). Hamilton, IL: Dadant & Sons.

Lorence, C. (2014, April 15). Honey interview [Telephone interview].

Martin, K. (2011). Indicator indicator. Retrieved April 15, 2014, from http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Indicator_indicator/#food_habits

Ngan, V. (2013, December 29). DermNet NZ. Retrieved April 15, 2014, from http://www.dermnetnz.org/treatments/honey.html

Root, A. I. (1945). The ABC and XYZ of bee culture (3rd ed.). Medina: A.I. Root.

Stewart, Tabori, & Chang. (2011). The beekeeper's bible: Bees, honey, recipes & other home uses. New York, NY: Abrams.

Visser, N., & Newey, A. (2014, March 11). A raw look inside the life of a Nepalese honey hunter (PHOTOS). Retrieved April 15, 2014, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/11/honey-hunters-nepal_n_4937079.html

Williams, D. G., Dr. (2003, July 17). The many benefits of hydrogen peroxide. Family Health News. Retrieved April 15, 2014, from http://educate-yourself.org

Disclaimer: This blog is just my own opinion, nothing more. While I try my hardest, everything may not be completely accurate or complete. Sorry, I'm only human, so do not hold me accountable for anything you do to harm yourself or the world around you. I do make money from this blog (seriously not very much at all guys). If you click on any of the links in my blog I may make money from it. I'm not sponsored by any of these people I just honestly love these products and want to give you the resources to find them. I am not a medical practitioner; consult a health professional before using any herbal remedies. I am not claiming to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any ailment. 

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