What exactly is beekeeping? Who are beekeepers? How long has this been going on? Well beekeeping has been going on for thousands of years all over the world. A cave in Valencia, Spain has an ancient painting, estimated to be about 8,000 years old, of a person searching for honey. With such a delicious flavor and wonderful healing properties and health benefits, it is no wonder bees have been a coveted insect for multiple millennia.
The scientific name for beekeeping is “apiculture”. Apis is the Latin word for “bee”. Apiculture involves maintaining colonies of honey bees in hives. A beekeeper is technically called an “apiarist”. The beekeeper’s job is to collect honey along with other products that the bees produce such as: beeswax, pollen, propolis, and royal jelly. The bees also have a job in addition to creating these products. Their job is to pollinate crops. The place where bees are housed in their hives is called an apiary, which is commonly called the “bee yard”.
Archaeologists searching in the Middle East found at one site pottery remnants that contained traces of beeswax dating back to 7,000BC. There are ancient carvings and paintings dating back as long ago as 15,000 years that depict ancient people gathering honey from bees in the wild. In North Africa archaeologists discovered 9,000 year-old pottery that was used as hives. Around 760BC Shamash-resh-usur, ruler of Mesopotamia’s Mari and Suhu regions, introduced the practice of beekeeping to his kingdom. His efforts were recorded by scribes on an official stele unearthed by archaeologists. The translation of the stele, featuring carved images of governor Shamash-resh-usur paying homage to the gods Adad and Ishtar, is as follows:
“I, Shamash-resh-usur, governor of Suhu and Mari. None of my ancestors have seen, or brought into the land of Suhu, bees that collect honey. From the mountain of Habha I have brought them down and settled them in orchards of the town built by Gabbari. The bees collect honey and wax. I have learned how to melt the honey and wax. Gardeners have learned, too. Rulers who follow me may ask the old men of the town[regarding the origin of the bees], and the men of the town will reply, ”They were constructed by Shamash-resh-usur, governor of Suhu, who first brought honey bees to the land of Suhu.”
4,500 year-old ancient Egyptian art shows scenes of beekeepers managing their hives. The pictures reflect scenes of beekeepers using smoke to sedate the bees as they gathered honey in earthen jars. Beekeeping artifacts and jars filled with honey have been found in the tombs of Egypt’s pharaohs. Nyuserre Ini’s Fifth Dynasty sun temple was built long before 2500BC. It contains wall murals showing ancient apiarists sedating bees by smoking the hives. There are also depictions of honeycombs being removed. Pabasa, who ruled during Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, has inscriptions upon the walls of his tomb that recount tales of beekeeping and honey production. Tutankhamun’s tomb contained sealed earthen vessels with viable honey inside of them, even after thousands of years.
The ancient civilizations of Crete and Mycenae, today’s Greece, also practiced apiculture. To be a beekeeper meant to enjoy a high social status. Archaeological digs in Knossos discovered hives, apparatus’ for honey extraction and smoke pots. Overseers of the beekeeping industry are featured in the artwork of these ancient civilizations almost as frequently as religious scenes are depicted. In the later Greek civilization, Aristotle’s writings are filled with discussions of the life cycle of bees and hive management methods.
Ancient Grecians and their ancestors are not the only ones to engage in commercial beekeeping. The people of the Spring and Autumn Period of ancient China trafficked in honey and bee related products. An instruction manual, the “Tao Zhu Gong”, or “Golden Rules of Business Success”, authored by Fan Li, instructs readers on beekeeping practices. It advises the use of a wooden box for the highest quality honey.
Not to be outdone by Europe, Asia and the Middle East, the Maya of Central America took beekeeping a step further. They cultivated a bee that had no stinger. Experts have called this form of beekeeping “meliponiculture”, named after the Meliponini tribe that cultivated the stinger-less bees. This form of beekeeping is still practiced today in Australia where the Tetragonula carbonaria bee is used for domestic honey production.
Today’s hives are typically wooden boxes that resemble drawers and contain rows of portable combs that easily slide upward to remove and harvest honey. However, in the beginning of human efforts to domesticate bees, man would create an artificial beehive from any material that was convenient and likely to keep the bees happy and productive. Hollow logs, earthen vessels, wooden boxes or “skeps” have all been commonly used. Skeps are conical, woven baskets. It wasn’t until eighteenth century Europe that beekeepers developed the method of creating a portable comb so honey could be harvested from hives without causing the destruction of the bee colony.
Beekeeping is one of the noblest and oldest agricultural practices known to mankind. Mankind’s survival is dependent upon the health and survival of honey bees. If honey bees go extinct, mankind’s extinction will soon follow.