The History of Beekeeping

a man holding a beehive frame that's full of honey and covered in bees
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    The Beginning of Beekeeping

    The practice of beekeeping, otherwise known as apiculture, involves raising and maintaining bees in order to harvest honey, wax, pollen, and propolis from their hives. Beekeeping has been practiced for centuries.

    During the Stone Age, people gathered honey from wild bees, as evidenced by the depiction of a person on a ladder gathering honey from a beehive on the wall of the Cave of the Spider in Spain. About 15,000 years old, this painting depicts wild honey gathering by use of a ladder, a practice that is still conducted today in some regions. 

    During the ancient Egyptian era, Egyptian honey bees were also kept in hives made of reed and twigs, and honey served as a form of currency for farmers. Clay jars were used to store honey, which was labeled with its color and quality. Beeswax was used in the process of mummification as well as for food and religious ceremonies. 

    Beekeeper opening hive without gloves
    Scientists believe that the first bees appeared over 100 million years ago! [1]

    Chinese beekeepers harvested honey from wild bees and used bees for pollination of crops and in the production of beeswax and honey. Additionally, the Chinese domesticated bees for their honey and wax. 

    Bees were also kept by the Maya, especially stingless bees. Bees were kept in hollowed log hives decorated with carvings showing the owner of the hive and other ornamental carvings. 

    In the Middle Ages, beekeepers kept their bees in trees, sometimes called “bee forests.” These beekeepers also had log hives similar to the Maya, and basket-woven hives. 

    During the colonization period of America, people from across Europe shipped bees to America, which spread honey bees throughout the continent. Both honey and beeswax were consumed and used in cosmetics, candles, shoe polish, and alcoholic beverages.

    How Did Beekeeping Start?

    The practice of beekeeping originated with the gathering of honey and wax from wild beehives, and then evolved into a domesticated agricultural practice in which the bees were kept in human-made hives and harvested for their honey and beeswax.

    The practice of beekeeping dates back at least 9,000 years in North Africa and 4,500 years in Egypt. 

    In the early years, collecting honey from a hive destroyed the hive itself, however European science developed a design for a removable comb that could be inserted into beehives in the eighteenth century, enabling the harvest of honey without destroying the colony of bees. 

    Bees were kept in the early years for the production of honey and beeswax, and later for the production of pollen and propolis. 

    Why Did People Start Collecting Bees?

    Beekeeping began as a method of collecting honey, which was valued for its medicinal properties as well as its use as a sweetener. 

    During the early years, honey was used as a medicine and as a religious ritual, as well as a component of alcoholic beverages such as mead. It was people who recognized the value of bees and took advantage of them. 

    When bees are kept as domesticated animals rather than harvested from the wild, it is easier to extract honey and beeswax from the hives.

    Who Wrote First About Beekeeping?

    Although it is unknown who wrote about beekeeping first, there is an inscription in Mesopotamia mentioning the introduction of honeybees by Shamash-resh-usur, the governor of Suhu at the time. 

    Shamash-resh-usur described how gardeners in Suhu kept honeybees for honey and wax, and how he himself introduced honeybees there. [2]

    There is also a text called Geoponika, which is a Byzantine text about farming. It dates back to around the 10th century. It contains several passages that describe the behavior and functionality of bees, as well as farming techniques for beekeeping. 

    There have been many European and American scientists who have written about bees. There are several notable names in this field, such as René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, François Huber, Charles Bonnet, and Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth.

    Among the most influential American beekeepers and scholars, L. L. Langstroth played a significant role in the study of bees and beekeeping.

    The Evolution of Hive Designs

    Initially, beehives were designed by humans as clay pots that were used to house bees. The pots, however, did not allow the removal of combs for honey extraction, and bee colonies were often destroyed during honey extraction. 

    During the eighteenth century, Europeans began to study honey bees and their hives. In order to observe honey bee behavior and activities, René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur designed a glass-walled hive.

    In the subsequent years, François Huber designed more observation hives with glass walls, as well as hives with exposed combs to facilitate the study of the bees. 

    Beehives in the middle of a clover field
    The practise of beekeeping dates back to over 3000 years ago!

    In 1770, Thomas Wildman designed the first hive with removable frames that could be slid into and out of the hive. The bees were able to build their comb on the frame, and the beekeeper was able to remove the frame to inspect the bees and collect the products they produced. 

    A Langstroth hive, named after Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, was created in the 19th century. In the United States, this beehive format remains popular and features removable combs upon which the bees build their brood cells and store honey.

    What Did People Used to Use Bee Products for?

    Bee products were used for a number of purposes, including the production of candles, cosmetics, shoe polish, beverages, and food. Bee products have also been used in numerous cultures as offerings to their gods and for medicinal purposes, such as the treatment of burns and wounds. 

    In addition, honey was used for eating, baking, and drinking, much like it is today. As a result of honey’s antimicrobial and antibacterial properties, people often applied honey to burns and wounds. 

    Furthermore, beeswax was used to make candles, which were essential sources of light prior to the invention of electricity. Additionally, beeswax was used in Egyptian culture to make salves and to mummify people. 

    When Did Beekeeping Start in America?

    a beekeeper inspecting a frame from an active beehive

    During the colonization of America by Europeans in the late 15th century, beekeeping was introduced in America.

    Europeans imported honey bees to the United States aboard ships. Colonizers kept bees in hives and used their honey and beeswax for a variety of purposes. 

    Early American farmers and agriculturalists kept bees to harvest honey for eating and for use in drinks, and to collect beeswax to make candles and cosmetics. 

    Important Dates in Beekeeping

    Early Years

    During the early years, people collected honey and wax from bees in the wild in Egypt, other parts of North Africa, and the Middle East. Bees were kept in clay pots, woven baskets, or hollow logs, which made it easier to extract honey and beeswax. 

    In Israel, approximately 30 hives were found made from straw and clay, dating back around 900 BCE. It is believed that these archaeological findings indicate that advanced beekeeping existed in ancient Israel more than 3,000 years ago. 

    The ancient Greeks also kept bees, and archaeology has revealed hives, smoking pots, and other beekeeping equipment. The texts of Aristotle and Virgil both contain references to beekeeping. 

    16th Century

    In the 16th century, European honey bees were introduced to South America by Spanish colonizers. Beekeeping around the world grew and changed over time. 

    Edmund Southerne wrote A Treatise Concerning the Right Use and Ordering of Bees in 1593, in which he criticized previous writers and urged the public to see the value and profit of honey and beekeeping. 

    There was no doubt that beekeeping could be a highly profitable endeavor at the start of the 1600s, as Edmund Southerne argued. [3]

    Bee propolis
    Bees use propolis, also known as "bee glue," to seal open spaces within their hives. Although, it is sometimes consumed by humans as a medicine for treating infections, repairing wounds, and other purposes.

    17th Century

    In the 17th century, George Wheler discovered Greek hives, which are designed with movable frames for honey extraction. Those beehives inspired those such as the Langstroth hive and other hives with removable frames that simplified honey extraction. 

    Although Greek beehives may have been used for more than three thousand years, the earliest record of their use dates back only to the 17th century. 

    It was on the ship Discovery that beehives were transported to Virginia in the future United States. This contributed to the introduction of honey bees to North America, along with other imports. 

    18th Century

    The process by which bees make honey was discovered and studied for the first time in the 18th century. The Europeans studied colonies and bee biology in order to develop techniques for removing resources from beehives without harming the bees, thus revolutionizing beekeeping.

    It was Thomas Wildman who designed straw hives so that beekeepers could remove honeycomb without harming the bees.

    Researchers in Europe dissected bees and used microscopes to study their internal biology. The researchers observed the bees through glass-walled hives, which led them to discover how queen bees lay eggs in cells within the hive. 

    François Huber discovered that drones and queens mate outside of the hive instead of inside, and that they do so in midair. Both he and his secretary discovered that queen bees have ovaries and sperm storage mechanisms, as well as male drone bees have penises. 

    More than 170,000 hives were established by colonists on their new land in the United States. In addition to being used to produce honey and wax, the bees were also sold as livestock. 

    Two male beekeepers in the process of extracting a honey comb with one using a smoker to calm the bees
    A bee smoker is a device used to calm the bees while the honeycombs are being removed.

    19th Century

    Johann Dzierzon, in the 19th century, discovered that drone bees are produced from unfertilized eggs, while worker bees and queen bees are produced from fertilized eggs. 

    Additionally, Johann Dzierzon designed the first beehive with movable frames, enabling beekeepers to extract individual honeycombs without damaging the hive. 

    Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth designed the Langstroth hive, which features a completely movable honeycomb frame and is still in use today in the United States. 

    20th Century

    During the 20th century, the United States government conducted beekeeping programs to assist veterans in their rehabilitation after World War I. 

    The use of beeswax in military vehicles during World War II was so vital that beekeepers were not required to serve in the military due to the importance of their work. Despite shortages of sugar, the federal government also provided sugar to beekeepers in order to maintain their hives. 

    Burt’s Bees became a staple bee product line in the United States, demonstrating new uses for beeswax and honey. 

    21st Century

    Since the discovery of Colony Collapse Disorder in the 21st century, honey bees have become increasingly popular as people realize their importance to pollination and the products they produce. 

    Around the world, people have begun to conserve bees as endangered species, and have begun to realize their importance for agriculture and the general well-being of humans and nature.

    Beekeeping Today

    a beekeeper using smoke to calm the hive he's about to inspect

    Today, bee products are used more than ever before, with pollen and propolis becoming popular health supplements. 

    Although bees were originally hunted for their honeycomb and beeswax, today people harvest many other resources from them for medicinal and food purposes. 

    As beekeeping technology has advanced, it has become even easier to extract resources from beehives, and hive styles have been developed that minimize damage to colonies when resources are extracted. 

    In the United States, Langstroth hives are the most popular type of hive, but many types of hives exist throughout the world that can be harvested without harming the bees. 

    The majority of these beehives have movable parts or frames on which the bees construct their honeycombs, which are then removed from the hive and harvested for honey and wax. 

    Today, beekeepers keep thousands of domesticated bees in human-built hives for the purpose of collecting beeswax, honey, propolis, and pollen. 

    Beekeepers use high-tech equipment to harvest honey and beeswax from the hives, as well as pollen and propolis traps to collect the pollen and propolis that bees carry back to the hives. 

    As a result of climate change and various parasites, bees are more endangered today than they were in ancient times. It is essential to protect bees not only for their honey-producing capabilities but also for their pollination capabilities. 

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