Bees are renowned for their role in pollination and honey production. Human interaction with honeybees has often been based on products like honey and wax that humans can harvest from honeybee colonies. To determine when the relationship between humans and honeybees began, researchers have examined the presence of archeological evidence like shards of pottery from different pre-historical sites globally. While the domestication of honeybees has increased in the modern world due to the economic benefits associated with the distribution and selling of pure honey, the relationship between humans and honeybees began long before globalization and industrialization.
The exact time in history where the interaction between honeybees and humans began remains unknown despite being mentioned in various historical documents. For instance, anthropological information exists on honey-hunting practices conducted by the Stone Age people during the pre-historic period based on rock art. Research suggests that the relationship between humans and bees began more than 10,000 years ago as there is evidence for honeybee exploitation by Neolithic farmers in the Balkan Peninsula (Roffet-Salque, Regert, and Evershed 227-228). Beeswax biomarkers have been identified in pans, bowls, and sieves obtained from late Neolithic sites in Paliambela, Greece, which were traced back to between 4900-4500 BC (Roffet-Salque, Regert, and Evershed 228). A large amount of residue from beeswax was found in potsherds used during the Neolithic period from the Peloponnese, the Cyclades, and Attica, which dated between 5800 and 300 BC (Roffet-Salque, Regert, and Evershed 228). This proves that a relationship existed between the Neolithic people who lived within these areas and honeybees.
Evidence of the relationship between honeybees and humans has also been found in Central Europe. Pure beeswax was recovered from Linearbandkeramik (LBK) sites, which were initially occupied by the earliest Austria and Germany farmers who lived in the area between 5500-5400 BC (Evershed, Dudd, and Anderson-Stojanovic 5-6; Crane 62). In France, beeswax exploitation can be traced back to the second half of the fifth millennium and the fourth millennium to sites such as Chasséen sites, which includes Font-Juvénal, Chassey-le-Camp and Bercy, and at Clairvaux-les-Lacs (Evershed, Dudd, and Anderson-Stojanovic 5-6). These findings suggest that the utilization of honeybees’ products was widespread during the pre-historic period.
Some researchers believe that beekeeping practices began in Egypt. The oldest evidence linked to beekeeping is related to ancient Egypt and dates back to 4445BC (Naggar, Codling, and Giesy). The creator of the first Egyptian dynasty, King Menes, was often referred to as the ‘Beekeeper,’ suggesting that he was involved in beekeeping practices (Naggar, Codling, and Giesy). The evidence was obtained from the Fifth Dynasty pharaoh’s temple, which was discovered in 1898 in the southern parts of the Great Pyramid of Giza (Kritsky 251; Kritsky 50-51). The evidence displays the images of beekeepers working on hives, processing honey, and sealing honey containers for storage. The first hieroglyph related to beekeeping in Egyptian carvings dates back to 3000 BC. The hives used by the Egyptians for beekeeping were horizontal lines and were constructed using straws and mud. Other beekeeping-related information regarding this practice in Egypt dates back to between 1991 BC and 1786 BC and between the eighteenth and twentieth dynasty that was between 1569 BC and 525 BC (Kritsky 251). During this period, apiculture had been established as a trade commodity in Egypt. Egyptians also used honey in their foods, for medicinal use, and in religious rituals.
In Asia and Mesoamerica, the relationship between humans and honeybees dates back to the early historic periods. The oldest evidence illustrating the relationship between humans and honeybees in this area includes images of honey-hunters climbing trees, images of honey-hunters recovering of honey from rock walls, and use of honey for medicinal purposes. Such records were traced back to the China Chin Dynasty that existed between 265 and 290 CE (Kritsky 257). The reference to use of honey for medicinal purposes dates back to between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago, while the oldest pictography for honeybees carved on a rock dates back to 1000 BC (Kritsky 257). Archeological evidence exists in Angkor Wat in Cambodia dating back to 1000 BC, which illustrates the practice of use of box hives in Vietnam (Kritsky 257). In Mesoamerica, the discovery of cached beehives has been dated back to the Maya Late Preclassic period that lasted between 300 and 250 BC (Kritsky 258). This offers the oldest evidence of humans with the honeybees in Mesoamerica. People’s knowledge for honey expanded over the years, a factor that promoted its use in different religious and healing practices.
The earliest interaction between humans and the honeybees cannot be determined correctly because of the lack of proper documentation of human activities during the pre-historic period. Nevertheless, evidence collected from rock drawings, pottery used by early man, and beehives created during the Neolithic period shed light on the use of honeybees by early civilizations. Similarly, evidence obtained from Egyptian and Asian records sheds more light on the use of honeybees for honey and beeswax by humans during the pre-historic periods.
Crane, Eva. The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting. Taylor & Francis, 1999.
Evershed, R. P., et al. “New chemical evidence for the use of combed ware pottery vessels as beehives in ancient Greece.” Journal of Archaeological Science (2003): 30, 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1006/jasc.2001.0827.
Kritsky, Gene. “Beekeeping from Antiquity Through the Middle Ages.” The Annual Review of Entomology (2017): 62: 249-264. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-ento-031616-035115.
Kritsky, Gene. The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Naggar, Yahya Al, et al. “Beekeeping and the Need for Pollination from an Agricultural Perspective in Egypt.” Bee World (2017): 95(4), 107-112. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/0005772X.2018.1484202.
Roffet-Salque, Melanie, et al. “Widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early Neolithic farmers.” Nature (2015): 534(7607), 226-231. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/312376273_Widespread_Exploitation_Of_The_Honeybee_By_Early_Neolithic_Farmers.