The relationship between honeybees and humans has been recorded throughout history, but no one ever knew just how ancient that relationship was. Researchers have recently discovered that humans have been harvesting bee products for 9000 years.
Stone Age rock art and ancient Egyptian iconography that hint that our partnership with honeybees dates back to 2400 B.C.E. Yet recently, researchers studying thousands of pottery fragments discovered that even Neolithic Old World farmers harvested bee products 9000 years ago. These findings were published in Nature, and they suggest that our close association to these creatures dates even further than we had thought, all the way back to the very beginnings of agriculture.
Honeybee populations were able to expand north after the end of the last ice age. Around this same time, Neolithic agriculture spread out of modern day eastern Mediterranean, and into new areas. These farmers cleared up woodlands, bringing in light-demanding herbs and fruit trees. This new introduction of pollinating plants brought honeybees to the farmers. With the introduction of honeybees, came the introduction of honey and beeswax.
Beeswax contains a complex suite of lipids and a composition that stays very constant. Because of this, it acts as a chemical fingerprint on archaeological artifacts. The beeswax residue found on pottery could be a result of cooking with honey or from processing wax combs. The hydrophobic nature of beeswax makes it resistant to degradation. Because of this, it has also been used as a waterproof treatment.
An international team led by Melanie Roffet-Salque and Richard Evershed from the University of Bristol, have examined lipid residue that has been preserved in over 6400 fragments of Neolithic pottery vessels. By doing this, the team was able to map out the association between honeybees and early farmers across Europe, the Near East, and North Africa.
Anatolia has the oldest evidence for beeswax use that dated back to the seventh millennium B.C.E. Beeswax was also detected in Austria, Germany, Poland, France, and Slovenia during the fifth and sixth millennium B.C.E. The team also reports that they have found the first evidence of bee exploitation by Neolithic pastoralists in North Africa. Well-preserved beeswax residue was found on a sherd in Algeria dating back to the fifth millennium B.C.E. Before these finds, the earliest indication of human interaction with bees through beekeeping was found in the sun temple of Neuserre in Abu Ghorab around 2400 B.C.E.
The most evidence for honeybee exploitation has been found in the Balkan Peninsula, including Neolithic sites in Greece and the Aegean Islands, to Romania and Serbia between 5800 B.C.E and 3000 B.C.E. Although the exploitation of these bees was widespread, it had a limit. There has been no evidence of the use of beeswax past the 57th parallel North. This is likely due to the harsh climate of these northern regions.
The relationship between bees and humans has played an integral part in the growth of agriculture and the health of plant cultivation. Not only have bees helped farmers pollinate their plants, they have also helped humans through create useful objects and sweeten food. Bees and humans have had a symbiotic relationship throughout history until recently. It is our job not to let them die out, and return to that symbiotic relationship that was so beneficial. Our society wouldn’t be as sweet without these honeybees.