What was the last sweet thing you ate? How long ago was it? Earlier today? Yesterday? Maybe last week? If your family is anything like mine, you’ve probably eaten something sweet within the last few days. Throughout much of human history though, it was very rare to eat things that were sweet. In many parts of the world, even fruit was only available at certain times of year. It only ripened in spring and summer. Sugar from sugarcane, like the white and brown sugar you likely have in y our kitchen, was a luxury in much of the world until the last few hundred years.
But, there was one reliable source of sweetness. It was available in many parts of the world, and could be kept for years (assuming no one ate it first!) The only trouble was, you risked getting stung when you tried to go after it.
Have you guessed what it is?
Buzzzzz, buzz…. it’s honey!
There are many species of bees. Not all make honey, and most of those that do don’t make a lot. Some bees live in hives, but others nest underground or in holes they drill in wood. Some live in groups, while others live alone. But the bees we’ll focus on in this podcast are the ones who make lots of our oldest sweetener: honeybees. Honeybees originally evolved in Asia, but spread out to Europe and Africa, where they split into two more subspecies. And eventually, humans would bring these bees to every part of the world where they could survive.
Humans, bees, and honey have a very long relationship. We don’t know exactly when our obsession with the sticky sweet stuff started, but it’s possible we’ve been eating honey since before we even became humans: our closest animal relatives, the great apes, all eat honey! Cave paintings from over 4 thousand years ago in Spain and South Africa show people climbing ladders to reach wild hives.
Many modern hunter-gather tribes eat honey as well. Hunter-gatherers are people who get their food by hunting animals and finding wild berries, nuts, and roots. They often travel many miles per day to find food. One East African tribe, the Hadza, actually team up with wild birds called honeyguides in order to find hives. A honey-hunter will give a special call to get a honeyguide’s attention. The honeyguide will then lead the hunter to a hive. In exchange for the help, the hunter will give the bird a small reward of honeycomb…But not too much. If the bird is full, they won’t want to eat again soon, and they won’t guide the hunter to more hives! These are modern people, but the fact that they seek out honey gives a hint that our prehistoric ancestors, who were also hunter-gatherers, might also have gone after beehives.
When we began settling down on farms and in cities, we found ways to keep up our supply of honey right from the beginning. Archeologists have found beeswax residue on potsherds that are over 9 thousand years old. People only began to farm about 10 thousand years ago! They’ve also found evidence that beeswax was used as glue, for waterproofing, and in cosmetics in ancient times. People made candles, figurines, and writing tablets out of it. As for honey, ancient people not only ate it but used it as a medicine: It can help stop bacteria from growing in wounds and soothe a sore throat.
With so many uses for honey and beeswax, it’s not surprising that people began to domesticate honeybees. Domesticate means to raise an animal or plant in a setting where people can easily get what they need from it. People may have begun managing bees by putting out attractive nesting sites, like hollow logs or empty jars, in the hopes that they’d end up with a convenient supply of honey. But bees have never been tamed in the way that cows or pigs or dogs have. They still go where they want to and find their own food, even if a person owns the hive. And of course, they still sting us if we bother them, which tame, domesticated animals usually don’t do! But people have always thought it was worth it for the sweet honey and useful beeswax they get in return.
We know from written records that many ancient cultures in the Middle East and Greece kept bees, and even revered and respected them. The Hebrews called their promised land “the land of milk and honey.” They managed hives right in the middle of crowded cities!
The ancient Greeks thought honey gave people energy. Greek athletes drank a mix of honey and water before competitions. Greek mythology also had stories of bee-nymphs, or spirits, who could tell the future. These creatures, called the Thriae, looked like women on top, but like bees on the bottom, and had bee wings.
Honey was more than just a treat or medicine for the ancient Egyptians. It was a gift from their sun god, Ra. They believed that when Ra cried, his tears fell to Earth and turned into honeybees. They placed jars of honey in tombs for the dead to eat in the afterlife, which archeologists have found. And guess what? The jars were so well sealed, that the honey inside was still safe to eat after thousands of years underground. (Though I don’t think anyone ate more than a tiny sample!) The Egyptians also used honey bees as a symbol of royalty, and fed honey to sacred animals.
So you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the Egyptians took beekeeping seriously too. Ancient murals show beekeepers checking on hives, using smoke to calm the bees, and sealing honey in jars. They used artificial hives made by stacking clay pipes on top of each other like logs. They would move the hives up and down the Nile on special boats to keep them near blooming flowers, where they could gather nectar. Similar hives are still used today in Egypt by traditional beekeepers. That’s a longstanding tradition!
Bees continued to be important to people beyond ancient times. Before the industrial revolution, when many people lived in rural areas, children would often go out looking for wild beehives and nests. Now, you can just go to a drugstore and buy something sweet, but back then, sugar was still rare and expensive. At least one person even wrote a poem commemorating the childhood hobby of hive-raiding. The end of it goes:
And just as sure as you’re alive
I’ll make a visit to your hive,
And thank you, bumble-bee so bold,
For making honey bright as gold.
Maybe “honey bright as gold” is worth enduring a sting or two! Children in the past seemed to think so.
If you want first-hand evidence though, you could ask a modern beekeeper. Today, people have taken honeybees all over the world. Beekeeping is a hobby for many people, and a business for others. In addition to her fans being known as the “Beyhive”, Beyonce has two hives on her property. Many other celebrities, from Samuel L. Jackson to Martha Stewart share her interest in bees!
On the business side, bees (and not just honeybees) are also important for food crops. They pollinate many plants whose products end up on your table, like almonds, watermelon, and apples. When a bee feeds on a flower, some of the pollen gets stuck to their legs. When it moves to the next flower, some of that pollen falls off on it, which allows a fruit or a nut to grow. Honeybees pollinate a lot of different plants, but so do other bees, such as mason bees, leafcutters, and bumblebees. Not all these plants are food, some are flowers that brighten our gardens, or sit in vases on our tables. Commercial beekeepers actually rent out nests and hives and deliver them to farms when plants are blooming, to ensure a good crop.
Unfortunately, the spread of honeybees has had some unwelcome results for wild bees in areas where humans have brought them. The local, wild bees eat from the same plants as honeybees. Often, they can’t compete with the honeybees and don’t get enough food. When people bring honeybees from far away, those bees can also bring diseases with them that are more dangerous to the local, native bees. The native bees end up struggling to survive.
People have been chasing bees and their honey for ages, but bees do so much more than just sweeten our food. Their honey and wax can be put to many different uses. Much of the food on our plates is possible because bees pollinate those crops.
But even without their usefulness, bees are amazing creatures. Many live in large, complex societies, where different bees have specific jobs to perform. Honeybees have special ways of communicating with each other to show where food is. They can fly up to six miles, at 15 miles per hour, and visit 50 to 100 flowers in one trip. Different species of bees live in an amazing variety of environments–from grasslands to sand dunes, to wetlands and gravel pits. Some drill into wood to make their nests or use mud packed into tiny holes. So next time you see a bee, try not to worry. It doesn’t want to sting you. Try to stay still, keep your distance, and watch it go about its business. See what flowers it visits, and follow it if you can. Maybe you’ll see it fly into its hive or nest. No matter what, you’ll see a creature hard at work for its own survival, all the while making your world a little sweeter and more beautiful.
Brine, Mary Dow (1883) Jingles and Joys for Wee Girls and Boys. Cassell Publishing Company.
Chepulis, Lynne (2008) Healing Honey: A Natural Remedy for Better Health and Wellness. Universal-Publishers
Hanson, Thor (2018) Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees. Basic Books.