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The History of Bee Keeping

Updated on December 1, 2016
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Beehives and beekeeping are of great antiquity, and the products of the bee were of an importance in earlier economies that we would hardly realize. 

Collecting Honey - Cave Painting
Collecting Honey - Cave Painting


Prehistoric man was well acquainted with wild bees and honey, which one would infer even if there were not the direct evidence of a fascinating Late Palaeolithic or even Mesolithic period drawing in red pigment in the Cave of the Spider, near Bicorp, in eastern Spain. Two honey-collectors hang by what appear to be creepers or possibly a ladder of creepers or rope. One carries a vessel slung over his back, the other, a woman, investigates the bees' nest with her right arm, while she holds a container for the comb in her left hand. A few bees are flying around; but she seems to be quietening the bees with smoke. In Ceylon the primitive Veddas collect honey in much the same way, going down over precipices on cane ladders, smoking the bees into quiescence and carrying down the comb in skin containers.   

History of Bee Keeping

  Probably the semi-domestication of bees was an element of that great neolithic revolution in the Near East which established and settled man as a farmer. Late in the Bronze Age which followed, bronze castings were already made by the cire perdue or wax-losing method, which involves coating a clay model with wax, on which the details are completed, and then coating the wax in turn with clay to form a mould; the interior wax is then melted and 'lost' through holes left in the outer covering of clay. If the wax (as archaeology infers) was beeswax, one may think that the bronze-smiths would hardly have relied upon a supply from wild bees alone. 

 Honey was of great importance in Sumerian and Egyptian culture; and bees were certainly kept by the Egyptians in the third millennium B.C. A relief on the fifth dynasty Temple of the Sun at Abusir shows hives in a row among trees and the preparation of the honey. Hittite beekeeping is evident from the Hittite law code of c. 1500 B.C., which lays down a fine of five shekels of silver for stealing 'bees in a swarm'.  For the beekeeping of the Greeks and Romans there is plenty of evidence. Varro in the first century B.C. recommends willow hives, or hives of wood and of bark, or hives from hollow trees or the hollow stems of the Giant Fennel. Colu-mella in De re rustica repeats him in the first century A.D., though he adds that the best hives, cool in summer and warm in winter, are made of cork. He was against pottery hives, as being too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Pottery hives pierced with a hole at the end are still used by Palestinian Arabs; and similar hives seem to have been used in the British Iron Age. When Casterley Camp, in Wiltshire, was excavated, brown jars were unearthed, drilled with holes, after the firing, at the end or the sides. The jars with the side holes may have been smokers, such as are still used in Greece, for example on Mount Hymettus. Iron Age end-holed jars are not uncommon. Fennel hives, as mentioned by Varro and Columella, are still made.  In some areas beekeeping may have begun actually in standing trees. In Polesye in Eastern Europe peasants in the last century kept their bees in hollow standing trunks. A later development would have been to cut sections from a hollow tree; finally building up vertical 'tree hives' in cylindrical shapes of bark, board or wickerwork. Some horizontally-laid pot hives may have originated in the wild bees' nest reached horizontally along a rock crevice.  The Skep (the word meaning no more than basket) developed from the woven willow hive mentioned by Varro and Columella. The older skeps are wickerwork, but straw skeps, however primitive by modern standards of agriculture, had the advantages of being light and easy to handle, easy to make, and relatively warm for the bees. Bruegel's strange and powerful pencil drawing of sixteenth-century beemasters in action shows the straw skeps and a long thatched protection which kept off the rain. The carefully protected beemasters are in the act of moving the hives to a better ground for another flower crop. 

 Sweet, golden and pleasant smelling, honey was sacred; it was 'good' medicinally, and was recommended in the ancient civilizations by writers as various as the great Indian doctor Susruta in the sixth century B.C. and Dioscorides in the first century A.D. It was, and is, an ingredient in several intoxicating drinks, from mead (mddhu is Sanskrit for 'honey') to the Scottish whisky liqueur, drambuie. It was essential in toothpastes; and it satisfied the sweet tooth of a world which had little knowledge of sugar. In the Greco-Roman world sugar from the East was certainly known in the first century of our era; the use of it increased in the Middle Ages, but did not spread widely in Europe till the eighteenth century, or very widely until the nineteenth century development of sugar from beet. So honey was supreme through thousands of years - for the living and the dead. It was used in embalming. The corpse of Alexander the Great was said to have been covered sweetly in honey. In Abyssinia living bodies have been rolled in honey in a neat form of execution, since the human honey-pillar was then exposed to ants. 

 As for the wax, uses for that were also innumerable from the preparation of mummies and making the surface of writing tablets to illumination by beeswax candles, still the proper illuminant of Christian altars. 

 Bees, beemasters and beehives are not unnaturally connected by many customs and beliefs. The bees are still told of their keeper's death. In some countries the hives are moved when he dies. In Brittany a black ribbon is tied to the hive. Breton hives are, or were, decorated with a red ribbon when the beemaster has a son or when the son marries. German skeps in Saxony were sometimes adorned with human faces to avert disease, theft and witchcraft. Bees, in fact, were creatures of wisdom and power. Man and bee were in partnership, an old state which scientific man has wished to change to domination of bee by man.   

Modern Beekeeping


Thus the modern hive, of the age of closer biological observation and enquiry, has changed. One pioneer was John Gedde, who lived near Falkland, in Fifeshire (Scotland). In 1765 he placed a small straw ring or 'eke' under the hive to give the bees more room. That led eventually to separate spaces for the brood and for the honey. Towards the end of the eighteenth century the blind Francois Huber, of Geneva, assisted by a faithful friend and servant, devised hinged frames, which made it possible to survey the interior economy of the bees' life.

 In 1851 L.L.Langstroth in the United States discovered the bee-space, on which the modern movable frame hive depends. He observed that if a small space was left between the framed combs and the walls of the hive, the bees would leave it clear, not attempting to bridge the gap with wax. The movable frame meant that bee colonies could now be controlled to a new degree. It was one of the chief advances in the beemaster's ancient craft.

 In 1915 it was discovered by K. von Frisch that bees distinguished between colours; since then the entrances to hives standing in a row have frequently been painted in different colours so that bees can find their own colony with greater ease and speed.     


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      8 years ago

      would beekeepers kill the bees in order to extract honey from a skep?


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