A potted history of beekeeping

Which came first – flower or bee?

​It’s a good question, and just as hard to answer as the chicken and the egg one. Bees and plants exist in a relationship called mutualism, meaning each relies on the other to survive. When a bee lands on a flower, it’s collecting food in pollen or nectar. A bee doesn’t stop at just one flower, though. It goes from one to the next, collecting more and more pollen or nectar. And this is where the plant gets its reward.

Plants can’t reproduce the way animals do because, well, they can’t move! That’s why bees are so necessary – they can carry that life-creating pollen from one flower to the next. When the pollen from two flowers meets up, magic occurs and new life – usually in the form of some kind of fruit or seed pod – is made.

But which came first? It’s not really clear. One thing we do know is that bees have been around for a long time, probably as long as 110-140 million years. We also know that around 125 million years ago, the number of flowering plants took way off. Bee fossils are pretty hard to come by, so we don’t know anything for sure, but there’s a good chance that the number of bee and flower species expanded together.

Why is this? Bees need flowers to survive, and flowers need bees. Certain species of bees are more compatible with certain species of flowers, and since they’re so closely linked, a change in one can spur a change in the other.

From honey grabbers to beekeepers

The history of bees and flowers is a fascinating one. So, too, is the history of beekeeping.

Humans have been after honey for millennia. It makes sense – it’s delicious, it’s calorie-rich, and it doesn’t go bad! The very oldest record of honey collection is from 15,000 years ago. This painting, found on the wall of a cave in Spain, shows a person climbing a tree, holding a basket and stealing honey from some very unhappy looking bees. As long ago as this, people had a taste for honey and were willing to extreme lengths for it!

Of course, this wasn’t exactly beekeeping – it was honey stealing. The oldest form of beekeeping, in which hives were kept for the purpose of collecting honey, took place at least 5,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt. Egyptian beekeepers would actually transport hives with the changing of the seasons, keeping up with the spring blossoms on donkeys and possibly even boats going up and down the Nile.

While the Egyptians knew how to keep bees, they really prized wild honey and, just like those Spaniards 10,000 years before, they would risk their own safety to steal from wild colonies. This time, though, professional hunters would go out looking with the protection of royal archers.

How do we know the Egyptians collected honey? We can see it in paintings, of course, but we can also taste it. The Egyptians revered honey and often buried themselves with it. And, since honey is the only food that doesn’t spoil, it just sat there. Archeologists have opened up ancient tombs and found pots of perfectly preserved honey sitting on the shelves, just like in the grocery store.

With time, beekeeping spread throughout Europe. It was popular in both Ancient Greece and Rome, and the Roman poet Virgil actually wrote some tips on beekeeping.

Honey out, long live the bees

The basic idea throughout the history of beekeeping has always been the same: Give the bees a place to live, let them make their honey, take it from them, and enjoy! But until the 18th century (and if you’re counting, that’s about 7,000 years) there was one more step: Kill the bees.

So for thousands of years, bees were treated as an annual crop. Medieval Europeans would hold a piece of burning sulfur at the entrance until all the bees suffocated, then they’d shake them out and collect the honey. Beehives used to be completely enclosed. The Egyptians used terra cotta jars. Medieval Europeans used hollow logs or woven baskets called skeps that rested on stone bases. Everywhere it was the same story: a single opening for the bees, but no way for the beekeeper to get inside. You could smash the jar or scrape out the basket, but then you’d have ten thousand or so very angry bees on your hands. The solution was simple: kill the bees first, then steal the honey at your leisure.

Then in 1770, the Englishman Thomas Wildman published A Treatise on the Management of Bees in which he described the invention of a new kind of hive that did away with the “inhuman and impolitic slaughter of the bees.” It was good news for beekeepers. It was even better news for bees.

Wildman’s style of hive isn’t all that different from the ones we use today. It involves a skep with an open top and a woven lid that can be removed. Rather than letting the bees build a free form structure inside, seven frames are hung from the top. Sound familiar? He also described stacking multiple skeps, so the bees could work their way to a new one, leaving the old one relatively bee-free and easy to collect honey from. It’s basically a bee conveyer belt: Instead of killing them to get to their one space, you provide them with a new space and make off with the old one.

The Langstroth breakthrough

The real credit for our modern beehive construction, however, goes to Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, the “Father of American Beekeeping.” In beekeeping circles, Langstroth is the one that comes up frequently in any discussion of the history of beekeeping.

In 1851 Langstroth developed a new type of beehive that is more or less unchanged today and is the most popular model in North America and Australia.

The Langstroth model builds upon Wildman’s idea of hanging frames and stacked separate spaces. He replaced the woven skeps with sturdy wooden boxes (he actually had the first models built by his friend, Henry Bourquin, who was a cabinetmaker), and improved upon those hanging frames by making them completely removable. What was the secret to this improvement? A single centimeter of “bee space.”

The problem with the old style of hanging frames was that the bees would fill the spaces between them with comb and propolis, a kind of stiff glue bees use to insulate and hold together their hive. If one centimeter of space is left between each frame, however, the bees will leave it open, rather than building across. Langstroth actually stumbled across this fact. At first he left that space as “dead air” to help insulate the bees in winter. By chance, it also made for frames that could be removed one at a time without ripping the comb apart and seriously upsetting the bees. All of a sudden, beekeepers could monitor their hives as often as they wanted, watching the queen’s progress and keeping disease in check.

The mid-1800’s – Dadant and others

The queen doesn’t make honey. Instead, after a single mating flight, she moves throughout the hive laying eggs. She doesn’t like moving vertically between boxes if she can help it, however. Dadant caught onto this, and developed a deeper brood box for the queen to reign over.

More space in a single box means more room for the queen to lay eggs, which means more bees to work. This style is known as the Dadant hive.Another big development began in 1863 when Charles Dadant, a hobby beekeeper in eastern France, was offered a job growing grapes and keeping bees in America with an old friend. He gave up quickly on the grapes, but took on the beekeeping full-time. Working with the stacked boxes that Langstroth had popularized, he realized that by simply making one of the boxes larger, a beekeeper could greatly increase production.

Dadant’s move across the ocean also led to the founding of Dadant & Sons, a family business still in operation today that sells beekeeping supplies and products and publishes the American Bee Journal.

Beyond the honey and the wax (pollination)

Bees were first actively used to improve crop pollination in New Zealand in the 19th century, and it all had to do with bees’ mutual evolution with flowers. European settlers introduced both red clover and honey bees, but their crops experienced very low pollination rates. They eventually figured out this was because the red clover had deep flowers that, back in Europe, were pollinated by long-tongued bumblebees.

The imported honey bees’ tongues were just too short. To solve the problem, bumblebee colonies were imported and quickly spread across the country.People have actually kept bees for honey for much longer than they’ve really known how they work. As mentioned earlier, bees and flowering plants live in a mutualist relationship in which the plants give the bees food and the bees give the plants pollination. It wasn’t until just a few hundred years ago, however, that this was really understood. In 1750 Arthur Dobbs was the first person to describe in writing the importance of bees to pollination.

Around the turn of the 20th century, farmers in the Americas started using bees as pollinators, rather than just as honey and wax producers. Beekeepers started to adapt hives to be used specifically as pollinators by adding unsealed brood cells. These are open cells of bee larvae that have to be fed pollen by nurse bees. The collection of pollen is better for pollination than the collection of nectar, which is the focus of honey producing hives.

For a while, beekeepers would pay for the privilege of letting their bees harvest from a farmer’s crops. People eventually caught on, though, that by having dedicated pollinators, the farmers were the ones who were coming out way ahead. In Denmark in the 1930s, the first beekeepers starting renting out their pollination services. Since then the business has taken off, and today bee colonies are trucked in from all over to pollinate almond trees in California. In fact, a full 50% of all bees in the US have to be in California each year just to make those almonds.

The spread of the European honeybee

Even though it’s such a staple of US agriculture, the honey bee is not actually native to the Americas. Stingless bees did exist in the Americas, but the bees we know today, and the ones that are used almost exclusively in beekeeping and honey production, are European.

That’s not to say that all European bees are the same. Go back more than a couple hundred years, and beekeeping was a highly local undertaking. Iberian bees were kept in Spain, Italian bees in Italy, and so on. When European settlers spread around the world, they took their respective types of bees with them, so Spanish and Portuguese colonies in South America became populated with Iberian bees, and British colonies in North America and Oceania with Northern European bees.

Charles Dadant was actually unhappy with the Northern European bees he found in America, and would make trips to Italy to import Italian queens. He was the first to bring Italian bees to America en masse, but they have since become the most popular variety in the country. They’re so popular because they’re gentle, they build up numbers quickly in the spring, and they produce well. They’re the best variety of bee for beginners both because of their ease of growth and their relative availability.

Beekeeping today

Despite the many and dramatic changes that have taken place throughout the history of beekeeping, beekeeping today isn’t too different from what it used to be. While we’re not keeping our bees in terra cotta pots on the banks of the Nile anymore, not a whole lot has changed. You can make it more advanced and involved if you want to, of course. Hive Tracks is software that lets you easily document all aspects of your hives. And even if you haven’t read about bees before, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the Flow Hive. It’s a wild new innovation that basically turns your hive into a honey tap.

That being said, a low-maintenance, old-fashioned hive can be perfectly healthy and very high-yielding. And especially if you’re just getting started, it might be much more rewarding.

Beekeeping operations range from hobbyist, meaning you do it for pleasure, to sideliner, meaning you do it to make a certain amount of money, to commercial, meaning you do it for a real, sustainable amount of money. If you’re just starting out, however, you’re almost certainly a hobbyist. And you’ve got a great adventure ahead of you!

Want More History?….

The relationship between bees and humans is a long, fascinating tell. If this article has inspired you to dig deeper, we would recommend Letters from the Hive” by Stephen Buckmann.

“An amateur beekeeper, entomologist and conservationist, Buchmann surveys humankind’s relationship with the oft underappreciated bee from prehistoric times to the present, emphasizing the necessity of protecting their habitats from environmental degradation. He discusses bees and honey in myth and legend; observes honey hunters in Malaysia, Nepal and Australia who use ancient methods to collect wild honey; and provides histories of beekeeping and the honey trade and an account of the activities of beekeepers.

The meat of the book includes chapters on honey making, the mechanics of pollination, and bee behavior. Buchmann includes a catalogue of honey varieties, recipes, a chapter on mead, a survey of honey’s medicinal uses and several appendixes, including a glossary, an inventory of bee species and a list of honey and beekeeping resources and supplies. This is a lot of material for a volume this size, and Buchmann can’t cover it all in depth, but he does present a highly entertaining and informative introduction to the world of the bee, as well as an enlightening look at “the enduring bond between bees and mankind”