Sherborne Beekeepers' Association
History of Beekeeping
From honey hunters to beekeepers
The history of bees and flowers is a fascinating one, as is the history of beekeeping.
Humans have harvested honey for millennia. It makes sense - it’s delicious, it’s calorie-rich, and it doesn’t go bad! The oldest record of honey collection is from 15,000 years ago, shown in a painting found on the wall of a cave in Spain. A drawing of a person climbing a tree, holding a basket and gathering honey shows that, people had a taste for honey and were willing to extreme lengths for it!
Of course, this wasn’t exactly beekeeping - it was honey collecting. 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.
We know the Egyptians collected honey as evidence can be seen in paintings, but we can also taste it. The Egyptians revered honey and often buried themselves with it as honey is the only food that doesn’t spoil. Archaeologists 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, then take it from them. But until the 18th century beekeepers also killed the bees to collect their crop.
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. The same principle was used almost everywhere: 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 take the honey at your leisure.
For thousands of years, bees were treated as an annual crop. Medieval Europeans would hold a piece of burning sulphur at the entrance until all the bees suffocated, then they’d shake them out and collect the honey.
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. 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.
History Of Beekeeping: Time Line from 1500s
1538 – Spanish import the first European honey bees to South America.
1682 – George Wheler – an English clergyman and travel writer, discovers and describes Greek hives (forerunner of modern hives with movable frames).
1700 – Again according to the book “Bee” above, written by Claire Preston, it wasn’t until 1700 that it was understood bees gather nectar from flowers with which honey is made. Prior to this time, it was thought the honey was collected by the bees ready-made in the flowers!
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.
1838 - Johann Dzierzon, a Polish apiculturist, devised the first practical movable-comb beehive, which allowed manipulation of individual honeycombs without destroying the structure of the hive. Dzierzon discovered the phenomenon of parthenogenesis in bees (- in 1835 Dzierzon discovered that drones are produced from unfertilized eggs. Dzierzon's paper, published in 1845, proposed that while queen honey bees and female worker bees were products of fertilization, drones were not, and that the diets of immature bees contributed to their subsequent roles).In 1962 a Museum of Apiculture was established at Kluczbork, Poland, in Jan Dzierżon’s honour.
1851 – L.L. Langstroth of Philadelphia USA – the "father of American beekeeping” had access to translations of Dzierzon's works., built upon the design of Dzierzon, and others (such as Francis Huber of Switzerland), and designed a completely movable frame hive. Langstroth has been credited with discovering the "bee space," although it had already been implemented by Jan Dzierżon. However, Langstroth made many contributions to industrialized beekeeping – honey was the major sweetener in America at that time.
1890 – William Broughton Carr, English inventor and beekeeper, invented the WBC beehive. These are still widely used in the UK
1948 - Abbé Warré published “Beekeeping For All”, where he outlines plans for a top bar bee hive. Warré also advocates far less interference with hives and bees
Today - Beekeeping continues to evolve. In the USA, UK, and Europe, we continue to see the rise of 'natural beekeeping', otherwise known as 'bee-friendly' or 'api-centric beekeeping'. This has, in turn, resulted in the developments of different kinds of hives, intended to allow the bees to build natural combs.
In tandem with these developments, we are also seeing all kinds of gadgets appearing - though it will be interesting to see how long the gadgets remain on the market!