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The Global History of Beekeeping

Updated: Jan 2, 2021

The Global History of Beekeeping

By Jennifer Brown AKA Jenny B 

The oldest known bee dates back to 100 million years old and was discovered in Hukawng Valley of Myanmar, Burma by zoologist professor George Poinar from Oregon State University. This original bee was encountered in a solid amber mass and was named the Melittosphex Burmensis, introducing a new family called Melitta Sphecidae that have several features of both bees and wasps. This discovery also led to an important link to help explain the rapid expansion of flowering plants during that distant period. Paleontologist entomologist Michael Engle from the University of Kansas discovered a honey bee fossil from 14 million years ago in the state of Nevada. This is now the oldest evidence of the existence of honey bees in North America. This ancient honey bee no longer exists in the same form today. It was named Apis Nearctica and lived during the middle Miocene era. Researchers have closely related it to an extinct species from the Miocene epoch period of southwest Germany. The earliest known records of humans keeping bees and harvesting honey originate in Spain and Egypt. In La Cueva de la Arana in Bicorp a cave painting exists from roughly 7000-8000 years ago. In Ancient Egypt, during the first dynasty, the title of “ Sealer of Honey” was used. In the Old Kingdom pictures of beekeepers and smoking hives to remove comb can be found in Niuserre’s sun temple and after this time period honey was mentioned much more frequently. In lower Egypt the bee was chosen as the symbol for the country. Ancient Egyptians maintained records of domesticating bees, but they valued wild honey greatly as honey-hunting was quite prevalent. Honey was used for wine, cooking and medicine. The Smith and Ebers papyrus attests to the use of honey for wound care due to its antibacterial characteristics. Ancient Egyptians also valued the use of beeswax. Wax was used as a sealant, as a building material for ships, used in mummification and in medicine. Wax was used as a base ingredient similar to how we use it in our healing balms today and, interestingly enough, it was not used for candles or lighting. Wax was even found as a medium for ancient statues dating back to Ramses and Maat. Eastern Civilizations like China also have a long history with the honey bee. The Yellow River was similar to the Nile in that crops and farms were abundant in these areas and bees were greatly valued. These cultures collected brood and honey, studied the species and soon were able to manage honey bees. The earliest records in China of the bee date back to 3,000 years ago. Ancient inscriptions of the word “Feng” were found, the Chinese character for “bee.” The beehive was first referred to around 300 BCE. Technology of keeping bees soon became an apiculture commercial industry. Catching wild swarms, creating wooden hives and harvesting wax for candles was recorded as early as 158 BCE by Jiang-qi. Honey harvesting became a nationally recorded event by the Ming Dynasty era of 1368 CE - 1644 CE. Although China does not have the cave and rock drawings that Egypt and Spain do, their beekeeping records and expansion of industry to manage bees and bee products was quite extensive. In ancient Greece and Rome bees and honey were used as symbol for many things and was included in numerous legends of the Greek and Roman gods. For example in the legend of the birth of Zeus, his father wished to destroy him and so his mother in means to protect Zeus took him to a cave. Within this cave lived a bee colony and these sacred bees fed baby Zeus “god honey” until he was full grown and he then dethroned his father. His title became “Melissaios” name for “bee-man”. Bees also had an association with the souls that have passed on. Philosophers of the time believed that humans could be reincarnated as bees and that bees were the souls of the unborn. Mead had a presence in Ancient Greece and Rome as well as Medieval times. Honey was considered a nectar of the gods and gave them immortality. Ancient Rome similarly to China, had no pictures of cave paintings, but the legends and written documentation proved evidential of the importance of bees in ancient culture. Later in history bees and honey became a useful tool in the art of warfare. Honey from the nectar of a Rhododendron Ponticum or Azalea Ponticaare plant is poisonous to humans and was used to poison one’s enemy. The Roman Troops of Pompeii were poisoned when they came across some strategically placed honey and supplies on their travels. They suffered from seizures, vomiting and delirium. At this point the Heptakomete local defenders attacked the Roman troops in their weakened state and advanced. Through the 11th-18th century bees had been used for battle quite a few instances. Kings such as Emperor Henry I and King Richard have used full beehives to be catapulted at their enemies. Using beehives and bees in war has been recorded in history in Austria, Rome, Portugal, Turkey and many Mediterranean countries. Much like the Ancient Greek and Roman legends, Celtic Myth contains rhetoric of bees and their wisdom. For example it was said that bees are the messengers between worlds. In Scotland the bees were known to carry the knowledge of ancient druids or high ranking professionals. Scottish lure speaks of the secret knowledge of the bees with their saying “ask the wild bee for what the druid knew.” The Highlanders believed while asleep a person’s soul left the body in the form of a bee. In Wales it was said that when a death would occur in the family someone from the family told the bees about the death before the funeral. They would then tie a black ribbon to a piece of wood and put it in the hole at the top of the hive to protect against further deaths in the family. In Ireland specific laws regarding wild and domesticated bee encounters date back to the 7th and 8th centuries. These laws were called the “Brehon laws” which signify the value of beekeeping before sugar cane was widely available to the population. These laws were divided into sections of who found or discovered a wild bee hive, whos land the beehive was on and the “revenue share” of the hive between the discoverer and/or the landowner. Having a beehive for a kept garden was common practice and beehives were very prevalent in Ireland due to the vast woodlands that existed before deforestation and development of land. In the Scandinavian countries like Denmark and Sweden the middle ages are when beekeeping became widespread. These countries like Ireland enlisted laws specific to the dealings of bees. Honey was even paid as tax to the Danish King Valdemar (1231-1241). In 1574 it was recorded that 166 barrels of honey were paid in taxes. In Sweden, royal bee yards were established by King Gustav Vasa (1496-1560) and honey was even more common than butter. Meade and honey ales became popular and produced during these times. In these regions honey bees were largely kept in wooden log hives and unfortunately bees were killed when extracting honey. Beeswax was used by the churches for candles as Christianity was spreading throughout the region. Beekeeping then started to decline due to climate change called “the little ice age” periods 1600-1800. It was during these years that European countries were conquering new worlds and the European Honey Bee began to migrate. European and Spanish colonists started bringing bees to the new worlds in the 17th century. The European honey bee was brought to North America by colonists in the 1600s by the settlers and Captain Wallace brought the first hives over to Australia on the ship Isabella in 1822. Prior to the European Honey Bee native insects and wild bees handled pollination for crops and flowers. Indigenous people collected honey from wild bee hives and even used smoke to manage the bees. Once bees were introduced to North America, the Cherokee tribe was one of the first Native American tribes to begin “working” the hives in the introduced manner. The Native Americans of North America called the honey bee the “White Man’s Fly”. Native Americans from South and Central America were recorded to have used poisonous honey from the nectar of specific plants, for ceremonial purges and possibly "vision questing" similar to how iowaska is known today to be used by shamans. The African bee was accidentally introduced to South America in Brazil 1957. These bees mated with the European breed bees and slowly spread through South and Central America into Southern North America. Today beekeeping all over the world has evolved and modern technology has allowed us to learn from each other. The history of keeping bees, beekeeping practices and the uses around the world for bee based products is fascinating. However what is amazing is when the history of keeping bees around the world in ancient times is compared, many of the beliefs, practices and value of bees is somewhat universal. For example upon research smoking bees as a way to manage colonies dates back hundreds if not thousands of years in some cultures seemingly without knowledge or introduction of this practice from other cultures. Bees in ancient mythology and philosophy find their way around the world and through a speaking and written history are still with us today. Honey being sealed and kept for decades without modern science was common practice. Using honey and beeswax for medicinal applications dates back thousands of years and upon multiple cultures. Beekeeping is a timeless art and the value of the bee and its mystical presence in history is heartwarming.

References: Bérubé, Conrad.(2001) War and Bees - Military applications of apiculture. Eva Crane (1994) Beekeeping in the World of Ancient Rome, Bee World, 75:3, 118-134, DOI: 10.1080/0005772X.1994.11099214 Eva crane and Penelope Walker.(1998). Irish Beekeeping In The Past. Fudula, Ayla.(May 4, 2018). The Sacred Bee: Ancient Greece and Rome Joyce, P.W.(1906) A Smaller Ancient History Of Ancient Ireland. Kritsky, Gene. (2017). Beekeeping from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages. Annual Review of Entomology. Lau, Constantine W. (December 2012)Ancient Chinese Apiculture. Oregon State University. "Research Discovers Oldest Bee, Evolutionary Link." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 October 2006. <>. Slaven, James.(February 16th, 2018).Celtic Lore Of The Honey Bee. Taber, Stephen (August 30, 2013 ). Beekeeping in Latin America. Walker, Donna.(May 15, 2012).The History Of Beekeeping and Honey Bees In North America.

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