The first evidence of honey collection comes from Spain, at least 15,000 years ago. These honey collectors were not beekeepers, but would collect honey from wild hives. It wasn’t until 10,000 years later, in ancient Egypt, that organized beekeeping was first recorded. It is speculated that beekeepers transported their hives up and down the Nile to follow warm weather and blooming flowers. In ancient Egypt, honey was a luxury that was often included with treasures at burial sites. Unearthed graves have revealed this ancient honey, perfectly preserved.
The popularity of beekeeping spread from Egypt to Greece and Rome. The Roman poet, Virgil, even wrote guides to beekeeping. While the joys of honey were widely enjoyed by humans, ancient beekeeping was deadly to bees involved. Before honey could be harvested, entire colonies were killed. This was because the only way to access the golden nectar was to break the hive open; rather than face a swarm of angry bees, beekeepers would suffocate colonies by holding a piece of burning sulfur to the small opening to the hive.
In 1770, the book “A Treatise on the Management of Bees”, was written by Englishman Thomas Wildman. In his book, Wildman provided plans for a beehive that prevented the killing of bees. This hive style is fairly similar to what is popular today. It included a skep with an open top and a woven, removable lid. Wildman also developed hanging frames that provided structure for the bees to deposit honey rather than building a freeform structure. The design further prevented harm to bees by incorporating stacked skeps. This development provided a new space for bees to migrate to after filling one skep. This allowed beekeepers to harvest honey from a filled skep without overly disturbing bees.
In 1851, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, “the Father of American Beekeeping”, improved upon Thomas Wildman’s design. Langstroth made the crucially innovative discovery that providing only one centimeter of “bee space” between the hanging frames would prevent bees from building small bridges of comb and propolis between the structures. This adjustment in space allowed beekeepers to remove frames without ripping any bee-made forms, which kept bees happier and helped beekeepers better monitor their hives for progress and disease. Additional adjustments Langstroth made to hives included replacing woven skeps with wooden boxes.
In 1863, the Frenchman Charles Dadant discovered that using larger boxes could significantly increase honey production. He noticed that after mating, queen bees were reluctant to move up stacked skeps to lay eggs; they preferred to lay eggs in a single box. By providing a larger box, queen bees would lay more eggs, which meant more workers bees. Dadant’s hive design featured a deeper box that gave the queen plenty of room to lay maximum eggs.
Using Bees for Pollination
It wasn’t until 1750 that the role of bees as pollinators was first recorded. At the turn of the 20th century, American beekeepers began using hives as pollinators, rather than solely as honey producers. In 1930s Denmark, the practice of renting out hives to farmers for aid in pollination began. This practice is widely used today, most notably in California, where 50% of US bees are transported each year ensure almond trees are adequately pollinated.
Beekeeping today most popularly involves Dadant-style hives. However, developments and innovations are providing exciting new options. For example, the Flow Hive, developed by Stuart and Cedar Anderson, allows beekeepers to quickly and efficiently harvest honey from a tap attached to the hive without disturbing bees and without the risk of getting stung. Another example of new technology that simplifies beekeeping is the Powerblanket Beeblanket. After it has been harvested, the Beeblanket keeps honey at hive temperatures so that it won’t lose nutrients or burn. The Beeblanket works on both poly and steel buckets/pails and keeps honey at the proper viscosity without creating crystallization due to overheating. If you are looking for options to simplify or innovate your beekeeping, consider adding these products to beekeeping routine.