The Complete History of Beekeeping: A Pocket Guide

The history of beekeeping goes back thousands of years. Humans were masters of collecting honey long before understanding the value of pollination. Honey, after all, is nature’s purest, simplest sweetener. In modern times, honey harvesting is a massive industry that produces hundreds of millions of pounds of sweet, gooey goodness.

We’ve come a long way from the primitive honey harvesting methods of our ancestors. Rappeling from rockfaces to poke a giant hive with a ten-foot-pole is wholly unnecessary. In modern times, beekeeping and honey harvesting are family-friendly activities. Hives are as easy to purchase and maintain as any hobby pet habitat. Honeybees themselves come in boxes from suppliers — complete with queens.

The more we learn about the history of beekeeping, the more we strive to save the bees. Sure, we love honey. Who wouldn’t? It appears on 57 percent of all restaurant menus. It’s the second most recognizable sweetener on earth. It’s also delicious. The list goes on and on. But — those bees. We hear so much about the bees. We’ve evolved an understanding of the critical role bees play in our very existence. The history of beekeeping will teach you more than facts about honey or statistics about hives. It will give you a new perspective on how much those furry little insects impact your life.

Apiary” is the proper scientific name for a home of pollinating honeybees. Beekeepers, therefore, are “apiarists.” Whether your apiary is in an English Tea Garden or you harvest so much honey you require a commercial extractor; you’re caring more for the house and the tools than you do the bees themselves.

New apiarists are in luck these days, as hives are so user-friendly that there’s little to no maintenance at all. The history of beekeeping, however, tells another story that is as terrifying as it is fascinating. Remember — the first humans to find honey most likely stumbled onto it by accident.

Apiculture, or the art of keeping bees, is a misleading term when discussing ancient and prehistoric times. Cave drawings tell us that people went to the bees, often killing entire colonies in the process, for thousands of years before harnessing the hive. Even now, however, there are people all over the world using methods of apiculture unchanged from their origins.

The first recorded use of a beehive by humans lies in Egypt. The Temple of the Sun holds a manuscript that details beekeeping in artificial hives dating back to 2400 BCE. There are, however, cave drawings that depict honey harvesters going back nearly 10,000 years. The oldest honeypots still in existence are well over 3,000 years old.

The history of beekeeping, therefore, holds much more than meets the eye. It is a practice and a tradition that people have likely engaged in since the first time they tasted the benefits. Scientists pulling honeybees from amber — along with fossil records — proves that bees have seniority over us on this planet.

Like everything else, however, humans proclaim their dominion and the bees become our tools. Fortunately, modern science is awake on the importance of this fascinating little creature.

Cave-dwellers didn’t keep bees. They went to their natural habitats. As society evolves, we learn. What we know about the history of beekeeping is far more complex a subject than beekeeping itself. Beehives are simple to purchase and even easier to maintain. You and your family will watch in astonishment as your Flow hive delivers you raw, filtered honey. Remember —  the beekeepers who came before you had it nowhere near that easy.

Honeybees have a knack for finding places to keep their hives safe. They fill those combs with honey, remember, to nourish the new bees born to the brood. In Nepal, honey hunters use the same techniques they have for thousands of years; rappeling from dizzying heights to collect their treasure. Unfortunately, this method destroys the colony’s hard work. Giant hives hanging hundreds of feet above the ground get sawed to pieces before the harvester, who risks death each and every time, lowers it to the ground.

Nepali honey is some of the most sought after on earth. One version, however, a product of the giant Nepalese Honeybee, contains toxins from a rare flower, turning the honey a curious shade of red. That honey sells for nearly twice what typical Nepalese honey sells for because the toxins produce a psychedelic effect upon ingestion.

Red Nepali honey is a staple of local medicine. The Nepalese use it as an anesthetic as well as a cough syrup. Because of the psychotropic effects, however, it is only available on the Asian Black Market, and it is illegal to import or export.

Honeybees are extremely resourceful. They build their hives far from the prying eyes of humans. Tropical and forested areas offer shelter, much like Nepal, simply by being out of reach. People, unfortunately for honey-hoarding bees, have thumbs. We can climb. We can also cut, saw, tie, burn and destroy. All of those are ineffective for beekeepers trying to save the colony, but for the straight honey hunter? For millennia, anything was, and in some places still is, fair game.

High in the trees, nestled in hollows and in between branches, honeybees build their combs. Many tribes in the Rainforests hang hollow logs up high with a piece of a comb from a nearby hive, hoping the bees will set up a colony. Once they call the log home, they become the tenants of a human apiarist. Log hives are some of the oldest in existence.

Clay pot beehives date back to ancient Egypt. Apiarists, determined to harness honey, used large clay pots as the first artificially produced beehive. Constructed with openings in the bottom and top, clay pot hives display ingenuity at its finest. They also demonstrate just how simple it is to maintain a colony of honeybees.

Clay pot hives, much like empty log hives, provide bees with a shaded spot, away from the prying eyes of predators and honey hunters. Holes in the bottom allow entry for workers and drones. The top is adjustable to allow airflow on hot days or to close the hive in cold times.

Clay pot hives are also portable. The discovery of the miracle of pollination took the honeybee from a popular pest to chase down for a delightful treat to an essential farming tool — with sweet side benefits.

The invention of the skep, an upside down woven basket designed to house honeybees, brought beekeeping to the mainstream. As a species, we learned what bees do for agriculture. Once something is essential to human beings, it becomes vital to all life. Bees are no different. There are, for example, a whole bunch of species of pollinating bees in North America. They are here naturally; they have likely always been here.

The honeybee we commonly know and love, however, is a hybrid engineered by apiarists in Europe as an agricultural tool. They were brought to America on ships, like most farming supplies of the era, and distributed in skeps. Skeps are simple containers, but they are challenging to maintain. Because federal law requires that beekeepers maintain their hives and inspect for harmful mites that could harm other colonies, skeps are no longer legal for keeping bees.

The world of honeybees and the history of beekeeping owe a debt of gratitude to a man named Lorenzo Langstroth. Langstroth was a scholar, a preacher and an educator from Massachusetts in the early to mid-19th-century. His love for bees stemmed from a passion for honey and an understanding of their role as pollinators.

The hive credited to him is, naturally, called the Langstroth hive. continuously design changed beekeeping forever. Fast forward 150 years and you’ll find very few beekeepers using anything but a Langstroth hive. There is just no better apiary system available on Earth.

How A Langstroth Hive Works

The Langstroth Hive breaks down to six critical parts. The bottom, which is typically solid for winter months and mesh in summer for ventilation. The brood box, the largest section of the hive which sits the lowest, is where the colony lives and where the queen lays her eggs. The honey box, usually smaller and on top of the brood box, is where the workers do their magic.

Queens seldom venture into this cavern, but it isn’t unheard of. Apiarists report seeing queens in all kinds of odd locations during off-seasons when breeding is on hold. They do their jobs well, but when it’s over, they tend to wander. A queen excluder that sits between the two boxes keeps your queen in the residence where she belongs. Langstroth hives aren’t limited to two boxes. Commercial beekeepers have hives that are four and five boxes high.

Inside the boxes are what are called “superframes,” or “supers” in bee terms. Brood boxes typically use deep supers, while honey boxes use medium or shallow supers. Hives use smaller supers for the honey boxes because of the sheer weight. A single frame yields as much as 50-60 pounds of honey. A few inches bigger makes them a whole lot heavier.

The top to a Langstroth hive is “telescoping,” meaning it can be raised and lowered for airflow. In the winter, your bees will use the friction they produce with their wings to stay warm. Closing their home to the elements is essential for their survival during deep-freezes. Far too many apiaries lose their entire colony over the winter to poor preparation.

Typical Langstroths have 8 to 10 frames per box. Therefore. A full harvest’s yield is in the area of 400 pounds or more.

While the history of beekeeping focuses more on the bees, to fully understand it, you have to understand the honey. To extract honey has traditionally meant to destroy your apiary’s vital function, forcing your colony to rebuild from scratch. Fortunately, Langstroth hives give your bees a permanent home while you clean the honey from their supers.

Bees don’t merely “produce” honey. They also produce wax. They use the wax to build honeycomb. Workers, known as foragers, leave the hive to collect nectar from flowers. When they return, they pass the nectar to workers at the entrance, turn around and go back out for more. The workers at the entrance, known as processors, insert the nectar into combs until full. They then cap the combs with wax, so the honey remains inside.

Inside the combs, the nectar is fanned by the wings of the workers until there is very little water left. The finished, ripened honey is so dense and dry compared to the nectar that no microbes or bacteria will ever penetrate its surface. Honey is, therefore, as pure as it comes, straight from the hive.

There are two viable methods for extracting honey. One is done manually, destroying the honeycomb in the process, while the other uses modern machinery and good old fashioned physics to save you — and your bees — a whole bunch of time and work.

Crush And Strain

Smaller farms and home-hobbyists use a manual extraction method that requires them to destroy the honeycomb to get to the honey. “Crush and strain” allows even the most novice of people to harvest honey successfully. While the bees will typically go unharmed, they will spend an estimated three weeks to a month re-building the honeycomb.

That’s because, with the crush and strain method, you cut the entirety of the comb from its frame and crush it through a fine cloth to separate honey from wax. It is simple and inexpensive, but messy and time-consuming. In the end, you’re left with the same amount of honey, a little bit more wax, as honeycomb is thin and shallow, and bees running a month behind schedule for the next harvest.

Mechanical Extraction

Mechanical honey extractors are fascinating pieces of equipment. They look like large steel drums, with hand cranks. The honey frames go inside the drum’s baskets, usually 2 to 3 at a time. When you crank the handle, the baskets spin like the Tea Cups at Disneyland. Centrifugal force removes the honey gently, sending it to the sides of the drum and down to the bottom, where a tap empties it into a container.

Mechanical extraction has the benefit of leaving the honeycomb intact. Your bees will have to make small repairs, but the workers in the hive will finish that up while the foragers head right out to do their jobs.

A recent study shows that the honeybee, in its quest for nectar, pollinates far more than some essential farming crops. Even though they are often not indigenous to the area they live, their footprint touches nearly 90 percent of wildflowers in their area.

You constantly hear about the decline of the honeybee and how it will affect crops because the honeybee is so prevalent in farming. Trends in pesticides, irrigation, and even cross-breeding with African bees all affect the overall sad state of affairs for bees.

But — the honeybee is not endangered. It’s not even on the protected list. The truth is, it doesn’t need to be. While concerns over swarms abandoning hives, never to return, make for good chapters, they don’t tell the whole story. Bees have been the subject of great concern, but the reaction is just as dangerous.

By introducing too many Western Honeybees into an ecosystem, you actually help destroy the colonies of the other 25,000 species of bees on the planet. Honeybees actively pollinate 70 percent of our crops. That’s by choice.

The truth is, we don’t know what will happen if the honeybee were to disappear. After all, there are those thousands upon thousands of other pollinators out there whose habitats we constantly invade by buying home hive systems. We don’t know if the standard bee, acceptable to humans, will take the place of those pollinators when they disappear.

We do know how to raise bees. And how to keep them safe and happy. We know how important they are. Human beings and honeybees are a team that works well together. If the history of beekeeping teaches us anything, it teaches us that we love our hairy little friends. We love their honey and their wax and their amazing work ethic. Not only will beekeeping survive — it will flourish.

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