The history of beekeeping

From basket to box beekeeping

Near Valencia in Spain there is a cave painting that is 8,000 to 12,000 years old. You can see a person who has climbed meters high into a tree trunk. She has stuck one hand deep in a beehive, and in the other she is holding a collecting jar. The bees buzz around them excitedly. It is the oldest known depiction of honey and wax harvesting from the Stone Age.

Cave painting
Image source: Wikipedia

Targeted beekeeping began in Central Europe in the Neolithic when people began to settle down. That was roughly the time between 5500 and 1800 BC. Two wooden tubes are known from a Neolithic lakeside settlement on Lake Constance, which are dated to the year 3381 BC and are referred to as bee dwellings. These hollowed out or naturally hollow tree trunks were set up near the settlement and are called Klotzbeute or Klotzstülper. Since 1. or In the 2nd century AD, willow rods are known, the predecessors of the beehive made of straw, so to speak. The straw basket sat down from the middle of the 1st millennium as the dominant bee habitat in western Central Europe. This keeping method in beehives was practiced until the 20th century and is still known today as “the well-known symbol for beekeeping”.

All these bee houses or hives have in common that they are honeycomb structures in the so-called stable structure. This means that the bees build their honeycombs freely but firmly on the ceiling or walls. This entails special modes of operation. Among other things, the entire honeycomb must always be removed or cut out and also squeezed out during the honey harvest in order to get to the honey. Only the development of interchangeable honeycombs and standardized hives by the North American pastor Lorenzo Langstroth in 1851 made it possible to remove individual honeycombs. These and other developments, such as the invention of the honey extractor, laid the foundation for modern beekeeping.

Interview with Dr. Sonja Guber, archaeological beekeeper

Beekeeper and PhD archaeologist Sonja Guber researches the history of beekeeping from the Mesolithic hunters and gatherers to the use of modern beehives. How exactly did the stone age beekeepers’ bees look and how did they manage them? In order to clarify questions like these, the archaeologist not only relies on rare finds, but also reconstructs the various prey and colonizes them with colonies. We spoke to Sonja Guber in Marburg about early and modern beekeeping.

You describe yourself as an archaeo-beekeeper, you build archaeological finds and beekeepers in them. Why?

I’ve always been interested in “living history”, in other words, in building and reliving more or less authentic reconstructions. I am fascinated by the simplicity, the possibility of making everything you need yourself with your hands. You notice how everything is related to everything, how different trades and areas of life interlock. Depending on the age from which you are building something, you need a stone tool or someone who works with wood, textiles or wax.

At what age do you speak of an archaeological find?

One speaks of archaeological methods when this method is no longer used. If I can still look at the operation of a beehive somewhere, it is not an archaeological find.

How long have we humans been using beeswax and honey? Can that be dated??

It’s hard to say for honey. It is not preserved long enough, so that there are only archaeological finds of pollen residues that can indicate that it was originally honey. If you find wax, it can be assumed that the honey was also eaten. The oldest wax find actually dates from the early Paleolithic and could be 30,000 years old or a little younger. We actually have a span of 15,000 to 30,000 years.

What was wax used for in the early days?

For example, as a component of glue. This is proven by a find made by archaeologists in the Harz Mountains a few decades ago. The researchers noticed stains of a blackish material with which a blade in the shape of a box knife was afflicted. A chemical analysis has shown that it is a primeval pattex made of beeswax and birch resin. A multi-component glue, so to speak, with which the Paleolithic people mounted a shaft on their blade.

Was the wax more interesting to our ancestors than honey?

You don’t know. What we do know, however, is that wax played an important role in ancient society and was used for ointments, creams and polishes. When people no longer made tools and weapons from stone but from bronze, every bronze caster needed beeswax to make molds. Swords were first formed as a wax model, then coated with clay and burned over the fire. The wax evaporated and the craftsmen poured an alloy of copper and tin into the hollow clay mold. That was the bronze that later gave the age its name. From the subsequent Iron Age we know the graves of rich deceased who were given chains and combs as well as honey and mead. Sometimes hundreds of liters of mead were found in these graves. Perhaps at that time honey and mead were a kind of by-product of the huge amounts of wax that were needed to make weapons and tools.

Let’s take a leap into the modern age. Was the invention of the mobile frames, i.e. the exchangeable honeycombs, a kind of quantum leap for beekeeping in the 19th century?

It depends on whose angle you look at it. Beekeeping is ultimately the manipulation of bee colonies for our goals. On the one hand, the beekeeper can now pull individual honeycombs out of the beehive and easily check how the colony is doing, whether it is healthy. On the other hand, the people are often disturbed and their living space torn apart. Many beekeepers look at the colony at least once a week and not only pull individual frames, but hang them around to get the bees to do what they would like. This procedure is relatively common. I imagine this to be as strenuous for the bees as if someone were constantly changing the floor plan of my house. But in the end these are only guesses. After all, nobody can say exactly what the bees are actually feeling. They are also extremely adaptable, which is why they are so easy to manipulate.

What else has changed in beekeeping compared to before?

Today’s beekeeping knows perfectly how to keep the colonies in a permanently productive state in order to generate as much honey as possible. This is made possible, among other things, by breeding queens and artificial insemination. As soon as the queen slacks off, she will be exchanged. This keeps the colony young and fit, the queen is always jolly and lays lots of eggs. If, on the other hand, the bees are left to their own devices and the queen ages, the exchange of the queen follows a natural rhythm and the colonies multiply by swarming.

However, swarming is suppressed in school-like beekeeping because it is exposed to certain imponderables: the old queen must first lay an egg, this must be developed into a young queen, then the new queen must fly out and mate. It may be that she cannot fly out due to the weather or that there are no more drones around at this point. If something goes wrong with all of these factors, the people may be doomed. Of course, the beekeeper wants to prevent that.

This so-called rod dipper is a wicker beehive. He was made by Sonja Guber after a
archaeological find from the 1. or Manufactured in the 2nd century AD and populated with bees.

On the one hand, the colony remains productive through the common beekeeping practice. On the other hand, humans intervene in natural processes and it is difficult to say what the bees think of such manipulations. In addition, it is now known that the mite load is significantly reduced by brood-free periods. Swarming is therefore also a natural hygienic measure of the bee colonies. Basket beekeeping was always associated with breeding breaks and swarming, as the entire colony had to be moved into another basket during the honey and wax harvest. I think that makes sense, because there is never a new beginning without a breeding break.

Which bee housing is the most appropriate to the species?

That is difficult to say. Bees are not picky about their shelter as long as it is of an approximate minimum size. This could also be a mailbox. All they need is a cavity in which they can cherish their breeding business. Personally, I have my difficulties with the attitude that the bees breed in a small space and always have to carry everything into the honey rooms immediately. I don’t think that’s nice, but the bee or the bee makes a kind of inventory relatively regularly, checks which options are available and reacts accordingly. Bee colonies can react very flexibly to external circumstances. Therefore, a certain amount of manipulation in beekeeping is still species-appropriate. Personally, I have come to the conclusion that it is better to work with the swarm instinct than to suppress it and intervene as little as possible in the brood nest. Everyone has to find their own moral set.

Does the type of beekeeping affect the wax? Does it make a difference whether, for example, the nesting cavity is large or whether there are mobile frames?

The quality depends on the intervals at which wax is harvested. Usually honeycombs are ejected and reused. They are also often put back into the brood chamber after a season because they are large, uniform combs. If you provide the bees with empty honeycombs, you can harvest more honey, because the bees use up to 10 kg of honey to produce 1 kilo of wax for new honeycombs. As a result, the wax that is removed are really old honeycombs that have already gone through several cycles. You can recognize them by their typical amber color. The older the wax, the darker its color. Freshly sweated beeswax is white. Over time, remnants of pollen and propolis as well as brood remnants collect and color the wax first light, then dark yellow to brown.

If honey is pressed instead of spun, the fresh wax must also be removed from the honeycomb, and you get more fresh, annual wax. Beekeeping in beehives or (pre-) historical hives always means that the honey is pressed, as there are no mobile frames here that could be thrown out. Beekeeping therefore plays a role.

As a beekeeper, what do you do with your wax?

I make rolled candles, ointments and creams and sell the wax in very small quantities to people who want to make their own oilcloths or creams.

From an archaeological point of view, do you know anything about the earlier use of oilcloths?

Unfortunately not. This has to do with the fact that organic finds are very rare. The fabrics simply rot too quickly. If small fragments are found, it is usually very difficult to say what this small piece was really used for. In addition, it has only recently begun to carry out more chemical analyzes on finds, so that it is only recently that wax deposits on finds have been noticed or specifically searched for them.

More and more people are becoming aware of beeswax wraps and are using them instead of foil. What do you think about?

I am very enthusiastic about sustainable solutions! Little by little, I looked at different living spaces in my everyday life and tried to do without plastic and other single-use solutions. That’s why I started making soaps and creams myself, for example. Beeswax wraps are an excellent addition to “modern”, sustainable reusable packaging. Especially if care is taken that the cotton , the wax and the other required materials were produced in an environmentally friendly, sustainable, i.e. organic-certified manner, beeswax wraps are an all-round sensible thing: there are no undesirable effects either during production or disposal. Perfect!

Dear Sonja, thank you for this interview.

The story of the beehive. From basket to box beekeeping was summarized with Dr. Sonja Guber, who has extensively researched and published on this topic www.immenzit.de

Photos: © Sonja Guber