Humans have a tendency to like sweet things, right? Candy, deserts and sweets of every kind are at the top of most people’s list of favorite things to eat. So it comes as no surprise to know that honeybees have long been a part of our history. The Bible is full of references to honey and archaeologists have found ancient apiaries in Israel, not to mention actual edible honey in the tombs of pharaohs. Science, literature, philosophy, religion, art, medicine, and home crafts can all attest to the importance of honeybees and their valuable products.
Let’s look at a honeybee timeline, mainly from an Occidental (go look it up, I can’t do everything for you or you won’t learn anything) point of view.
100 Million-ish BC, Burma
A bee fossilized in Amber (like in Jurassic Park) was found in a mine.
13,000-ish BC, Spain
A cave painting depicting a person climbing a cliff to harvest honey shows that people were definitely into honey and willing to risk life and limb to get it. Not to mention they found it important enough to paint it on a wall.
7,000-ish BC, Turkey
Residues of beeswax have been found all up and down Europe from Denmark to Africa during the Neolithic Age (10,000-4,500 BC). The oldest has been found in Turkey.
3,000-ish BC, Egypt
Gotta love those Egyptians for their hieroglyphs if nothing else. They have some great pictures of harvesting honey from clay hives as well as beautiful images of bees carved and painted throughout their structures and tombs. They also left us a gift of actual honey, unspoiled and preserved in a clay pot.
900-ish BC, Tel Rehov
The oldest apiary to be discovered was found in an archaological dig of the city of Tel Rehov. Nearly 200 clay cylinder hives, like ones seen in Egyptian paintings, were excavated in Israel in 2017. The bee DNA they found there indicated that the bees were brought there from Turkey.
401 BC, Greece
According to ancient writings, the Greek General Xenophon encountered some toxic honey from wild bees near the Black Sea as they were traveling home from the Persian war. His soldiers found the honey and ate it, but became very sick. The source of the sickness was honey was from rhododendron nectar, which has been found to have toxic compounds. Interestingly, Pliny later wrote about mead made from this honey being highly sought after. There have always been druggies.
300-ish BC, Greece
Aristotle observed honeybees from his own hives and wrote about their behavior. In fact, he is the first to write scientifically about bees. Other lesser-known Greeks have volumes on bees and beekeeping. It seems that ever since humans have been able to write, they have written about bees and their honey. One funny note is that many writers thought the queen was a king bee…figures!
900-ish AD, Byzantine (Turkey)
The Geoponika, a collection of farm-related writings talks extensively about beekeeping practices with some on-point advice. One particularly good piece of info described best practices for moving bee hives: cover the hive up at night and gently move it to its new location, then remove the cover by dawn. That’s pretty much how I do it.
Beeswax and honey were commodities in Europe during the Middle Ages. People kept bees in hollowed out trees, carved wood containers, stone house, and woven baskets called skeps. Monks often kept bees for the church, and I think those images are what romanticized beekeeping for me. Also Friar Tuck made ale and I bet he also made mead, which is the main reason I got into beekeeping. The Middle Ages are so cool.
Oh! A few other Midieval facts.
We all know about taxation issues during the Middle Ages because of Robin Hood, so it should come as no surprise that beehives were taxed. So if a landowner found bees foraging on his property, he could follow the bee back to its hive and tax the beekeeper.
Finally, the Middle Ages wouldn’t be the Middle Ages without the catapult. And what better weapon to throw against your enemy’s ground troops than a hive full of angry bees. Ya, that happened! Too bad they didn’t know about Africanized bees back then.
Most people don’t even realize that honeybees didn’t exist in the entire Western Hemisphere until the pilgrims brought them over on ships when they came to America. I can’t imagine how they would have survived without them, honestly. How would they make candles or corn bread with honey butter, or peanut butter and honey sandwiches? We are ever so thankful that bees were brought here.
1850-ish, Langstroth Hive
Beekeepers in Europe and America were developing better ways of keeping bees in order to make harvesting honey easier. In the United States, one beekeeper, named Lorenzo Langstroth, developed a hive that caused him to be named the Father of Modern Beekeeping. By discovering what he called “bee space,” Langstroth was able to create moveable frames that the bees wouldn’t glue together. What this did was to allow beekeepers to manage hives and colonies without having to rip them apart to harvest honey. The frames could be moved in and out to inspect hives and to collect honey. It created a more harmonious method of beekeeping. Langstroth wrote about his method in the famous book, The Hive and The Honeybee.
1955-ish, Africanized Honeybees
In the late 1950’s, Brazilian scientist, Warwick Kerr sought to increase honey production in Brazil. European honeybees do not do as well in hot climates as they do in more temperate climates, so Kerr’s solution to that problem was to seek honeybees that do. Africa, whose Apis mellifera scutellata bees have excellent production seemed the perfect place to go for an answer. He brought queen bees back from Africa to Brazil to begin breeding and hybridizing them with European Honeybees with the hope of creating the perfect honeybee for Brazil. However, the African colonies swarmed during the experiments and left the quarantine area and began taking over the continent by breeding and reproducing their colonies. Finally in the 90’s Africanized bees were found in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico, and have since taken over the entire southern part of the United States. Only the colder temperatures of latitudes above 34 degrees keep them from migrating further north.
I have so much to say about Africanized bees because it is the honeybee that I deal with the most, but I will save that for another post. Suffice it to say that they have made a huge impact in beekeeping in the locations they have infiltrated.
1987-ish to Now-ish, Varroa Destructor, Colony Collapse Disorder, & Pesticides Oh My!
Varroa Destructor, or Varroa Mites evolved around the Asian honeybee, Apis cerana, and seems to be easily thwarted by that species. However, the Varroa Mite found its way to Apis Mellifera in the mid to late 1900’s. The scientific world warned of its spread in the 70’s, but it was an unheeded warning, and through lack of treatment and importation of unquarantined honeybees to various parts of the world, Varroa was rapidly spread. It was first discovered in the United States in 1987 with large numbers of colony loss. It is thought that bees imported into Brazil and then to Florida were the carriers. Today Varroa mites are the number one enemy of honeybees and have been spread throughout the United States as honeybees are trucked around the country to pollinate. Universities and bee labs everywhere are focused on finding a way to deal with these mites. Breeding programs, chemical treatments, and finding natural predators are a few ways they are looking for answers. Until they do, beekeepers will continue to lose colonies unless they stay on top of their inspections and treatments.
Pesticides are another destructive issue that honeybees and beekeepers have to face. Farmers need bees for pollination, but then they spray their crops with pesticides. Homeowners want weed free and bug free gardens and lawns so they spray at an even greater rate than farmers do. It’s no wonder that honeybees are failing. Imagine going to a buffet to eat and everything looks amazing, but just before you fill up your plate, someone comes along and sprays it all with poison. That’s essentially what happens with bees. This weakens colonies and often kills them. It is a very big deal.
Finally, everyone has heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which was taken note of in 2006 when beekeepers reported higher than normal colony losses. It wasn’t just that the bees died, it is that the hive was left with no adult bees, few to no dead bees, capped brood, and food stores that none of the usual honey robbers will eat. It is not sure what the cause is, there are many speculations and I think that the two issues I mentioned above (Varroa and pesticides) play a role.
Hopefully beekeepers around the world will work together to find solutions to the devastating problems facing honeybees. Observation of our own colonies and good record-keeping practices are a good start, along with constant communication with each other. Arizona Backyard Beekeepers Association is one way you can be part of the solution if you are in Arizona. If you are a beekeeper, we need you to be part of our community. The bees need you to be a part of our community.
The Future of honeybees and beekeeping
Let science, nature, commercial beekeepers, farmers and hobbyists unite to create a world that is nurturing to both humanity and bees. It is in our power to make that happen. May the honeybee timeline be ever-increasing and honeybees be ever-evolving into a healthy species that can withstand the trials they face, and may the world work toward that end.