The relationship between humans and bees has been around for thousands of years, and beekeeping is still a relatively common hobby for many people. Bees are some of the most fascinating insects in our environment, but few people know their true importance. Even though some beekeepers only do it for honey, there’s a rich history behind this fantastic hobby. Follow along to explore the complete history and evolution of beekeeping.
At a Glance
Even though it might seem like a relatively new and trendy hobby, beekeeping has been around for many, many centuries. In fact, it started in ancient times. Stick around for an overview of beekeeping and the journey of its life span throughout history—it looks much different today than it did back in the early years of beekeepers.
Where It Began: Ancient Times
Most researchers would agree that the first records of the relationship between honeybees and humans were in cave drawings and rock paintings that came from Spain. That said, people from ancient civilizations weren’t beekeepers—they were honey hunters. It didn’t take long for people to realize that honey was a deliciously sweet substance that they could eat to stay alive; however, they usually had to kill an entire colony to get to the honey.
Interestingly, ancient honey hunters also discovered that smoke was an effective way to calm the bees and protect themselves from a vicious bee attack. Because food options were few and far between during these ages, it was a treat to find an untouched beehive and collect the honey—killing the bees in the process was the major trade-off.
Beekeeping in Egypt
Although there’s no way to pin down the exact time frame when mankind began keeping bees and caring for them, we know that the first official beekeepers came from Egypt. Interestingly, these ancient beekeepers created natural beehives from hollowed logs to imitate the normal hive-building process of bee colonies.
As they learned more about beekeeping, the Egyptians would move their hives to follow the warm weather. Many researchers believe they sent their hives up and down the Nile River for warmer weather and blooming flowers.
Honey and Royalty
Back in ancient times, using and eating honey was a luxury. In fact, it was only for the upper class and royalty. Using and consuming honey in their physical life on earth wasn’t the end of it either—it wasn’t abnormal for the upper class and royalty to have jars of honey in their tombs. Researchers found raw honey jars in various ancient Egyptian tombs; even after thousands of years, the honey is still stable and OK to eat.
Tree Beekeeping to Hive Beekeeping
Many bee colonies naturally put their hives in trees, and beekeepers cultivated hives in hollowed logs. However, these options still made bees vulnerable to attacks by honey hunters. Because he no longer wanted to see people kill honeybees just to get to the honey, Thomas Wildman provided plans for a new type of beehive in a 1770’s book he wrote called A Treatise on the Management of Bees.
Wildman’s idea was relatively similar to the beehives we know and use today, with a removable lid and frames for the bees to build on. Although this design was a major upgrade, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth improved on Wildman’s model in the 1850s. He claimed that putting a small amount of space between each individual frame would prevent the bees from building connecting bridges. As a result, beekeepers could remove the frames to collect the honey without damaging anything the bees built.
Early Records of Honeybees in the Colonies
While there are many bee species native to the Western world, the honey bee is not one of them. We don’t know for certain when they got here and who brought them, but they most likely came to North America with early colonists. In fact, there are many records of bees in the colonies during the early days of North American settlements.
In Newbury, Massachusetts, there’s a record of the town’s selected men establishing a public apiary around 1640. It was most likely for an educational experiment of sorts, but it proves that honeybees were here and thriving way back in the beginning of US history. Additionally, there was a case in 1641 in Salem, Massachusetts, regarding a swarm of bees settling in a tree. Because very few people were familiar with bees at this time, it was a shock to see a swarm.
Even though Huber wasn’t the first person to ever observe honeybees, he set out to do scientific research to determine bee behavior and the significant truth about these fascinating insects. Those that kept bees before Huber were primitive beekeepers, and they didn’t know much about them and how they worked. However, Huber’s Observations On the Natural History of Bees is one of the most profound and monumental works in the beekeeping world.
After Huber, modern beekeeping aimed for efficiency and bee safety. He made a huge splash in this area of study, and beekeeping has never been the same.
As you can see, beekeeping has come a long way to get to where we are today. There are a few principles of modern beekeeping that separate today’s beekeepers from ancient times. Furthermore, technology continues to advance, making way for new ideas and changes in the beekeeping world.
How Beekeepers Extract Honey
In ancient times, people were honey hunters. Fortunately, many made it possible to extract honey without killing or disturbing the bees. Most of the time, modern beekeepers use a smoker to calm the bees, open the hive, remove the honey frames, and use an extractor tool to harvest the honey. This is a significant change from breaking open hives with our bare hands and killing bees for their honey!
Different Hive Styles
Hives have also come a long way. Many beekeepers have a basic wooden box with drawers and a bunch of frames, while others have those that open from the top, like a grill. No matter what you choose for your busy bees, they’ll work together and produce delicious honey if they’re safe, happy, and healthy.
Aside from common beekeeping gear, like bee suits, hive tools, honey extractors, etc., there are also new beekeeping devices to make life easier for avid beekeepers. For instance, the bee blanket is a new electric covering device that beekeepers can use to protect the hive from the winter weather and keep it at a steady temperature.
After learning the complete history and evolution of beekeeping, you might want to purchase honeybee nucs of your own to start a new journey. Beekeeping is one of the oldest hobbies, and it’s still prominent in our society today—help the bee population and try something new.