1. The History of Beekeeping

Historically, before the advent of commercially produced sugars made from cane and beet, honey was the only natural sugar available and mankind has always loved and craved the sweet taste of golden honey. Collecting honey from wild bee colonies is one of the most ancient of human activities and many indigenous societies in parts of Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America continue this method of harvesting honey to this day.

Some of the earliest evidence depicting humans gathering honey is from rock paintings dating from about 15,000 years ago. However, when honey was gathered from wild bee colonies it usually entailed the destruction of the entire colony. Smoke was used to subdue the bees and the wild hive was broken into and the honeycombs torn out and destroyed; this also resulted in the destruction of the eggs and larvae in the honeycomb. The liquid honey from the destroyed brood nest was saved but the rest of the nest was usually discarded although sometimes the bee larvae were eaten as a source of protein. In settled societies the destruction of a bee colony meant the loss of a valuable resource; there was no continuity of production and no possibility of selective breeding, since each bee colony was destroyed at harvest time, along with its precious all-important queen.

Egyptian art from around 4,500 years ago shows early efforts to domesticate bees – although, as all bees are free to come and go as they please and man merely removes honey and other items of interest to him from their colonies, all bees are wild but they are a managed wild creature. In Egypt simple hives were used and workers used smoke to help remove the honeycombs from the hives. The honey was stored in sealed jars, some of which were found in the tombs of pharaohs such as Tutankhamun. It is said that honey that had been sealed in the jars and then left undisturbed in the tombs was still edible 4,000 years later!

In Europe, before the advent of the modern movable-frame hives, bees were often kept in straw skeps. Because the space available to the bees in these skeps was so limited, they regularly swarmed (which is a natural method of colony reproduction) and this served to replace the colonies which had been killed to obtain the honey. The space for the bees could be enlarged by adding an extra chamber - called an eke (hence the term ‘to eke something out’ which is still used today). Many colonies of honey bees were maintained by religious communities, principally for the wax they yielded. Beautiful cream beeswax candles were produced which burnt without smoke and these were of infinitely superior quality to the candles made from tallow used by the general population. The honey was welcome as a sweetener and, in areas where vines would not grow, fermented honey was used to make the alcoholic drink mead. As a result, in the monasteries, the beekeeper was a person of considerable importance to the monastic community.

During the Middle Ages people were aware that there was a single large bee that was different to all the other bees in the colony. Traditionally, the hierarchy of a bee hive was thought to reflect the structure of Church and State and thus the bee that clearly ruled the colony was believed to be a king bee. It was not until 1586 that it was discovered that the king bee was actually a queen.

In the 18th century European biologists, or natural philosophers, started the scientific study of bee colonies and began to understand the complex social world of a bee colony. Although scientists were aware that queens laid eggs in empty cells, they did not know how a queen was fertilised and it was a Swiss scientist, François Huber (1750 – 1831) who was the first to discover that queens are inseminated by a number of matings with different drones, high in the air at a distance from their hive, during a ‘mating flight’. Huber is universally regarded as "the father of modern bee-science" and in his "Nouvelles Observations sur Les Abeilles” disclosed most of the basic scientific facts on the biology and ecology of honey bees. It was this greater understanding of the colonies and the biology of bees that allowed the construction of the movable-comb hive so that honey could be harvested without destroying the entire colony and the breeding of the bees could be controlled; thus modern bee-keeping was born.