Bees have buzzed about the United Kingdom for over 4000 years and are thought to have come here after the retreat of the last Ice Age.
Fossil records show bees have lived on earth for at least 34 million years and sprung into life around the same time that fruiting trees appeared. Bees in some sense are a more successful species than humans (especially in terms of longevity).
Out of the known species of honey bee (7 species and 44 subspecies) the United Kingdom’s main honey bee for making honey is the Western Honeybee and is the most common globally.
Known as Apis Mellifera, Latin for honey bearing bee, beekeepers prefer it’s characteristics which help make bee farming easier and have helped this species spread across the world.
A firm favourite of bee keepers in the United Kingdom is the sub species known as the Norther European Honeybee (other names include the dark or German Honeybee), which has been extensively bread with the Italian Honeybee for some of it’s attractive characteristics.
People’s relationship with honey is as old as the hills, but, proof has been dated back to the beginnings of history. Ever since humans stopped hunting and gathering and became farmers, bees have had an integral relationship with human society. Honey was produced locally within tribes and people throughout time.
Explore the history of honey and Honeybees from the dawn of human agriculture to the present day. Sections below describe honey’s story using examples of evidence taken from artifacts, paintings, and ancient writings.
Ancient human ancestors loved honey too
Pottery dating over 8500 years shows residue of bee products like bees wax. Several cave paintings from Cuevas de la Arana in Spain show humans foraging
for honey dating at least 8000 years ago, include scenes depicting people using ladders and ropes to get to bee hives.
By Achillea – Drawing of a painting from the caves of Cueva de la Araña by Achillea. From Wikipedia.
Scenes of bee farming have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 2400 years before Christ.
Archaeologists excavating Egyptian tombs expected to find the normal selection of artifacts but where astonished to find perfectly preserved honey. Pots of honey unspoiled for thousands of years. Honey lasts for a long time, gives people energy and provides protein, and has a number of health benefits. Hungry Egyptians undoubtedly realised this and helped develop farming and trade in honey. Honey has qualities that are valuable to humans.
Egyptians alluded to their relationship with honey and bees many times in literature, and even introduced it into their language as symbol used in hieroglyphs.
A Honeybee symbolised something that was important to the Egyptians. About 3500 year before Christ Egypt was divided into lower and upper kingdoms. As has been the way during human civilisation the separate tribes or kingdoms decided to unite due to shared ancestry and geography.
A honey bee denoted the king of Lower Egypt and a reed denoted the king of Upper Egypt. From a papyrus (the Egyptians preference for writing things down on) reads and translated into English;
He hath united the two lands,
He hath joined the Reed to the Bee.
The Honeybee endured as a means of communication for about four thousand years evidenced by various inscriptions from different civilisations. Here is a selection.
Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform writings about 2450 years before Christ.
China 2000 years before Christ appearing in pictograms.
Sacred writings of India about 1400 BC and those known as Vedas contain contain numerous mention of bees and honey.
From the King James Bible
Exodus 3:17 (about 1400 years before Christ). And I have said, I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt unto the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.
God sending a message to the Israelites who where enslaved by Egyptians and promising to lead them to freedom. The promised land said to have ample food supplies.
1300 years before Christ. Hittite code described laws about money setting the price of an amount of honey. Priced at one Shekel.
Ancient texts indicate that various peoples associated honey with religion and wealth. Honey has a long shelf life which gave it value and was traded by people at different rungs of the social ladder, especially the higher echelons of society. Ramses the third of Egypt offered the Nile God some 14000 kg of honey as a sacrifice about 1180 years before Christ, made possible by cylindrical hives floated up and down the Nile on rafts.
Although domestication of bees and production of honey probably dates to a time when people first started farming, the process of honey production was inefficient. Honey was collected only from wild bee hives and was obviously a dangerous but rewarding pastime. Normal people didn’t get to enjoy honey on a large scale until people improved farming techniques associated with honey production.
Honey no longer for kings and gods
Beekeeping or apiculture didn’t bring honey to the masses until a number of things happened.
Aristotle the Greek philosopher, based on evidence available, was the first to describe species of bee and studied Honeybee biology (“Natural History of Animals” and “Reproduction of
Animals”). Greek philosophic intrigue kicked off scientific investigation of honey bees, but, the cost of honey wasn’t reduced sufficiently to allow the general public to enjoy honey until major discoveries where made regarding bee farming.
During the 18th Century scientists observed bee hives using glass containers and later in hives built up in sections.
A movable honey comb hive was not perfected until the 19th Century, which maximised the collection of honey and did not negatively affect the colony of bees.
Bee hive designs improved quickly as designs moved from the scientific realm to that of commercial production. Innovation exploded in the 19th Century with inventors and collaboration producing better management systems, selective breeding, honey extraction and marketing.
Improvements in productivity brought honey to the masses. People understand now more than ever about the production of honey and how bees make honey.
Commercial honey production has become very efficient allowing everyone the opportunity to buy honey on the high street and from the supermarket.
Efficiency may have come at a price. Taste and variety of flavour has been sacrificed for the sake of cost of product and getting honey to the masses. Without low prices people may miss out on the wonders of honey. But Wait!
There is a whole world of honey and smaller producers available to offer products with flavour not challenged by large commercial honey producers.
Latest news on honey
A thriving debate continues with Honeybees at it’s heart set in wider context of protecting an conserving nature. Intensive farming techniques are threatening bees and the areas they collect honey. Certain chemicals used in pest control put Honeybees and other insects in grave danger, thereby undermining their important roles as pollinators. Reducing Honeybee numbers undermines the whole food chain and is changing nature’s blueprint for our countryside.
Local honey farms now have an important role in bee conservation working with local farmers, charities and associations to help reshape how our countryside is used.
With less bee hives, honey is a much sort after product. Producers have been under pressure to keep a lid on prices, causing some production processes to change. Adulteration of honey is a pressing issue which industry and industry related associations are attempting to stamp out with innovative laboratory testing and quality control.