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Apis mellifera or honeybees working on the comb

Beekeeping may go back to the early years of agriculture, up to 9,000 years ago

Archaeologists have found evidence on pottery that people were using honeycomb at least 9,000 years ago. A research team from several European institutions has found the distinctive chemical signature of honeycomb or beeswax on pottery shards from Europe, the Near East and North Africa, says a new paper in the journal Nature.

The team speculates that the origins of beekeeping, or domestication of Apis mellifera, may have been as far back as the Stone Age. Early farmers possibly lived alongside and worked with honeybees to produce the semi-liquid honey that has fascinated humankind for so long. Or the prehistoric people may have been harvesting wild honey.

Because bees are small and organic, evidence of them has all but disappeared from the archaeological record, though they and their products have a rich tradition in myth, symbolism and history from the time of the Babylonians, ancient Egyptians and others.

The Old Testament queen Deborah’s name means Queen Bee, and ancient Egyptians sometimes called their monarchs Bee King. Who knows how long people have addressed their spouses or sweethearts as “honey,” a term of affection that says something about both the sweetness of that natural substance and the person being addressed. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols says “Every Promised Land flows with milk and honey as did all those primeval lands from which mankind was driven.”

One of the earliest record of beekeeping was found in the sun temple erected in 2400 BC near Cairo.

One of the earliest record of beekeeping was found in the sun temple erected in 2400 BC near Cairo. ( aloelf.com)

The research team, led by Mélanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry, analyzed residues on 6,400 pottery pieces across a wide swath of the Old World for evidence of beekeeping or honey products. About 100 of the potsherds had evidence of beeswax.

They wrote that they don’t know when or where the people first started using the honeybee , though they noted there is an example of rock art from 6,000 to 8,000 years old in Spain showing a person apparently harvesting wild honey from a tree.

“One of the major products of A. mellifera is beeswax, which is composed of a complex suite of lipids including n-alkanes, n-alkanoic acids and fatty acyl wax esters,” says their abstract in Nature. “The composition is highly constant as it is determined genetically through the insect’s biochemistry. Thus, the chemical ‘fingerprint’ of beeswax provides a reliable basis for detecting this commodity in organic residues preserved at archaeological sites, which we now use to trace the exploitation by humans of A. mellifera temporally and spatially.

A rendering of rock art from Spain showing apparent honey collection from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago

A rendering of rock art from Spain showing apparent honey collection from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago (Drawing by Achillea/ Wikimedia Commons )

We demonstrate that bee products were exploited continuously, and probably extensively in some regions, at least from the seventh millennium cal BC, likely fulfilling a variety of technological and cultural functions. The close association of A. mellifera with Neolithic farming communities dates to the early onset of agriculture and may provide evidence for the beginnings of a domestication process.

Their premise was that pottery was used to collect honey from wild honeycomb or even used as a sort of artificial beehive.

Wild honeybees collect nectar that will be turned into honey to feed the queen, larvae and the rest of the colony

Wild honeybees collect nectar that will be turned into honey to feed the queen, larvae and the rest of the colony (Photo by Mark Miller)

Some of the shards of pottery were from large, clay amphorae vessels that ancients used to stored cereals and wines. The team found that people mixed beeswax with birch bark tar to make a pliable glue that they used to repair pottery and adhere spear points to spear shafts, says NPR . They also may have used beeswax to fuel lamps.

The earliest the team dated honeycomb residue on pottery is from 7000 BC in Anatolia, at a site in southeastern Turkey named Çayönü Tepesi . Pottery with beeswax residue from other sites included the Balkans of 5500 to 4500 BC, North Africa about 5000 BC and in Denmark of an unspecified time. Denmark was the farthest north that bees could millennia ago because of a colder climate.

By the time of recorded history and religion, bees held a prominent place in the human imagination and myth. Says the Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects:

According to Porphyry, all bees were the souls of nymphs (priestesses) who had been in the service of Aphrodite during their lifetimes, especially at her temple of Eryx where her symbol was a golden honeycomb. Priestesses of the goddess were called melissae, “bees.” At the Ephesian temple of Artemis, the melissae were accompanied by eunuch priests know as essenes, meaning “drones.” The Goddess Demeter was also addressed as “the pure mother bee.” A former matriarchal ruler of Israel was Deborah, whose name means “queen bee.” The mother of Lemminkainen used magic honey to restore her son’s life in the Kalevala, assisted by Mehilainen the Bee. Even the patriarchal Mithraic cult revered the Moon Goddess as maker of “the honey which was used in purifications.

Featured image: Apis mellifera or honeybees working on the comb (Photo by Waugsberg/ Wikimedia Commons )

By Mark Miller

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