Canadian Association of Palynologists

A Honey of a Story

Brief history of bees and honey

Vaughn M. Bryant Jr.
Palynology Laboratory, Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas, USA

Social honey bees (Apis spp.) evolved pantropically, and have been producing and storing honey for more than 20 million years (Crane 1980). The earliest confirmed record of bees comes from deposits of the Oligocene (37-24 million years ago) in France and Germany. This early record has been classified as Apis henshawi and well preserved specimens confirm that it is the earliest member of the genus yet found (Engel 1998). One species of honey bee, A. mellifera, first evolved during the Pleistocene, adapted to temperate climates, and colonized much of the cooler regions of Europe and Asia.

Our earliest human ancestors undoubtedly learned of the sweet taste of honey and began devising ways to collect it. However, we have no way of determining whether or not our earliest human ancestors consumed honey based on existing archaeological records. Fragile honey comb fragments, dead bees, or even pieces of destroyed bee hives, if present in archaeological sites, may not be recognized, or may not have remained preserved for thousands or millions of years.

One of the earliest visual records of honey collecting comes from caves in Spain dating to about 15,000 years ago and suggest that by the end of the Upper Paleolithic our ancestors collected honey from bee hives in western Europe. According to entomologist Harald Pager, several of these early images painted on the walls of the Altamira caves in northern Spain represent honey combs and ladders that would have been needed to reach bee hives in trees or in rock crevices on cliff faces (Crane 1980). If Pager is correct, this may be the earliest documented evidence of honey gathering by human societies.

One of the most cited early depictions of early honey gathering comes from a painting in the rock shelter of La Araña located near Valencia in eastern Spain that dates to around 6,000 B.C. (Crane 1992). The rock painting depicts a figure who has climbed up a cliff face on a rope and is removing combs from a hive in a rock crevice. From the wall painting it appears the person is nearly naked but is surrounded by angry bees. One must wonder if bee stings at that time were a problem or if the stings may have become a visible sign of pride for the honey collectors. Other wall paintings of bee collecting found near Singanpur, India, date to approximately 500 B.C. In the Royal Natal National Park region of South Africa there are undated examples of Bushman rock art that show swarms of bees accompanying a mythical elephant-man (Free 1982). Near the Toghwana Dam in the Matopo Hills of Zimbabwe undated rock paintings show a honey collector using smoke to quiet bees before removing honey combs. Even though undated, this is suspected to be the earliest recorded evidence of people using smoke to quiet bees while collecting honeyCa practice still used today. What those early Africans discovered is that when bees in a hive smell smoke they rush to the honey combs and fill their honey sacs with honey in an effort to save as much honey as possible, should the hive be destroyed by fire. Once worker bees smell smoke and fill their stomachs, they become lethargic and will rarely sting anyone.

The earliest record of beekeeping in ancient Egypt come from paintings and drawings on the walls of the sun temple of Ne-user-re at Abusir located near Cairo, Egypt, and dates to the time of the Fifth Dynasty about 2,500 B.C. The paintings show some workers blowing smoke into hives made of large clay jars while others are removing honey (Free, 1982). At the rock-cut tomb of Memi located at El-Hawawish, Egypt, and dating to 2,400 B.C., archaeologists found 36 coarse, handmade jars with a small hole in the bottom portion. According to Crane and Graham (1985) those jars are almost identical in shape and size to similar clay jars still used as bee hives in the Mediterranean region. Paintings on the walls of other Egyptian tombs dating to 1,450 B.C. depict well-established methods of bee managing and honey collecting by that time period (Crane 1992). Additional evidence from Egypt, includes a hieroglyphic record from 1,180 B.C. which indicates that Ramses III once offered an Egyptian god a gift of approximately 30,000 pounds of honey (Gould and Gould, 1988).

Bee hives made of hardened, unfired, mud cylinders and woven baskets of various materials were probably used by Neolithic farmers as early as 5,000 B.C. Later, clay cylinders were in wide use as bee hives in Egypt by 3000 B.C. (Crane 1975; Gould and Gould 1988). The Greeks copied and improved on the basic design used by the Egyptians for bee hives. The early Greeks began baking the mud hives to harden them and they also developed a new bee hive design that is still in use in some areas of Greece today. The early Greek bee hive looked much like a large, cone or clay amphora with the small conical end pointing downward and the top part of the cone opened entirely at its widest point. Across the open top the Greek beekeepers placed slats of wood leaving small openings between one set for the bees to enter and exit. The horizontal slats and inward-sloping slides of the hive’s bottom part encouraged the bees to hang their combs downward from the slats rather than attached to the slopping sides of the hive. Later, the filled honey comb could easily be harvested without significant damage to the whole hive. What the Greeks discovered is that honey bees will rarely construct their combs on an angled surface because it makes the complete filling of each comb nearly impossible (Free 1982).

During Roman times, the honeybee was regarded with much esteem. Varro, Virgil, Columella, and Pliny the Elder each wrote extensive descriptions of beekeeping, hives, and the importance of honey as both food and as a product of trade. Honey was the primary source of sugar during Roman times and was used in cooking, preserving meat, making sweet drinks, and especially for making an alcoholic drink called mead.

The Romans so enjoyed honey that in one battle it became their downfall. In 67 B.C., a Roman army under the command of General Pompey was defeated partly because many of the troops feasted on honey the night before that they gathered from local bee hives. That honey, called "mad honey", was made from the nectar of local rhododendron plants. A compound present in that honey, and still found in some types of honey today comes from the nectar of certain rhododendron flowers and is called grayanotoxin. Symptoms of grayanotoxin poisoning include: vomiting, loss of coordination, muscular weakness, and low blood pressure (Root-Bernstein 1991). Although grayanotoxin poisoning is rarely fatal, the physical effects often last for 24 hours or longer. Perhaps that was the major reason why many of the troops in Pompey's army were helpless to repel their attackers the next morning and thus were defeated.

When the Julius Caesar and his Roman soldiers invaded England in 54 BC, they found the Celts were already accomplished beekeepers and that they made cone-shaped hives of wattle and daub. The frames were made of woven willow or hazel twigs that were then sealed by plastering the outside with cow dung. The tip of the cone structure pointed upward and had a small opening for the bees to enter and exit the hive. That early Celtic technique of hive making and the later Mediaeval use of a dome-shaped bee hive (skeps) made of twisted straw remained in common use throughout many areas of Europe until the late 1800s (Free 1982). The straw skep is still a common symbol for honey and it is often used to represent honey in advertizing and as a logo for beekeeping.

Like honey, beeswax has long been considered an important commercial product. In ancient times beeswax was used to make candles, was used in the making of early writing tablets made of wood with a shallow depressed area filled with beeswax where messages could be written with a stylus and then saved, was used to make signature seals on documents, used as a base material in cosmetics, used as a polish for leather, applied as a sealing agent to porous wood, and was used in the making of various types of medical compounds. So important was the production and use of beeswax during Medieval times that both the ruling kings of that period and the Church took great interest in bee keeping. The Church extolled the virtues of bees pointing out that bees worked hard, rejoiced in the arrival of new offspring, yet as adults remained chaste and virginal. Beeswax was made into wax candles for burning in churches and was much favored because they were cream-colored or white (i.e., representing a state of purity and virginity) and because they burned odorless. Most candles during Medieval times were made of animal fats that produced unpleasant odors when burned. Even beekeeping was influenced by the Church. In addition to keeping their own large supply of bee hives in monasteries, the Church also decreed that new beekeepers should start with three hives to remind them of the importance of the Holy Trinity, that bees should not be moved or sold on Friday because Christ was crucified on that day, and that new larval bees should be considered "spirits" until they are fed honey. Even some traditional meal time prayers during Medieval times thanked the bee (Free 1982):

For Thy creature the Bee,
The Wax and the honey
We thank thee, O Lord,
By the light of all men,
Christ Jesus our King,
May this food now be blessed. Amen

Kings often had their own bee hives and also required local serfs to pay taxes in beeswax. The kings and castle occupants liked beeswax candles for lighting mostly because they were odorless. In addition, many castles used candles to tell time. Special beeswax candles were made to a certain size and shape and then marked on the outside to show the passing of each hour. These early time keepers were especially favored because beeswax burned evenly and were fairly reliable provided the candles were placed in a protected area where drafts would not speed their burning (Free 1982).

Brief history of honey production in the New World with an emphasis on the U.S.

There were no indigenous honey-producing bees of major significance in the New World. American Indians utilized honey from tropical stingless bees (Family Meliponinae), that were indigenous to both South and Central America. When many of the Central American Indians were first contacted by the Spanish during the early and mid 1500s, the Spanish found that beekeeping and bee hunting were well-established traditions in almost every sub-tropical and tropical region of the New World. Pre-colonial bee hives of Melipona beecheii were kept by the natives of Central and South America and most consisted of large, dried gourds, hollow logs, or cylindrical earthenware pots that had an entrance hole near the middle but were sealed at both ends. Reports from the first Spanish ships that landed on the island of Cozumel, Mexico , in 1518 note that the island had "many beehives and much wax and honey" (Crane and Graham 1985). According to Bishop Fray Diego de Landa, who traveled throughout the Yucatan region of Mexico during the mid 1500s, the area abounded in honey and the honey was used by the Maya as a sweetner and to make a type of fermented, alcoholic drink (mead). He further reports that during the fifth month of their 13-month calendar, the Maya celebrated the festival of the honey god, Ah Mucan Cab. During the celebration the Maya consumed large quantities of honey and alcoholic mead and burned offerings to the Honey God asking for abundant flowers so the bees could produce large quantities of honey (Free 1982). Crane and Graham (1985) reported that although the clay cylinders and hollow wooden logs used by the ancient Maya as bee hives have broken and decayed, the stone closures used to seal the cylinders and logs at each end have been found at a number of Maya sites some of which date from the Late Preclassic nearly 15 centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. They report that as of 1985 archaeologists had identified pairs of these carved, limestone disks that were once used to seal hives from six archaeological sites in Mexico, four sites in Belize, and two sites in Guatemala. At one site in Cozumel, Mexico, Crane and Graham (1985) report that 225 of the stone disks were found in levels at a Maya site dating to about A.D. 1400. Other records from Mexico confirm the importance of honey use by Aztec and Maya cultures. Hernando Cortez reported that when he arrived in Tenochtitian (present day Mexico City) the Aztec markets had large supplies of honey and beeswax that were being sold and traded. He also reported that honey was one of the important tribute items collected annually by the Aztec rulers (Free 1982). Some of the early Spanish reports estimated that about 2 kg of honey could be taken from a stingless bee colony. More recent estimates claim that the annual production of honey from a single hive of tropical stingless bees can yield between 2-15 liters (Dixon 1989).

During the period of world exploration and colonization, European honeybees were introduced into many "newly discovered" regions of the world. Nevertheless, the precise circumstances and date of the first European honeybee introduction to either North or South America is not clear. In 1616 a ship bound for the Virginia Colony was heavily damaged in a storm and took refuge in Bermuda where it unloaded its cargo, including bees and bee hives. That marked the introduction of bees to Bermuda where they prospered and soon became widespread (Hilburn 1989). On another voyage, European honey bees and hives of Apis mellifera, were sent to North America in 1621 by the Council of the Virginia Company. This early confirmed record is in a letter dated December 5, 1621 and sent from London to the Governor and Council of the Virginia Colony in North America (Smith 1977). In that letter is a list of provisions that were being sent to the Virginia Colony aboard two ships, the Bona Nova and Hopewell. Included in the list are references to various types of seeds, fruit trees, >pidgeons’, beehives and 57 young maids to make wives for the planters. In 1985 Eva Crane, with the help of archaeologists, believes she has found the precise location where those first bee hives touched American soil. She says the probable spot is just north of the present city of Petersburg, Virginia, at the site of the Old City point Wharf on the James River just below the point where it and the Appomattox River join (Crane 1992).

Journals and letters from settlers in Massachusetts dating from the mid 1630s confirm that by then bee keeping was widespread. Those documents report that beehives were thriving throughout that area (Free 1982). How many European bee colonies were sent to the New World aboard early ships and how many of those bee colonies survived the long voyages is not known. Nevertheless, European bees and various species of clover, which was also carried to the New World as a favored foraging source for bees, were soon widespread throughout the early colonies.

Evidence of the absence of honey bees in areas of the New World north of Mexico prior to the Age of Discovery comes from ethnographic records that state many Native American tribes said they had never seen bees. After the introduction of European honeybees, some of the northeastern Indian tribes called them "White Man's flies" and referred to the newly introduced white clover (Trifolium repens L.), which often accompanied the spread of honey bees, as "White Man's foot" because those plants seemed to appear suddenly in the places where European pioneers walked and settled. (Crane, 1975). Even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow noted this phenomenon in his poem Song of Hiawatha which he finished writing in November, 1855. One verse of that poem goes:

Whereso’er they move, before them
Swarms of stinging fly, the Ahmo,
Swarms the Bee, the honey-maker;
Whereso’er they tread, beneath them
Springs a flower unknown among us,
Springs the White man’s Foot in blossom.

Honey bees, through this initial introduction, and the subsequent importation of other European honey bee races, spread rapidly throughout the temperate and tropical areas of the Western Hemisphere (Oertel 1976). By the late 17th century, the honey bee had colonized most of the eastern regions of the North American continent but did not reach Alaska until 1809, California until 1830, and British Columbia until the 1840s (Free 1982). So important did the newly introduced honey bee become to the early American colonies that even today the honey bee is still recognized as the official State Insect of six states (Arkansas, Georgia, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Michigan) (Free 1982).

Honey production in the United States during the early 1800s was not a commercial success, partially because early hive designs caused the destruction of much of the honey comb during the honey removal process. In some cases, honey removal caused such a level of hive and comb destruction that the colony could not recover and thus died. In addition, early beekeepers had no way to control activities in the central part of their hives where the queen stayed and the larval bees were raised. One example is seen in a letter written by a beekeeper in 1796 who reports that to get the honey from a hive they would first dig a shallow hole put in the hive and then burn sulfur in the hole until the fumes killed all the bees (Free 1982).

In Europe, during the 1600s and 1700s various people experimented with the development of hives that would allow honey removal without destroying the hive or the lives of the bees. Many people designed various types of hives with wooden bars, rods, or slats across the top so that the bees could hang honeycombs from them. The intent was to be able to remove these bars without damage to the hive, but that rarely happened. All too often the bees would attach their combs to the bars and also to the sides of the hive so that easy comb removal was impossible. In 1792, a blind Swiss beekeeper, Francois Huber, developed a bee hive which consisted of twelve frames that were hinged together on one side like the pages of a book. Huber’s new hive was excellent for opening and observing the bees and the honey comb they produced, but it was not suited to practical bee keeping (Crane 1992).

Between 1650-1850 various types of experimental box hives made of wood were in use. Many of them worked to some degree, but all failed in their intended purpose of proving a safe and easy way to remove honey combs from a hive without injuring the bees or destroying the hive. What most of these experimental hives and early beekeepers failed to note was that the spacing between the frames was the key element in making a hive with removal frames. If the spacing between the frames was not correct, the bees tended to bridge the spaces between frames with combs or attached combs to the walls of the hives. In 1851 the Rev. L. L. Langstroth, a young pastor in Andover, Massachusetts was the amateur beekeeper who invented, and successfully used, the first square-shaped hive with removable vertical comb frames that did not damage the hive. Because all the frames were exactly the same size, empty frames could quickly be inserted to replace full frames without damage to adjacent frames or the hive (Crane 1992). The key to Langstroth’s success was spacing. He noticed that if he left a one-fourth inch gap between frames and at the top and bottom, then the bees would use this space as a passage between the frames and would not fill those spaces with combs. His invention revolutionized beekeeping making the first large-scale production of honey in the United States possible. His success may have stemmed from his fresh approach and keen powers of observation since he admitted he knew nothing about bee keeping when he purchased his first hives. Now, for the first time, beekeepers could open their hives and remove excess honey without damaging the important brood area or the remaining portions of the hive. And, by adding more comb frames to a hive when needed, a beekeeper could prevent swarming and increase his supply of honey from each hive. Langstroth’s hive and frame placement soon became the standard throughout the world and it is still in wide use today.

A few years later in 1857, Johannes Mehring of Germany made another breakthrough that would streamline honey production. He found that by impressing the hexagonal pattern of bee comb cells on a thin sheet of wax and then attaching it to the side of a frame, bees would accept it and build new comb cells on the sheet very quickly. This invention enabled beekeepers to produce more combs of even quality. Soon producers discovered that by embedding thin wires in the wax sheets perfected by Mehring the comb remained strong enough to retain their shape while the honey was removed using the centrifugal extractor, invented in Austria by Franz von Hruschka in 1865 (Crane 1992). These three inventions, the removal frames, the wax comb sheets, and the centrifugal extractor opened the way for increased honey production and for the sale of liquid (as opposed to comb) honey. Thus, these inventions in the mid 1800s made beekeeping consistently profitable, paving the way for large commercial enterprises in Europe as well as the United States.

Two other inventions of the late 1800s also aided beekeepers. In 1877, T. F. Bingham of the United States invented the bellows smoker which when lit produced a gentle cloud of smoke rather than an uneven torrent. The bellows smoker enabled beekeepers to apply just enough smoke to a hive they wanted to enter without causing injury to the bees. In 1891, E.C. Porter, also of the United States invented the "bee escape" in hives which allowed bees to pass freely in one direction only. That invention provided an efficient and effective way to temporally remove bees from areas of a hive that was being examined or removed (Free 1982).

Future of honey production in the United States

The United States is unique among the major honey-producing countries of the world. Ironically, even though lagging in its research on the pollen contents of domestic honey types, United States’ scientists pioneered studies of the chemical contents of honey. Early research by USDA chemists (White et al., 1962) examined honey samples from all 50 states and inspired similar tests by foreign scientists on the honey from other countries. The chemical data from many studies of domestic honey in the United States are included in this volume.

The precision of pollen data collected from their own domestic honey sources has enabled many major honey-producing nations to impose strict laws governing the import and export of honey products (Johansson and Johansson, 1969). For the most part, the import/export laws imposed by many of these nations require three types of certification before honey products can be marketed: 1) verification of a honey’s floral type, 2) verification of the honey’s quality, and 3) verification on the honey’s place of origin. The lack of these types of certification requirements in the United States and the lack of these types of data for domestic U.S. produced honey hinders the export of many types of honey produced in the United States. On average, during any fiscal year about 4% of the U.S. produced annual volume of honey is exported. Perhaps with better information about the contents of domestic U.S. honey that percentage of exported honey could be increased. On the other hand, during 1999, over 332 million pounds of honey was consumed in the United States yet nearly 40% of that total represented honey imported from other countries (National Honey Board 2000). The production of honey in the United States has remained fairly constant during the past five years at around 200 million pounds.

In a recent article Carl Shafer (1998) has noted that much has changed for U.S. beekeepers since December, 1996, when the U.S. ended their honey loan and subsidy program. He points out that since then U.S. beekeepers have become part of the world’s free market where there are no real shortages or surpluses. Instead, those conditions determine whether the price of honey will be high or low. The future of the honey industry in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world, according to Shafer, will depend on the future prices paid for honey, which in turn will be determined by world wide supply and demand.

References cited
Crane, E. 1975 Honey, a comprehensive survey. Russak & Co., Inc., New York.

Crane, E. 1980 A book of honey. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Crane, E. 1992 The world’s beekeeing--past and present. In: The hive and the Honey Bee. (Graham, J. ed), pp.1-22. Dadant & Sons, Hamilton, Illinois.

Crane, E. and A. J. Graham 1985 Bee hives of the Ancient world. Bee World 66:148-170.

Dixon, C. V. 1989 Beekeeping in traditional agroecosystems of southern Mexico. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Entomology, Texas A&M University, USA., 167 p.

Free, J. B. 1990 Bees and Mankind. George Allen & Unwin, London.

Gould, J. L. and C. G. Gould 1988 The honey bee. Scientific American Library, New York.

Hilburn, D. J. 1989 Beekeeping in Bermuda: a short history. Glean. Bee culture 117 (10):569-570.

Johansson, T. S. K. and M. P.Johansson 1968 Pollen analysis of honey--an appraisal. American Bee Journal, 109(2): 57-58.

National Honey Board 2000 Web site. (

Oertel, E. 2001 Early records of honey bees in the eastern United States. American Bee Journal 116: 156-157.

Root-Bernstein, R. S. 2002 Infections terrorism. The Atlantic 267:44-50.

Shafer, C. 1998 Can we forecast the price of honey? Journal of the Texas Beekeepers Association Feb/Mar/Apr issue:337-340

Smith, D. A. 1999 The first honeybees in America. Bee world 58:56.

White, J. W. Jr., M. L. Riethof, M. H. Subers, and I. Kushnir 1962 Composition of American honey. Technical Bulletin 1261, U. S.Department of Agriculture, (ARS). U.S. Printing Office, Washington.

This article first appeared in CAP Newsletter 23(2):12-18, 2000.

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