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When did humans discover honey?

Hi, this is Adriana, the beekeeper from South Mountain bees.

Last Saturday we had our first transatlantic beekeeping meeting between Shropshire and New Jersey, and I learned a lot about beekeeping in history in the UK and the USA. That prompted me to dig further into "The Hive and the Honey Bee", my favorite reference for all things beekeeping. Here's what I learned about prehistoric people and honey bees.

Humans have been interacting with honeybees for a long time. Probably as soon as they discovered honey and were willing to withstand stings in order to hunt delicious honey comb. Although bees prefer dark cavities inside hollow trees or rock cavities, it is not unusual to see hives hanging from tree branches. I don't mean paper wasp nests that look like a balloon, I mean real honeybee nests, with layers of comb exposed to the elements. Those combs tend to fall easily in strong winds, and one can imagine a person running into it and wondering where it came from. Maybe a fallen tree revealed a hive inside it. We'll never really know, how honey was first discovered. However, art left a beautiful trace of how humans interacted with honeybees.

Did you know that the earliest record of humans hunting honey is at least 10,000 years old?

Prehistoric people made cave paintings depicting animals, hand prints, and even hunting scenes. When it comes to honeybees, there are a few cave paintings, and I want to mention two of them here; one in Europe and one in Africa depicting scenes of humans with bees.

Prehistoric cave painting in Zimbabwe showing a person using smoke to calm bees to collect honey.The oldest of the two paintings is the one in Africa. It is a rock painting in a cave near Toghwana Dam, Zimbabwe, and dates from about 8,000 BC. It may be the only such painting showing the use of smoke to calm bees in order to gather honey comb.


Cave paintings in Cuevas de Araña, Spain where two people are using ropes or lianas to collect honey from a hive on a cliff.

One of the most well known cave paintings about bees is the one in Cuevas de Araña, or Spider Caves, in Bicorp, Valencia, Spain. The caves were discovered by Jaime Garí i Pock, a local teacher, in the early twentieth century. The caves are part  of the Rock art of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin, also known as Levantine art, and in 1998 they were collectively declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The image shows a person with a bag to hold the honey combs who has climbed up lianas or ropes to raid a nest in a rock cavity. A second person, also with a bag at the bottom holding the rope, probably to assist in the climb. Bees, flying out of the entrance of the nest to defend it from the intruder are depicted in larger scale compared to the human.

Over time, honey hunting evolved into beekeeping. Wild hives in tree trunks and rock cavities were marked with sticks or rocks formations to declare property, and if anybody ignored the markings it would be considered theft. Eventually wild hives were relocated to man-made structures easier to manage, some were made with hollowed trunks, clay pots, mud structures, and the more modern skep. Finally, wood was chosen as the ideal material to build hives with removable frames, because of its durability. 

I hope you enjoyed this brief peek into the history of honey gathering.

Source: The Hive and the Honey Bee. Edited by Joe M. Graham. Dadant.

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