Beekeeping from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages

Beekeeping from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages

By Gene Kritsky

Annual Review of Entomology, 2017. 62:249–64

Humans and honey bees have a long history of association. It is likely that proto-humans were interacting with honey bees long before the appearance of Homo sapiens, as chimpanzees will modify branches into a variety of tools to tear into nests of wild bees to steal the honey. These industrious chimpanzees also carry these tools from one nest to another, rather than simply discarding them. This extant primate behavior suggests that early hominins may have also robbed honey bees of their produce.

Robbing wild bees of their honey is the oldest documented interaction with bees. Rock paintings in Spain depict honey hunters suspended from rope ladders as they harvest sections of honeycomb. These paintings are thought to date back 7,000 to 8,000 years, but they are not the oldest evidence of use of bee products. Chemical evidence of beeswax has been detected in Anatolian pottery nearly 9,000 years old. However, this Neolithic evidence does not document that humans had developed beekeeping, as beeswax can also be collected by honey hunting.

True beekeeping requires that honey bees be provided with an artificial cavity within which the bees can build comb, constructing cells in which the queen lays her eggs and the workers deposit nectar and pollen to make honey and bee bread. The oldest definitive evidence of providing such a cavity for bees—and thus of true beekeeping—dates back to antiquity (3000 BCE to 500 CE).

Click here to read the rest of this article in the Annual Review of Entomology.

Top Image: Bees / British Library Royal 12 C XIX f. 45

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