The First Beekeepers
Deep in a cave in Valencia, Spain, nestled amongst primitive paintings of bygone creatures, is the first evidence of humans gathering honey. The Neolithic drawing shows a man on a ladder with one hand in a hive and the other holding a smoking branch to pacify the bees flying around his head and chest. In his time – fifteen thousand years ago – domestication was an alien concept. Bees, like most animals, were wild, and if humans wanted to pilfer their valuable wax or honey stores, they needed to seek out wild hives. Unique chemical traces of their plunder have been found on ancient pottery shards from North Africa to Denmark, and from Portugal to the Balkans, showing that the practice of robbing bees was fairly widespread.
While the oldest beehive was discovered in northern Israel, historians believe that the Egyptians were the first to perfect beekeeping. Their methods were remarkably similar to ours today: smoking the bees to keep them sedated, selectively breeding their animals for honey production and temperament, and even ferrying their hives around the Nile River to take advantage of seasonal blooms. Beekeeping was a lucrative business. Honey was the only available sweetener and beeswax’s uses were manifold. To give a short list, wax has been used for sculptures, candles, waterproof seals, writing surfaces, bowstrings, cosmetics, musical instruments, and tooth fillings. In fact, beekeeping was so vital to Egyptian society that one of the pharaoh’s many titles was “Bee King”.
Egypt’s heyday passed, but the tradition of beekeeping continued to thrive across the Mediterranean. In medieval Europe, the monastic orders often shouldered the mantle. The bees – tireless, orderly, and productive as they were – served as a model for Christian institutions. They also generated income. Many European estates were too cold to cultivate wine grapes, so mead – an alcoholic beverage made from fermented honey – became the drink of choice for the nobility, as well as for the monks themselves.
During this time, beekeepers even acquired their own patron saints. Foremost among them was St. Ambrose, who, according to legend, had a drop of honey deposited on his tongue by a swarm of bees, foretelling his future eloquence. However, British beekeepers name St. Bartholomew as their patron, as his feast day, August 24, coincides with the traditional harvest day for honey.
When Europeans conquered the New World, they brought their bees with them. Honeybees are not native to North America, but they soon adapted to their new home. Escaped colonies quickly became feral and began to spread across the continent.
Bees even played an indirect role in shaping the United States. In the 1820s, when Missouri entered the Union, it was decided that its northern boundary with the Iowa Territory would run parallel to a set of rapids on the Des Moines River. Unfortunately, the surveyor misread the compass and consequentially left markers several miles north the actual line. The resulting confusion led to a Missouri tax collector crossing into Iowa and destroying three hives as payment. The act incited Iowan ire, and, before long, the state’s respective militias were at gunpoint. The governors of Missouri and the Iowa Territory referred the matter to the Supreme Court and the “Honey War” was resolved in favor of the Iowans before any bloodshed.
From antiquity to the mid-1800s, beekeeping as an art had remained remarkably unchanged. Bees were always housed in hollow mud, clay, or straw containers, and allowed to fill the interior as they pleased with wax, honey, and brood, resulting in a comb that looks a little like intestine.
In order to harvest, beekeepers would need to kill or displace all the bees and undergo the laborious task of separating bee larvae from delicious honey before processing it. Not only did this method prevent beekeepers from maintaining hives for more than a season, it also made honey collection extremely difficult.
Modern Innovations in Beekeeping
These were the problems posed to Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth, a Massachusetts academic and beekeeper. After careful study, he reached two important conclusions. The first was that bees needed a centimeter gap to move freely around the hive. Any larger space is filled with wax comb, and smaller spaces are plugged with propolis (“bee glue” made from tree resins and saliva). The second is that the ideal hive needed removable frames. This idea was not Langstroth’s; the first frame hive had been conceptualized by a Swiss naturalist, François Huber. Huber’s hive had featured frames that unfolded like a book, making it unwieldy to use. Langstroth and a fellow bee enthusiast, Henry Bourquin, perfected the idea and combined it with Langstroth’s revelation about bee space to make the Langstroth hive.
The Langstroth hive features movable frames inside readily stacked boxes, making the whole structure easy to move and manipulate. Beekeeping necessities like disease inspections, looking for the queen, and preventing swarms were vastly simplified. Gathering honey transformed from an arduous task to merely pulling the appropriate frames – and replacing them with new ones – and spinning the honey out in a centrifuge. Best of all, this allowed beekeepers to safely maintain hives for years.
The Langstroth hive directly led to enormous commercial honey operations and a boom among beekeeping hobbyists. Today, there are an estimated 2.66 million managed hives in the United States alone. However, the honeybee’s success could prove to be its undoing. Importing honeybees has allowed pests like the Asian Varroa mite and European Foulbrood to hitch a ride, with devastating effects. Bees contribute $10-$15 billion dollars annually to the economy via pollination services and products (i.e. wax, venom, honey, royal jelly, and propolis) and, consequentially, their plight is of global concern.
Today, there is a concentrated global effort to understand the issues bees face. Organizations like The Best Bees Company are generating sustainable solutions to these new challenges, such as understanding the transmission of Nosema apis and attempting to breed disease-resistant colonies. Our hope is that the sweet partnership between bees and humans will exist for many centuries to come.
Madeline Carpenter is a first year beekeeper with The Best Bees Company. As a Northeastern University co-op, she works both in the field, and with our partner non-profit company conducting research on honey bee health.