Beekeeping through the Ages

An overview of beekeeping from antiquity and medieval times exploring bees, hive designs, beekeeping tools, and harvesting products with fun facts and bee myths dispelled along the way.

About Bees

a bee resting

There are 7 different species of honey bees throughout the world, and 44 different subspecies. To bring focus to my work, I’m focusing on the habits, habitats, and practices of handling Apis Mellifera – the Western Honey Bee.

Bees Through History

Ancient Bees

“rock painting” A woman harvesting
honey from a cave

Apis Mellifera is thought to have originated in eastern tropical Africa and spread to Europe and eastwards into Asia. Early in antiquity the honey bee (some ancestor of Apis Mellifera) was found in caves and has since evolved into separate species and subspecies that have different environmental preferences, temperaments, and even behaviors.

There is evidence of bees, honey hunting, and beekeeping-type practices that go back thousands of years. There are Mesolithic paintings in eastern Spain that depict honey hunting dating between 8000 – 2000 BC and large quantities of honey have been found in Egyptian tombs with depictions of beekeeping on the walls (Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping 21, 35).

The original form of beekeeping was actually honey hunting: tracking wild bees to their hives and then harvesting the honey found there. Over time the tools, practices, and rituals were established to ensure the best care and keeping of bees, as well as the harvesting of honey. This gradually evolved into having semi-wild bees; where the beekeeper would encourage them to swarm or move into a hollow log near his home, or he’d very carefully move the vessel (a hollow tree or basket) that held the hive from where it was to somewhere the honey hunter could easily access. There are still aboriginal societies in Africa and Asia  that practice honey hunting today (Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping 21).

Modern Bees

Settlers established colonies of bees in Virginia in 1622 but the West coast of the continent did not have bees until well into the 19th Century. Today Apis Mellifera can be found on every continent in the world except for Antarctica.

Bees in a Colony

All honey bee colonies have 3 types of bees within them. A colony is a collection of bees regardless of where they live.

The Queen

The queen is always female. Every colony has usually has only one queen, and when the bees outgrow their hive, have an aging queen, or lose their queen, they’ll produce another queen bee; to either swarm, and take some of the population with her, or to replace the aging or missing queen. There are instances where 2 queens will occupy a hive, it’s a rare but documented occurrence. The queen has a stinger and uses it to kill any rivals that are still in the larval stage. Her stinger is not barbed though, so if she were to use it on a beekeeper, she would not die due to use, like a worker bee . Though we call her a queen, she doesn’t have any power within the colony, she isn’t a ruler. A queen bee does nothing on her own except lay eggs; her attendants feed and groom her while she completes the task of egg laying.

The Worker

A worker bee is always female. The worker bee life cycle is typically 5 to 6 weeks long, starting as a nurse bee, then a guard bee, and finally as a bee that collects pollen and nectar. Worker bees are capable of laying eggs but only produce Drone brood. The worker bee’s stinger is barbed, so when used on mammals it will come out in the skin of the mammal and the bee usually dies.

The Drone

Drone bees are male. Within the hive and colony, they provide nothing, like Hesiod states, “Both gods and men are angry with a man who lives idle, for in nature he is like the stingless drones who waste the labor of the bees, eating without working” (Works and Days). We do know that drones will help regulate temperature within a colony but they do no harvesting or creation of honey. The drone is only needed to mate with queens on their maiden flight. Though not all drones will mate with a queen.

Fun Facts About Bees

  • Drones explode upon impregnating the queen bee, his genitals are ripped out resulting in his death.
  • Worker bees and queen bees start the same, fed royal jelly for the first 3 days of the pupa stage. Queen bees are fed royal jelly for the rest of their lives which promotes their reproductive system to fully develop.
  • In Greek, the word for ‘honey bee’ is Melissa
  • First Nations peoples in the American colonies knew when the colonists were encroaching on their lands, because they brought honey bees, and swarming hives were an indication of colonization, also called “white man’s flies”.
  • Queens on a mating flight visit the Drone Congregation Area which is approximately 1 mile above ground level.

Common Bee Myths

  • Queen bees were originally thought to be male – King Bees
  • Zeus, the Greek god, as an infant was fed by honey bees
  • It was commonly thought that King bees were created from the decaying skulls of oxen
  • Baby bees were thought to have been plucked from flowers
  • According to the Catholic Church bees were considered virgin, because like Christ, they only came to be as a result of virgin birth, without the sex act

About Hives

A colony of honeybees without a hive

For the purposes of this discussion, a ‘hive’ is the man made cavity in which all the bees live. Honeybees only build comb – out of wax that they produce. A feral colony will live in whatever is convenient or even out in the elements. In order for the common honeybee to survive in the elements, the honeybee needs outside temperatures to be at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit and not raining – for at least as long as it takes them to build a comb structure that they can insulate and heat themselves. It is possible for a feral colony of honeybees to survive outside, but if the elements or predators work against them, the colony will not survive.

Hives Through History

Ancient Hives

Evidence shows that hives in the early Mediterranean societies were made of a variety of materials and styles. Hives could have been made of unbaked clay, wicker, bark, wood, stone, or straw, though it seems to be of popular Roman opinion to make the hives out of more perishable materials. Ancient writers mention a wide variety of materials, and discouraged hives made of brick, stone, or clay, as it made the hives “burnt by the summer heat and frozen by the winter’s cold” (Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping 52). Though Pliny the Elder mentioned hives of horn and translucent stone in his work Naturalis historia, no evidence has been found to support this (Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping 52).

Evidence of most straw, wicker, and other compostable hives have been lost to time, though clay, stone, and terracotta hives have been recognized, some of which only recently. Ancient hives as described by the Roman authors Pliny and Columella were horizontal where the beekeeper accessed the hive from one or both ends (Crane, Beekeeping in the world of ancient Rome).

Horizontal Hives

The horizontal hive was the standard in the Ancient Mediterranean. The hives were tube or box shaped that had a similar appearance to a hollow log and were open at one or both ends.  The beekeeper would block the front of the hive leaving a bee sized opening and the back of the hive was blocked.  Honey was harvested when the beekeepers would open the back of the hive and remove each comb from the rear of the hive, hoping that the beekeepers wouldn’t take too much.  Imagine a roll of coins where each coin in the roll was a comb that could be removed from either end. The combs were not attached to any type of movable frame, only to the top and sides of the hive itself.  The horizontal hives were often stacked and could be found on the edge of terraced farmland, so that the rear of the hives were easily accessible. Egyptian wall paintings show beekeepers harvesting comb from horizontal unbaked clay hives.  The comb is round shaped like the interior of the hive. There is thought that the horizontal hives were smaller and by stacking them the bees would naturally use the ones above them, so a bee colony would have multiple hives that it occupied. An apiary containing some 37 horizontal cylindrical hives was found in Te Rehov, Israel.  The hives were made of unbaked clay and straw and experts say would have produced around a half ton of honey in a season since a productive hive could yield up to 18 liters or 14 kg of honey.

Greek beehive
The greek beehive

The Greek Beehive so named by Sir George Wheler who visited Greece in 1675, who found it so unusual that he had to write about it in A Journey into Greece (1682).  It is what modern beekeepers refer to as a top-bar hive. It is a vertical hive accessed from the top, which was made in either wicker, clay, or terracotta pots that were about the size of a modern ten-gallon planter.   It would have had a hole along the bottom and could have had handles along the top.  The hives were been topped by loose wooden bars that the bees would have attached their comb to, and then beekeepers covered the hive with foliage, a terracotta cover or stone slab to keep the rain and weather off.  Bars of honey would then be harvested in the fall, a single bar at a time.  There are some clay pots found in ancient dig sites that may have been these types of hives and have been found only in Greece (Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping 196).

Middle Ages and Early Modern Period

Skeps
the bottom of a bee skep

What is thought to be one of the earliest evidence of skeps, was found in a peat bog near Wilhelmshaven in lower Saxony, Germany, dated to the First Century AD (Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping 99). “Skeps” were used extensively throughout Europe from the Middle Ages until the 19th Century and require their own methods for colony maintenance and honey extraction.  These methods usually resulted in the destruction of the colony, but it seems that skeps were mostly used in cooler more northern climates. Skeps were made of reeds or grasses, often coated in clay or cob. On the island of Great Britain it appears to be common practice, at least in larger manors, to create boles, or nooks into walls to set the skeps to help keep them out of the weather.

Bee Trees
a modern bee tree observation hive

Evidence of forest beekeeping in the northern and eastern Europe has been found as far back as 2000 years. Tree beekeeping, or Forest Beekeeping is thought to be a cultural beekeeping style by the Finno-Ugrian peoples as early as 2000 BCE.

Going as far east as the Urals and West to the Baltic, then absorbed by the Slavs. We see forest beekeeping throughout the peoples of Russia, Bashkirs, Churashes, Poles, Estonians, Livs, Letts, Lithuanians and Germans. Bee trees would have a cavity carved out of the middle of the living tree (ensuring the tree survived), the cavity may have been charred, but was usually coated in beeswax and then the bees would be placed or herded inside while swarming.

The larger cavity opening would be blocked up with branches or straw, and then a smaller opening left for the bees to navigate in and out of the hive. Bees seemed to prefer cavities within trees whose volume was at least 40 liters but no more than 60 liters.

Depending on the region of the world, there could be between 100 and 500 bee trees within a “bee forest” though not all of the trees would be occupied, based on the available forage for bees. Bee forests often had rules around who and what could go into forests, who owned the forests – was it the king/royal – or the beekeeper who tended it. The beekeepers were often a class of forester, and so could hunt, and harvest from forests that others couldn’t. Today the Polish UNESCO Białowieża Forest has evidence of bee trees – though to my knowledge none of them are currently maintained.

Internal Structures

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is crosscomb.png
comb as built by the bees with only minimal influence (2 wax sheets to make the heart shape – and then the bees did the rest)

Comb is what the bees create within the hive. Comb is made of wax which the bees secrete from their body and build into the hexagonal comb structure.

Comb is used to store food and offspring within the hive. Comb, built by Apis Mellifera is always parallel to gravity or plumb.

Bees that are left to build comb naturally, will build it to best suit the environment of the cavity to ensure that they can more easily maintain constant temperature within the cavity space. When bees build their comb they ensure that a ‘bee space’ is between all combs.

Fun Facts About Hives

  • To harvest from skeps, a common practice would be to take the whole hive and toss it into a body of water, drowning the bees, and then harvesting the wax and honey without bee interference
  • In some beekeeping forests the hives were decorated and had faces
  • Tree beekeeping was generational, likely trees were identified, marked, and 70 years later were made into hives

Common Hive Myths

  • Honeybees, unlike wasps, do not build the hive they live in – I blame Winne the Pooh that people think that.

About Beekeeping Tools

There may have been a time in antiquity where man approached a beehive with nothing but his hands, but that time was so brief that there is no written record, though there are many images of bare faced beekeepers – the thought being that this was artistic license to show the beekeeper.

Smoke

Beekeepers have used smoke, and a variety of tools to facilitate the smoke into the hive since ancient times. Smoke is used to ‘calm’ the bees – whether that is actually what’s happening or not, smoke does seem to make the bees less aggressive, and allows a beekeeper to manipulate the hive with fewer stings. In ancient Greece it was recommended that burning ox-dung was best “for this smoke is particularly well suited to bees as if some affinity existed between it an them” (Columella, “De Re Rustica”)

The earliest way to facilitate smoke into hives was to use torches. As time went on beekeepers used different methods. Open pots or incense burners were used, and an assistant would blow the smoke into the hive – risking the bees with too much smoke, images from Egyptian tombs illustrate this.

A tool for smoking hives was quickly developed to better direct the smoke into the hive. Smoker pots, as they were called, often had a handle or two, a way to feed the fire, and a hole or holes along the sides for the smoke to come out from. In the Mediterranean these pots were often of clay and were apparently common in antiquity (Harissis “Beekeeping in Prehistoric Greece”).

Skin Protection

Historical beekeepers have been advised to coat their skin in various ointments and herbs – specifically the wild mallow mixed with olive oil. Some early images suggest the wearing of a veil or fine cloth over the face.

Most medieval illustrations don’t have a ‘cloth’ over the face, but the beekeeper has some kind of head covering, which could be extended as a veil. In later medieval periods, hoods with wire or reed faces were used while beekeeping.

Often there were rules that the beekeeper should follow so as not to anger the bees when they went out to work the hive. Columella suggests to beekeepers that are tending the hive that “the day before he has abstained from sexual relations and does not approach them when drunk and only after washing himself, and that he abstain from all edibles which have a strong flavor, such as pickled fish and all the liquids which accompany them, and also fi’om the acrimonious stench of garlic and onions and all other similar things” ( Columella “De Re Rustica”)

Hive specific tools

Tree Beekeeping Tools

Zeidlerei (German Beekeepers) from Adam Gottlob Schirach’s “forest beekeeping” 1774

In Poland beekeepers called ‘Bashkir’ use the ‘leziwo’, essentially a bar used as a seat, and lots of rope (15 meters) made of leather, linen or other fiber. In Germany the “Zeidlerei” used ladders or their own seat process, along with pipes – to smoke the bees and their own style of ax called a “Imkerbeil” (Crane “Archeology of Beekeeping”)

Sometimes tree beekeepers had wedges in the trees that they could use to walk up the tree. To make all the pieces of the hive, carving axes, hand forged adze, round scorps and heavy duty chisels are used. Often the handles were decorated with geometric designs.

A video of a beekeeper tending their trees in Poland

Skep tools

Woodcut engraving of a beekeeper
and their skeps from
Sebastian Munster’s Cosmographia

Skeps usually made from rushes or reeds into baskets, had their own tools that were needed for their construction and the harvesting of bees from their hives. Beespoke.info suggests a number of materials to make the skeps themselves, but essentially it is the rope that winds around, and the binding to hold them together, in cooler climates, they may have additional coatings of mud, clay or cob. A round tool is used to measure the width of the rope – often a piece of horn – to keep the rope the same width as it is worked into the skep shape, and then a bodkin or spike to pierce the rope for binding the skep together. A tool that is handy may be a form to weave around, but it’s possible that the medieval beekeeper had no need for uniform shape.

More Fun Facts About Bees

  • The church was the biggest buyer of beeswax – when the reformation happened the value of wax fell as worship services became simpler
  • Most medieval beekeeping was small scale – a few hives as part of the rest of a farm – but some were professional beekeepers, with more than 100 hives
  • Astius, bishop of Dyrrachion (now Albania) was tortured by being covered with honey and stung by bees because he failed to worship Dionysis (his feast day is July 4)
  • The Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers is one of the oldest surviving trade associations in the City of London. It was established before 1330. 

More Common Bee Myths

  • If a beekeeper dies, and his hives have not been told, the bees will leave their hives. Bees need to be told of all major life events on a farm or estate.
  • Ancient Greek “bee-oracles” who lived under the cliffs of Mount Parnassos were called “Melissai” and consumed fresh or new honey to bring on their Oracular madness
  • Apparently, the messenger who told Washington of the approach of Cornwallis during the American Revolution, was a beekeeper. She riled her bees and set them upon the approaching redcoats, who were intent on her capture. George Washington remarked later, “Neither you nor your bees shall be forgotten when our country is at peace again.  It was the cackling geese that saved Rome, but it was the bees that saved America.” (Bee Journal)

About Harvesting

Apis Mellifera produce:

  • Honey, which is something the bees create from nectar, and is used primarily as a sweetener in food, though a common use is medicinal. Egyptians especially like it as it’s mentioned in over 900 remedies. It’s been used in sacrifices and as a measure of wealth.
  • Wax, which is a substance that bees secrete from their bodies, in antiquity was primarily used for candles, lost wax casting, string strengthening for sewing and archery, as well as lots of other small uses.
  • Propolis, is a mix of bee saliva, beeswax, and tree sap or pollen. It’s a sticky resinous material that the bees use to help insulate their hives.
  • Pollen, what bee collect from flowers, and then store in comb as part of their natural diet .
  • Royal Jelly, what the bees feed all larva for a period of time, though it’s thought that a larva that is fed exclusively royal jelly will develop into a queen bee.

Honey

Honeycomb from a hive

In the beginning, in a time before refined sugar, other things were used to sweeten foods. Honey was the easiest and most desirable way to make food sweeter. There are multiple recipes for food and drink found with honey as an ingredient. Take mead, a honey based fermented beverage, which can be documented back to the Rigveda (1700-1100 BC).  Honey was also used medicinally both topically and internally.

Wax uses

Beeswax was used for jewelry and sculpture casting, hardening leather, cosmetics, candles, and the Coptic Egyptians used it for their encaustic mummy portrait paintings. Beeswax candles were considered superior to tallow candles as they were smokeless and provided a steady burning flame. Regions of the world also prized beeswax candles as they could be made to be almost white, if the wax was harvested early enough and not mixed with older dirtier wax. Wax was also used to strengthen thread, as a polish, and as a finish on wood.

Other Products

Pollen, royal jelly and propolis were not common commodities from bees in ancient and medieval times. It was more efficient for man to gather pollen directly from its source than trying to collect it from bees. Royal jelly may have been completely inaccessible by the ancient or medieval beekeeper as it’s only collected from a pre-hatched queen larva cell. Propolis is a little easier to extract from the hive, as the bees use it to seal up openings in the hive – apparently ancient Egyptians used it in their embalming practices.

Beekeeping rules

There is evidence in antiquity that beekeeping was a commercial industry, with hundreds of hives stacked in a single location, that could be moved with the crops, and records of gallons of honey presented at feasts. Writings show that there were ancient laws about hive placement.  In Athens 593 BC, Solon passed a law that stated “He who sets up hives of bees must put them 300 feet away from those already installed by another” and hives were taken as condemned property from an Athenian who committed sacrilege in 415 BC (Crane, World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting). In Ireland there’s 20 pages of the Brehon laws called ‘An Bechbretha’, meaning Bee-Judgements, the laws covers swarms, hives, honey production, rights to swarms, and who gets honey from a hive.

Fun Facts About Bee Products

  • Ancient Egyptians used honey medicinally because it was antiseptic
  • Alexander the Great was transported from where he died at Babylon to his home in Macedon in a sarcophagus filled with honey (Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping).
  • There are some writings that Apitherapy (the practice of using bee stings as medicine) in ancient and medieval times to cure ailments like gout.
  • There was a honey that was harvested that was called Mad Honey (from a type of rhododendron flower), which was used as a a cure for epilepsy when consumed in moderation or as poison for their enemies (Harissis and Marvrofridis, “Mad Honey” Poisoning).  The use of Mad Honey is one of the first instances of biological warfare. It was left on the side of the road for invading armies whom, after consuming it, were easier to slay as they lost the ability to fight (Harissis and Marvrofridis, “Mad Honey” Poisoning).

Common Bee Product Myths

  • In Egyptian mythology, bees are the tears of the Sun God Ra, as they landed in the desert sand
  • In Greek mythology, Aristaeus the god of bee-keeping accidentally caused the death of Eurydice, who stepped on a snake while fleeing him, her nymph sisters punished him by killing his bees. Proteus advised him to honor the memory of Eurydice by sacrificing oxen. Upon doing so, he let them rot and from their corpses rose bees to fill his empty hives.

About Me

Seven years ago, I decided to camp with my friends at June Fair – the demo event in Dragon’s Laire, An Tir. I’d been to June Fair a few times before, but just for Saturday, and I hadn’t camped it. In 2014 I was single and thought that camping with my friends and their group of friends at this medieval event would be fun. Little did I know that they wanted to keep me. I was promptly adopted into the group and my Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) journey began. That year I went to An Tir / West War, Honey War, Autumn War, and Yule. I was hooked. By the following June Fair I was in a period tent, I’d bought my first fur, and was well on my way to a wardrobe that rivaled my modern closet.

While I was starting my SCA journey, I was also starting to be a beekeeper. I’d actually gotten my Apprenticeship beekeeping training the year before and was learning all I could about beekeeping. Because I was a Greek SCA persona and I was doing modern beekeeping, I discovered that the Greek word for “Honey Bee” was “Melissa” and that became my name. Below are links to classes I did last year about my beekeeping processes.

My Beekeeping 101 class – presented in 2020. The Last 30 min are the Q&A section while I do a hive inspection
My Beekeeping 102 class – presented early in 2021. The last 30 min or so are the Q&A section while I separate honey from comb

Citations

Image Citations

  • “Medieval Bee Image” https://www.medievalists.net/2015/06/medieval-beekeeping/
  • “A Bee Reasting” – Knudson, Kat, Personal photo
  • “A rock painting” https://www.planetbee.org/planet-bee-blog//the-sacred-bee-bees-in-caveman-times
  • “A colony of honeybees without a hive” https://ucanr.edu/blogs/bugsquad/blogfiles/6847.jpg
  • “Tel Rehov Gallery” Mazar, A. (2018). The Iron Age Apiary at Tel Rehov, Israel. In Hatjina, F; Mavrofridis, G; Jones, R. (Eds) Beekeeping in the Mediterranean – From Antiquity to the present. Nea Moudania, 40 – 49pp
  • “Greek Beehive” By George Wheler, Jacques Spon – A journey into Greece, page 412, published in 1682, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27949221
  • “Bottom of a bee skep” https://is.muni.cz/th/mrhe1/SDIPR.pdf
  • “Modern Bee Tree Observation Hive” https://www.nhm.ac.uk/natureplus/blogs/whats-new@start=150.html
  • “A heart for Leila Flaherty Fanner” https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10152106687384924&set=a.10151084269274924&type=3
  • “Gathering Honey, Tomb of Rekhmire.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1479-1425 BC.
  • “Smoking Pot” https://www.evacranetrust.org/uploads/document/2949b8a5ef604548975b4b0eb7d9e738cd654435.pdf
  • “Zeidlerie” https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:Waldzeidlerei.png#/media/Datei:Waldzeidlerei.png
  • “Wood cut” https://beelixir.fr/blogs/mad-blog/honey-through-time
  • “Honey Comb from a hive” – Knudson, Kat, Personal photo

11 Replies to “Beekeeping through the Ages”

  1. I am at once fascinated and terrified of bees. There is so much about bees that I learned from your Exhibit, and I am now intrigued by the very idea of Bee trees. I admit that much of my knowledge of beehives was also formed by Winnie the Pooh.

    I recognized the medieval wicker beekeeper’s mask from the videogame Witcher. I am tempted to try to make one just because it is so bizarre-looking and would make a great medieval Halloween costume!
    Good luck with Athenaeum!

    Kerij-e, OP, OL, Visc.

  2. Hi…great presentation. Sorry but I’ve been out of internet contact for a while and was not able to register in time to schedule a 1-on-1 with you. If you would like to meet with me please contact me and we can schedule a time. FYI my Laurel was awarded for Research and Period Beekeeping.

  3. Great work! I loved all of the bee facts and myths. A lot of really interesting stuff here that I didn’t know too. I love bees and the work they do (and honey!) but am phobic of flying insects, so I’m glad people like you are super fascinated by them and can do all the practical research etc (I’ll stick to books and exhibits like this, thanks, lol).

  4. What a great read. I’ve watched bee keepers and have great respect for their work.
    I still remember seeing an absolutely massive hive (I was told it was the size of a small car) hanging off a cliff in Kauai. It was stunningly beautiful.
    Signora Aspasia Bevilacqua
    Shire of Hartwood

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