In Pre-industrial Age Farmsteads, How Common Was Beekeeping?

While beekeeping may seem like a modern industry, it’s actually one of the most ancient forms of agriculture. It was also incredibly common. In the wealthy civilizations of the time, Egypt, Rome, and even in North Africa, it was commonplace for people to keep bees.

This was made evident that honey, especially in Egypt, was seen as a great treasure. This was indicated by the presence of honey jars in King Tut’s sarcophagus. Bee-keeping was also common in medieval Europe. Monks kept bees in order to use their wax for candles. They also enjoyed making mead from their honey.

Because bees could offer various products and goods from their honeycomb, it wasn’t unheard of to have a few beekeepers throughout local villages and cities.

History Of Beekeeping

For as long as there have been humans, there have likely been those interested in honey. One of the earliest depictions of humans trying their hand at collecting honey was 10,000 years ago. A cave painting was found that depicted a man climbing a tree with a stick in order to collect honey from a wild hive. The picture also featured bees angrily buzzing around him.

While this depiction likely showcased foraging honey rather than keeping bees, it’s evidence that knowledge about the sweet snack has existed for centuries.

Domestication was depicted in the early cultures of civilized countries like China, Egypt, and Rome. In Egypt, there are pictograms showing beekeepers tending to their hives. Honey jars are even discovered in tombs of pharaohs. The first recorded Egyptian depiction of beekeeping was 4,000 years ago.

Some archeologists even found remnants of hives made of clay and straw. The method in which collecting honey was used then as it is today. Ancient cultures would introduce smoke to the hives, then they would collect the honeycomb within it.

Rome was another civilization that depicted the use of keeping bees. Aristotle even wrote about common practices of beekeeping. As with everything Roman, they often exported this knowledge to areas that they conquered.

Eventually, beekeeping would find itself in Europe where monks would use the wax from bees to light their monasteries. Eventually, it was discovered that honey could be fermented. The first alcoholic drink known as mead was created.

The practice of keeping bees first used tree stumps and hollowed-out logs. Keepers believed that these were natural areas to keep bees because they were locations that bees naturally made a hive out of, anyway. Once the hive was large enough, smoke would be used to deter the bees or they were destroyed outright.

The hive would often be destroyed to encourage the bees to start again.

Once the honeycomb was collected, it was squeezed to extract the honey or processed in another way depending on what it was being used for.

Eventually, a new way to keep bees was introduced 2,000 years ago. Called skeps, this was used as an artificial beehive. They were basically overturned pots that were made of straw and clay. A small hole was left in the bottom of the pot to allow the bees in and out of it. As the bees colonized the area, the honeycomb would start to be created inside of the pot.

The problem with skeps is that it still required the destruction of the hive in order to access the honeycomb. This often meant that the colony of bees would also perish. Because of this, new innovations were needed.

It was in the 18th century that a new kind of hive box would emerge. Made of wood, this hive box, often called a leaf hive, was a vertical stack of leaves that could be moved. Each section has its own comb. This allowed beekeepers to collect honey from certain sleeves where the comb was produced while avoiding where the brood actually resided.

The modern beehive is credited to Lorenzo Langstroth. In the 1850s, he designed a wooden hive that had removable frames that were spaced by 1 centimeter. This was based on his observation that bees didn’t build a comb in areas that were smaller than a centimeter. This allowed the frames to be easily removed and the honey collected without disrupting the bees or the hive as a whole.

This kind of beehive is still used by hobbyists and professionals today.

When Did People First Start Keeping Bees For Their Honey?

Beekeeping and storing of honey are typically credited to both ancient Africa and Egypt. It’s likely that Ancient China also kept honey several centuries ago. Yet in the case of North Africa, pottery jars were discovered by archeologists that were used to house honey and beehives. These pottery jars were dated back to around 9,000 years ago.

Egypt has many records that indicate they stored and used honey from local beehives. Those depictions are credited to being 4,000 years old.

Even Ancient Greece depicted honey in their mythology. It was often considered the nectar that gave their gods immortality.

Depending on which source is the most accurate, and with more evidence yet to be discovered, bees have been kept for their honey at least 9,000 or 4,000 years ago.

How Old Is Beekeeping?

Foraging for honey can be dated back to around 10,000 years ago. It may even be possible that humans hunted for honey long before that. Yet in terms of physical evidence, beekeeping typically dates back to 9,000 years ago in North Africa and 4,000 years ago in Ancient Egypt.

Ancient China has a few depictions of honey and the uses of honey that date back to 3,000 years ago. Yet when it comes to actual beehives and beekeeping, their records only go back to 300 years ago.

Ancient Greece likely introduced the uses of honey and keeping bees to Ancient Rome. Rome would then go on to introduce the uses of honey and beekeeping to the conquered regions it would take over. This may have been how beekeeping was introduced to medieval Europe.