History of Honey Bees and Human Management of Apis mellifera

The Latest Scientific Buzz about Honey Bee History

Hollow Log Beehive at Cévennes (France)
A hollow log hive at Cévennes (France) reveals the details of circular comb architecture in Apis mellifera. Eric Tourneret / Nature

The history of honey bees (or honeybees) and humans is a very old one. Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are an insect that has not exactly been domesticated: but humans have learned how to manage them, by providing them with hives so we can more easily steal the honey and wax from them. That, according to research published in 2015, happened in Anatolia at least as long ago as 8,500 years. But physical changes to bees that are kept are negligible from those that are not kept, and there are no specific breeds of bees that you could reliably identify as domesticated versus wild.

Three distinct genetic subspecies of honey bees have been identified, however, in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe. Harpur and colleagues identified evidence that Apis mellifera originated in Africa and colonized Europe at least twice, producing the genetically distinct Eastern and Western species. Surprisingly, unlike most "domesticated" species, managed bees have a higher genetic diversity than their progenitors. (See Harpur et al. 2012)

Honey Bee Benefits

We are fond of the stinging Apis mellifera, of course, for its liquid honey. Honey is one of the most energy-dense foods in nature, consisting of a concentrated source of fructose and glucose containing approximately 80-95% sugar. Honey contains trace amounts of several essential vitamins and minerals and also can be used as a preservative. Wild honey, that is to say, collected from wild bees, contains relatively higher levels of protein, because the honey contains more bee larva and larva parts than kept bees.

Honey and bee larva together are excellent sources of energy fat and protein.

Beeswax, the substance created by bees to encase their larvae in combs, was and is used for binding, sealing and waterproofing, and fuel in lamps or as candles. The 6th millennium BC Greek Neolithic site of Dikili Tash contained evidence for the use of beeswax as a binding agent.

New Kingdom Egyptians used beeswax for medicinal purposes as well as embalming and mummy wrapping. Chinese Bronze Age cultures used it in the lost-wax technique as early as 500 BC, and as candles by the Warring States Period (375-221 BC).

Early Use of Honey

The earliest documented use of honey dates to at least the Upper Paleolithic, some 25,000 years ago. The dangerous business of collecting honey from wild bees was accomplished then as today, by using a variety of methods, including smoking the hives to reduce the response of the guard bees.

Upper Paleolithic rock art from Spain, India, Australia, and southern Africa all illustrate collecting honey. Altamira cave, in Cantabria, Spain, includes depictions of honeycombs, dated approximately 25,000 years ago. The Mesolithic Cueva de la Araña rock shelter, in Valencia Spain, contains depictions of honey collection, bee swarms, and men climbing ladders to get to the bees, at ~10,000 years ago.

Some scholars believe that collecting honey is much earlier than that since our immediate cousins the primates regularly collect honey on their own. Crittendon has suggested that Lower Paleolithic Oldowan stone tools (2.5 mya) could have been used to split open beehives, and there's no reason that a self-respecting Australopithecine or early Homo could not have done that.

Neolithic Bee Exploitation in Turkey

A recent study (Roffet-Salque et al. 2015) reported discovering beeswax lipid residues within cooking vessels throughout the prehistoric world from Denmark to North Africa. The earliest examples, say researchers, come from Catalhoyuk and Cayonu Tepesi in Turkey, both dated to the 7th millennium BC. Those come from bowls which also contained mammalian animal fat. Further evidence at Catalhoyuk is the discovery of a honeycomb-like pattern painted on the wall.

Roffet-Salque and colleagues report that according to their evidence, the practice became widespread in Eurasia by 5,000 cal BC; and that the most abundant evidence for honeybee exploitation by early farmers comes from the Balkan peninsula.

Beekeeping Evidence

Until the discovery of Tel Rehov, evidence for ancient beekeeping, however, was restricted to texts and wall paintings (and of course ethnohistoric and oral history records, see Si 2013).

Pinning down when beekeeping began is thus somewhat difficult. The earliest evidence of that is documents dated to the Bronze Age Mediterranean.

Minoan documents written in Linear B describe major honey stores, and based on documentary evidence, most other Bronze Age states, including Egypt, Sumer, Assyria, Babylonia, and the Hittite kingdom all had beekeeping operations. Talmudic laws from 6th century BC describe the rules of harvesting honey on the Sabbath and where the proper place was to put your hives relative to human houses.

Tel Rehov

The oldest large production facility for producing honey identified to date is from Iron Age Tel Rehov, in the Jordan Valley of northern Israel. At this site, a large facility of unfired clay cylinders contained the remains of honey bee drones, workers, pupae, and larvae.

This apiary included an estimated 100-200 hives. Each hive had a small hole on one side for the bees to enter and exit, and a lid on the opposite side for the beekeepers to access the honeycomb. The hives were located on a small courtyard that was part of a larger architectural complex, destroyed between ~826-970 BC (calibrated). About 30 hives have been excavated to date. Scholars believe the bees are the Anatolian honey bee (Apis mellifera anatoliaca), based on morphometric analyses. Currently, this bee is not local to the region.


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