The Ancient Origins of Beekeeping
When did people start beekeeping? Humans have had a relationship with honey bees for thousands of years. Beekeeping is even considered to be one of the world’s oldest professions.
The oldest known bee is believed to date back 100 million years. It was discovered in Myanmar. This discovery may explain why flowering plants expanded so rapidly after the end of the last Ice Age; The bee pollinated flowering plants and helped to change the ancient landscape.
Human’s interactions with bees may have begun about 10,000 years ago. This is evidenced by cave drawings found in the Cueva de la Arana or Cave of Spiders in Valencia, Spain. The image depicts humans scaling trees to access honey. The drawing is believed to be between 10,000 and 8,000 years old.
There are also cave drawings in Niuserre’s Sun Temple in Egypt which show human’s early relationship with bees. The carvings illustrate workers smoking hives before removing honey. These images are dated at about 5,000 BCE.
Honey had many uses for these ancient peoples. Honey was used as a food source and natural sweetener, to make wine, and in medicine. The Edwin Smith papyrus scrolls attest to using honey to heal wounds, soothe burns, and cure infections. Romans also used honey for wound care after battles.
The mummification process involved coating the corpse with honey, wax, and propolis. Ancient Egyptians even used honey as currency.
People of the Eastern Mediterrainian used honey as a preservative to keep food stuff from going bad.
Bees were prevalent in Ancient Greek and Roman mythology. According to legend Zeus’ father Kronos wanted to destroy him. Zeus’ mother discovered the plot against her son. She hid him in a cave. The cave was populated by sacred bees. The bees fed him raw honey until he was strong enough to dethrone his father and become the King of the Gods. Perhaps this story is the origin of honey being the nectar of the Gods and providing those who ate it immortality.
Much of ancient beekeeping involved keeping bees in hollow trees or pottery vessels. The oldest human constructed beehive is thought to be about 3000 years old and was found in Israel.
Much of medieval and middle age beekeeping involved keeping bees in skeps. These containers were often made of mud and straw. Each skep had an opening at one end. This opening was placed face down. The bees would make honeycomb but it would be attached to the side of the skep as there was no internal structure. Beekeepers at the time would have to damage the colony to collect the honey and wax. Often, the beekeeper had to kill the bees or make them homeless in the process.
Monks often kept bees in skeps using their wax for candles. The monks used the candles in religious ceremonies and for light to illustrate and keep manuscripts by.
It is clear that humans and bees have a special and long-standing relationship. I feel privileged to be a part of the always evolving relationship humans have with bees.