Beekeeping Basics 2 – History of Bees & Beekeeping

The history of beekeeping has intrigued me ever since becoming a beekeeper. Although, as fascinating as this topic is to me, it is impossible for me to discuss everything regarding this topic in one blog post. This topic deserves more time and attention than 1 blog post, so I hope this inspires you to seek more information on your own. My intentions are to give any beekeeper a general overview of the historical highlights of bees, with emphasis on the honey bee ,Apis mellifera, There are many important beekeeping events and inventions that I do not discuss. However, I wish that I could, and I encourage you to read more about this topic. Consider this – the world’s most important pollinator (the honey bee) was used by humans in warfare and inspired the invention of the world’s first missile and machine gun. This is an animal that is largely responsible for sustaining life on Earth, yet mankind has also used them as a tool of death. What follows is a brief history of the honey bee… I hope you enjoy.

Bees in the Fossil Record

The oldest known species of bee, Melittosphex burmensis, lived 100 million years ago (mya). This specimen, encased in amber, was found in a mine in the Hukawng Valley of northern Myanmar.  This discovery shows that bees originated in the Cretaceous period (145 – 66 mya) at a time of rapid diversification of angiosperms (flowering plants). It is widely considered that the floral diversity that evolved in angiosperms was due to pollinators, including bees, emerging and evolving along side the plants, enabling the plants to reproduce fruits and seeds.

Honey Hunting, Beekeeping Origins & Ancient Honey

Cave drawings show that ancient people went to great lengths to harvest honey from wild honey bee nests.  This process, called honey hunting, often results in the destruction of entire colonies in order to extract honeycomb.  There are indications that Stone Age (3.4 mya – 2,000 ya) peoples harvested bee products.  For example, honey hunting is interpreted from the 8,000 year-old rock art of the Araña cave paintings in Valencia, Spain.  These cave drawings depict honey hunters risking their lives to climb a rope ladder to harvest bee products from a nest of wild bees high off the ground. Even today, there are people all over the world who engage in the ancient practice of honey hunting.

8,000 year-old rock art of the Araña cave paintings in Valencia, Spain.

Beekeeping is an ancient activity that has been around since prehistoric times.  Archeological evidence shows that humans eventually figured out how to cultivate colonies, and more recently we have created modulated beehives that can be taken apart and put back together without harming the resident bees.  The first recorded human management of beehives appears about 5,000 years ago in Egypt.  In 1978, Eva Crane, Ph.D., identified ancient beehives in the Nile valley.  The hives were cylindrical and made of interwoven twigs, reeds and mud.  She discovered that the front of the cylindrical hives featured a hole for the bees to fly in and out of, while the back had another hole that was used by the beekeeper to blow smoke into the hive.

Image of Egyptian beekeeper managing cylindrical beehives.  One of the earliest records of beekeeping found in the Sun Temple erected in 2400 BC near Cairo.

In 2012, it was reported that the world’s oldest honey had been discovered at a tomb site in the country of Georgia.  Archaeologists estimate the honey is about 5,500 years old, and report the scent is still sweet and intense with musky undertones.  Another one of the world’s oldest samples of honey (3,000 years old) was found in King Tut’s tomb in Egypt.  Honey jars had been placed in the tomb of the deceased pharaoh to keep him happy on his journey into the afterlife.

Mad Honey

Mad honey is a type of toxic honey still produced in small quantities by beekeepers in regions where native species of rhododendrons grow abundantly.  These flowers produce nectar that contains a potent neurotoxin called grayanotoxin.  If bees feed on enough rhododendron nectar, the red honey produced has a sharp scent, bitter taste, and causes potential intoxicating effects in mammals.  Warning, if too much is consumed it could be fatal, as you’ll soon learn.

In 97BC, mad honey proved to be a substance powerful enough to take out 1,000 battle-hardened Roman soldiers due to a major miscalculation by an arrogant Roman general, Pompey the Great.  Early in his military career, the young general attempted to invade the Greco-Persian empire of King Mithridates VI.  The King ordered his troops to place bowls of the local mad honey in the path of the advancing Roman army.  Three detachments of Roman soldiers gorged themselves on the raw honeycomb as they advanced inland.  The marching soldiers became delirious and fainted as they succumbed to the psychedelic effects of the mad honey.  Mithridates’ troops found Pompey’s soldiers completely incapacitated and proceeded to slaughter them all.

Skep & Bee Bole

During the Middle Ages (5th – 15th centuries) beekeepers used a variety of hive styles and materials for keeping bees.  Throughout northern and western Europe beekeepers began to use the skep as a beehive.  Skeps are simply woven coils of grass or straw that resemble a basket, and placed upside-down for the bees to take up residence inside.  Once inside, the bees secure their comb to the interior of the basket.  The skep was often covered in mud or clay to add stability.  To harvest the honey, beekeepers would have to evict the bees and take the comb out of the basket/skep.  During the time skeps were widely used, architecture began to embrace the honey bee, as it became popular to place skeps in what are known as bee boles.  A bee bole is a cavity or recess in a stone wall.   A skep, when placed in a bee bole, would leave exposed only the front of the hive.  This configuration became especially popular for the purpose of castle defense.

Castle animation with bee boles in the towers and archer engaging with an invading force.

During the Middle Ages, castles under attack could deploy honey bees to defend their gates and walls.  Bees hived in skeps, residing in bee boles, could be pushed out of the bee bole with a long stick.  The skeps would then crash to the ground causing the honey bees to become agitated and attack the castle’s attackers.  The archers would then rain down arrows as they had easy targets due to the chaos among the troops.  Attacking armies also discovered that bees in a skep were a perfect package to be delivered into the ranks of soldiers or behind the walls of a castle, with the help of the trebuchet.  

Animated trebuchet prepared to launch a bee skep.

Honey Bee History in North America

Modern history has presumed that honey bees were not native to North America.  However, a recent discovery of a single fossilized North American honey bee in west-central Nevada has changed our understanding.  Found in a paper shale deposit, it was a 14 million year old fossilized female worker of the extinct honey bee (Apis nearctica) that lived in North America during the middle Miocene epoch (23 – 5 mya).  This fossil record provides strong evidence that honey bees once lived in North America. 

Further evidence comes from reports by Spanish Conquistadors who landed on Cozumel in 1518, where they describe, “many beehives, much wax and honey.  The beehives are like those of Spain except smaller”.  The Spanish also described, “…large apiaries containing one or two thousand individual hives laid horizontally in stacks [of logs]…  Their ends were stopped shut using a disc-shaped stone and clay seal”.  Four centuries later in the same region, large quantities of these disks were excavated, and shown to be similar to the ones being used by modern day local beekeepers.  This suggests that the knowledge of beekeeping was in North America prior to the European introduction of Apis mellifera a century later, and these skills have been continually passed down in this region of what is now modern day Mexico.

Nevertheless, in 1621, the European honey bee or Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) was introduce to the east coast of North America, likely transported across the Atlantic ocean in skeps.  After the arrival of this European honey bee, the species spread rapidly west and north, many likely taking up residence in forested areas throughout the region. It is important to note that this honey bee is actually native to the Middle East, Africa, Madagascar, and Europe.  The North American expansion of this imported honey bee led to some of the earliest known ‘bee gums’.

South Park animation depicting English ships sailing for the Americas.

Bee Gum

A bee gum refers to a hollow log from a tree, most likely a black gum tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), used to keep honey bees.  Native to the eastern half of North America, the black gum tupelo, tupelo, or blackgum is the tree after which ‘bee gum’ is named, thus the origin of this term is likely unique to North America.  The tupelo was most likely identified by prospective beekeepers because local bee swarms would find the hollow centers convenient to take up residence, which is a common characteristic of mature tupelo trees. 

It is difficult to definitively say when the bee gum philosophy (aka, beekeeping in logs) was first used to keep bees.  Due to the nature of the hive being made up of organic components (hollow logs), it is unlikely to have a strong presence in the fossil record due to the likelihood of decomposition.  However, the most logical precursor to modern hive beekeeping likely arose through the ancient practice of honey hunting.  One honey hunting approach allowed a ‘forest beekeeper’ to fit an access door onto the tree trunk, providing access to harvest the honeycomb without killing or chopping down the tree.  Archaeological evidence for hollow trees being used to keep bees seems to be more robust in Northern Europe.  A number of hollow logs found in that region yield evidence to the frequency of their use.  One such hive (found in 1970) dates back about 1,800 years, another (found in 1939) dates back 1,500 years, and there is even evidence that a large oak log was used as a beehive 3,000 years ago in the same region.  However, the earliest know log hive was likely from a fallen tree in which wild honey bees nested naturally.

Langstroth  – Revolutionizing Beekeeping

From ancient honey hunting to early beekeeping approaches of the mid-late 19th century, at this point in beekeeping history, most beehives would need to be destroyed to harvest the honey.  Similarly, when using a bee gum, a beekeeper would need to destroy a hive to reap the reward of honey.  An early beekeeper using bee gums would need to keep twice as many colonies as were harvested in order to maintain bees for the next season.  This practice was necessary because harvesting from bee gums requires the removal of all bees and comb, which destroys the colony.  Reverend Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth’s 1853 book, On the Hive and the Honey-Bee a Bee Keeper’s Manual, changed beekeeping forever by suggesting a revolutionary way for managing comb without destroying the hive. 

Today, beekeepers know this hive as the Langstroth Hive.  Rev. Langstroth’s invention revolutionized beekeeping by designing a beehive that could be taken apart and put back together without harming the resident bees.  Rev. Langstroth observed, reported, and coined the term “bee space” in his book.  Bee space is the space that bees tolerate without building comb within it.  Bee space equates to approximately 3/8 – 1/8 inch between frames and walls.  Langstroth’s hive is an entirely modulated system that features removable top, bottom, and frames which enabled the honey bee to become a major player in agriculture – through pollination services as well as providing a direct commodity of honey.

Works Cited

Eva Crane publications accessed through Eva Crane Trust

Crane, E. (1963) The world’s beekeeping -past and present: The hive and the honey bee, ed. R.A. Grout, Hamilton, IL: Dadant & Sons Chapter 1, pp 1 -10

Crane, E. (1975) The world’s beekeeping -past and present; Chapter from: The hive and the honey bee, ed. R.A. Grout, Hamilton, IL: Dadant & Sons Chapter 1, pp 10 -18

Crane, E. (1985) Chapter 65 Honey bees: Evolution of Domesticated Animals, London: Longman Group Ch. 65, pp. 410 ed. I.L.

Crane, E. (1985) Ancient Apiculture, [Prepared for Encyclopedia of geoarchaeology (without figures and table) publication of book delayed until 2015 or late] pg. 6

Crane, E. The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting (Duckworth, 1999)

Dams, M. & Dams, L. R. (1977) Spanish art rock depicting honey gathering during the Mesolithic. Nature 268, 228–230

Engel, Hinojosa-Díaz, Rasnitsyn, (2009) A Honey Bee from the Miocene of Nevada and the Biogeography of Apis (Hymenoptera: Apidae: Apini), Proceedings of the California Academy of Science, Series 4, Volume 60, No. 3, pp. 23–38

Freidel, D. A. (1976) Late Postclassic Settlement Patterns on Cozumel Island, Quintana Roo, Mexico, Ph.D Thesis, Harvard University

Graham, A.J., Crane, E. (1985) Bee hives of the Ancient World (Part II) Bee World 66: 23-41, 148-170

Nabors, R. (2016) American Bee Journal, Trends in Beekeeping (excerpt), Accessed Jan. 30, 2018

Poinar & Danforth (2006) A Fossil Bee from Early Cretaceous Burmese Amber, Science, 27 Oct 2006: Vol. 314, Issue 5799, pp. 614

Trees of Texas, Texas A&M Forest Service Accessed Jan. 30, 2018
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