The history of beekeeping is fascinating. We don’t know when humans first discovered the sweet taste of honey. We don’t even know when they first started to honey-gather. But we do know when they first started to intentionally cultivate bee colonies for the use of honey and wax.
The Oldest Bee
The oldest bee fossil was discovered in Myanmar. Science suggests that bee colonies started to grow and spread with the growth and spread of flowering plants. Bee pollination and flowering plants grew in tandem. Prior to this, the wind was the main sower of plant seed.
The History of Beekeeping in Egypt and Spain (6000-5000 B.C.E.)
The first human record of knowing or interacting with bees was found in La Cueva de la Araña (The Cave of the Spider) in the municipality of Bicorp, Valencia, Spain. In the cave drawing, a stylized human figure gathers honey while bees fly around and towards him.
The use of bees, honey, and beeswax in Egypt was more clearly defined. There was a job description called “Sealer of Honey.” Their pictures and paintings, a little more detailed than the Valencia cave drawings, showed how beekeepers would smoke hives (to calm bees) and draw out honey.
In Lower Egypt (Egypt at the lower part of the Nile according to the direction it flowed, which is actually farther north than Upper Egypt), the bee was the symbol of their country. Together with the sedge plant, it would symbolize both Upper and Lower Egypt. This was their symbol at least from 3100 B.C.E. onwards.
How were bee products used in Egypt?
Bees were domestically kept, but mainly for beeswax. When it came to honey, wild honey was gathered as much as cultivated honey was harvested. Honey was used for food, for adding taste to wine, and as an ingredient for medicine. An early papyrus, called the Smith and Ebers papyrus, shares how the antibacterial properties of honey were used for anointing wounds.
The beeswax was first used as an aid to seal jars and containers. It was also used for shipbuilding, being waterproof, and as an ingredient for mummification. Beeswax was not used for lighting or candles, as oil lamps were used for thousands of years in the North African and Middle Eastern areas. Less commonly, beeswax was molded into figurines of Egyptian deities.
The History of Beekeeping in China (1100 B.C.E.)
Oracle bones, the earliest records of writing in China, have a character which means bee or wasp (feng). Honey bees, specifically, were called mi-feng. Riverside farmers raised and managed bee colonies, and honey was used as part of stomach remedies and healthy food recommendations.
The industry was so developed that after a few hundred years, there were records of beehives, of techniques to domesticate wild bee colonies, and a thriving market for honey, beeswax, and other related products. Beeswax was made into candles as early as 200 B.C.E., before such a technique became known and popularized in Europe.
By 158 C.E., the first bee farm was registered. By the 1300s, there was a honey harvest festival every year in July. In the 1700s, books and scrolls on beekeeping had commercially emerged. Beekeepers were knowledgeable even about conditions that would negatively impact their bee colonies, and about how swarms of small insects could destroy them.
The History of Beekeeping in Ancient Greece and Rome (200 B.C.E.)
While we are not sure that the ancient Greeks practiced beekeeping (intentional cultivation of the colonies), we know they did study bees and their behavior. There were bees on their coins, bees in Aristotle’s History of Animals, and bees mentioned in their literature. We can assume that this knowledge was carried over into the next phase of civilization, the Roman Empire.
The Romans practiced beekeeping, which we know because of their writings. The writings were not only about bees and their behavior, but how to cultivate them as well. We also know from their writings that Romans built their artificial beehives from perishable materials, which explains why we can’t find very many today.
The main use of beekeeping was to gather honey for sweetening, especially in wine or milk. The honey-and-milk creation that was given to newlyweds is where we get our word “honeymoon.” Beekeeping and honey-gathering was so much a part of their civilization that there were entire systems of laws defining bee cultivation and when you could claim a colony for your own.
They used honey for medicine, and the wax for any number of things: writing tablets, medical ingredients, molds of their deities, and for lighting. Beekeeping was widespread enough for cities to be known for their good or bad honey or wax. Beekeeping was a big part of their culture until 476 C.E., the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
The History of Beekeeping in Europe (476 C.E.)
The Holy Roman Empire was the main driver of beekeeping in the middle ages, until the fall of the Empire in 1453. The demand and use of candles in churches and monasteries drove the need for extensive beekeeping colonies to provide the beeswax for so many candles being consumed at once.
While people did use honey as sweetener and beeswax for other reasons like seals and molds, candle-making really drove the industry. Bee colonies, and the virtues bees were assumed to have, also fueled their religious use. Bees were models of industriousness, purity, order, and so forth. Monasteries, which usually were self-supporting, also had beekeeping farms.
After the Protestant Reformation, many monasteries and churches were closed down. Lighting candles for devotion or supplication was no longer a main focus, and multiple beekeeping farms closed as well. Instead, what kept beekeeping in Europe alive was the development of metheglin, or honey-based mead.
In the 1500s and 1600s, bees started to expand their territory around the world as they accompanied European ships from coast to coast. By this time, Europeans had discovered a way around Africa to South and East Asia, and had also discovered the American continents.
In the 1700s, the Age of Enlightenment and scientific discovery, bees were finally studied and classified properly. We learned more about how bees reproduced and worked, and dispersed many moral and religious assumptions about the colonies and hives. The existence of the queen bee was discovered, and our understanding of queens, drones, and worker bees grew.
The History of Beekeeping in America
The earliest known records of bee colonies being imported to the North American colonies are from 1622 to 1638, to certain Colonies on the East Coast. What is also sure is that by the early 1800s, there were bee hives from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Settlers carried hives with them, and from those hives swarms created new colonies.
Reverend L.L. Langstroth, known as the “Father of American Beekeeping,” was also a pioneer in scientific beekeeping methods. He first invented the beehive that is most familiar to us today, with movable and removable frames. In this way, honey and wax could be gathered without extensively disrupting the colony.
Soon after this, other beekeeping farms in America and other continents adopted Langstroth’s style of bee hives. This pioneering move changed the picture of beekeeping forever, and standardized it across the world. Extraction of honey, queen bee rearing, and separation of worker bees all grew quickly after this discovery.
Eventually, commercial beekeeping extended far past honey and beeswax. Now, professional beekeepers around the world take colonies and swarms from place to place to pollinate fruit-bearing and flowering plants.
How Is Beekeeping Today?
Last year, 2019, saw a nearly 40% drop in honey bee colonies in the United States. Similar drops in numbers were seen across the world. As colonies are taken from area to area to aid in pollination of fruit crops, the loss would have a negative effect on the crops that depend on this beekeeper-directed movement. The honey bee colonies have been steadily declining in number, with higher death rates each winter, for the past 15 years. With COVID-19 keeping beekeepers home in nearly every country, hives are unable to pollinate at their normal rate. Both colonies and crops are sure to feel the impact in 2020.
Other resources on the history of beekeeping:
- “Beekeeping in Roman Age” by Kurt Kristensen
- The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting by Eva Crane
- “Ancient Chinese Apiculture” by Constantine W. Lau
- 1 The Oldest Bee
- 2 The History of Beekeeping in Egypt and Spain (6000-5000 B.C.E.)
- 3 The History of Beekeeping in China (1100 B.C.E.)
- 4 The History of Beekeeping in Ancient Greece and Rome (200 B.C.E.)
- 5 The History of Beekeeping in Europe (476 C.E.)
- 6 The History of Beekeeping in America
- 7 How Is Beekeeping Today?