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The Unexplored History of Honeybees

Most people have had some kind of encounter with honeybees, whether it was from a sting as a child or from mention of them in media and literature. The bible mentions bees, references of them appear in Huckleberry Finn, and there is even an entire animated film dedicated to these creatures, The Bee Movie. But what most people don’t know about is Apis mellifera, the technical side of the honeybee; their lives, their production of honey and wax, and the ways that humans have interacted with them throughout time. Honeybees are a fascinating creature, yet many people only think of them as a pesky insect that stings humans when they get too close. In reality, honeybees live in a complex ecosystem and produce honey and beeswax, integral products that humans have benefitted from for centuries.

Image of a Honeycomb taken from Langstroth on the Honey-Bee (1904)
Image of a Honeycomb taken from Langstroth on the Honey-Bee (1904)

Life in the Hive

Bees live in a hierarchical structure within the hive led by the queen bee. Apis mellifera, part of the Apidae family of bees classified by their long and pointed tongues, has a hive consisting of a fertile female called the queen bee, sterile females called worker bees, and males called drones. Honeybees work as a collectivist unit to keep their colony alive and running. Their hive is constructed of honeycombs that are made of beeswax which are then filled with honeybees’ source of food, honey. This honey is made by a process of nectar collection. Nectar is similar to honey, in fact, honey is its byproduct, however, it has much more water and tastes much different than honey. Honeybees collect nectar from plants and then turn it into honey within the hive. This is done by placing the nectar into the honeycombs and then bees inside the hive flapping their wings in order to cause the water in the nectar to evaporate, turning it to honey.

Honeybees in Ancient Culture

Honeybees can be seen in literature and art as far back as 15,000 years. The first known human depiction of honeybees, showing a man surrounded by bees collecting honey from their hive, was recently found in the Araña Cave in Valencia. However, after the rock painting there is almost no evidence of a human connection with honeybees until around 3500 BCE when they began to be used in a hieroglyph believed to represent the King of Lower Egypt. Honeybees were also largely influential in ancient Greece and Rome as they were often referenced in fables and fairytales along with the use of their honey and wax in religious rites. Bees were in fact so intriguing to the people of ancient Greece that Aristotle spent a large portion of his life studying bees and the inner workings of their hives. The earliest mention of bees in English literature appears around 1420 in a translation of Palladius, however, it was not published until 1873. Most other early English works about bees are beekeeping guides that were published in the sixteenth century.

While bees themselves are extremely interesting creatures, their wax and its uses are even more intriguing. Beeswax is secreted from the worker bees’ abdominal glands in the process of making the honeycomb and can be collected for many uses. In ancient times beeswax was largely used for candles for the Catholic church. Every candle on the altar for a service was required to be made of beeswax and thus beekeeping (apiculture) became common among monasteries. Beeswax was also used for wax writing tablets as well as for sealing legal documents and deeds throughout ancient Greece and Rome. Beeswax became a luxury during this period and was only used by the very rich. The rich generally used the wax to make candles, often for the smell but also to tell time. It is even said that King Alfred required his candles to be cut in such a way that when 6 candles, each with twelve divisions marked on them, were burnt in a row the time it took for them to burn was equal to exactly twenty-four hours, each division marking one-third of an hour. Due to honeybees' influence on the Roman Church as well as hive characteristics believed to resemble that of an ideal king, the honeybee was often depicted as the ruler of the Roman Empire.

The Roman Church depicted as being run by honeybees. Taken from The Sacred Bee (1937)
The Roman Church depicted as being run by honeybees. Taken from The Sacred Bee (1937)

Honeybees In the World Today

While bees and their wax were worshipped in the past, today we take them for granted. Due to human intervention, bee populations have severely decreased since the Pax Romana. Humans now exploit bees, largely for their honey, and kill off many colonies due to extensive apiculture practices that have caused bees to evolve unnaturally. Though bees’ honey is used widely in medicine and food, it has been mixed with isinglass to form a plasticizer in order to preserve books. Meanwhile, beeswax seems to mostly be used for candles today. Despite extensive use of wax in bookmaking throughout ancient history, specifically for wax tablets, there is little information about current use of beeswax in bookmaking. Though there are not many well-known uses of beeswax in bookmaking, it is likely that there are still uses that are simply not written about in current literature.

Despite the lower usage of beeswax and honey in current society, Apis mellifera populations are still shrinking worldwide due to human exploitation of these creatures. The extraction of honey from bees’ hives leaves them without enough food to continue producing the wax needed to create honeycombs, and the genetic mutations caused by evolution in a highly controlled apicultural environment leave honeybees defenseless when released into the wild. The shift from worshiping to exploiting honeybees by humans has severely reduced the species’ population and if we’re not careful, they won’t be around much longer.


Further Reading

ScienceDaily Article "Evolutionary History of Honeybees Revealed by Genomics"

Wax Craft, All about Beeswax; Its History, Production, Adulteration, and Commercial Value By T. W. Cowan

Bees And Wasps By Oswald H. Latter

The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore By Hilda M. Ransome

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