History as Old as Bees

By Tammera J. Karr, PhD

It is difficult to appreciate in today’s world the value of honey and bees. Honey is a by-product of flower nectar and the upper aerodigestive tract of the honey bee, which is concentrated through a dehydration process inside the beehive. Honey has a very complex chemical composition that varies depending on the botanical source. Honey is as old as history is itself. One of the earliest evidence of honey harvesting is on a rock painting dating back 8000 years that shows a honey seeker robbing a wild bee colony, in Valencia, Spain.[1], [2]

Humans have eaten honey, bathed in it, healed wounds and traded with honey since history was recorded. Archaeologists discovered honeycomb in Egypt buried with the pharaohs, the honey was preserved and still eatable. In Niuserre’s sun temple bee-keepers are depicted blowing smoke into hives as they are removing the honey-combs. After extracting the honey from the comb, it was strained and poured into earthen jars. Images in Old Eygypt tombs show cylindrical hives dating from the 7th century B.C.[3]

The old testament refers to the land of Israel as the “land flowing of milk and honey.” The book of Sirach refers to the honey bee – “The bee is small among flying creatures, but what it produces is the best of sweet things.” [4] Honey is mentioned in the scrolls of the Orient, the Talmud, and Koran. [5] The Romans used honey for treating wounds after battles.[6], [7] Hannibal, fed his army honey and vinegar as they crossed the Alps on elephants. In medieval Europe, bees were highly prized for their honey and wax. Honey was used as food, and to make mead—possibly the world’s oldest fermented beverage. The history of mead dates back 20,000 to 40,000 years and originates on the African continent. In Africa during the dry season, wild bees would nest in tree hollows, and during the wet season, the hollows would fill with water. Water, honey, osmotolerant yeast, time and voila—mead is born.

By the 10th century, the Kings and Queens of England, as well as the Vikings consumed fermented honey wine (Mead). [8], [9] In medieval times, honey was used as medicine to treat burns, cough, indigestion and other ailments. The lady of the manor would combine spices and herbs with mead to improve digestion. Candles made from beeswax burned brighter, longer and cleaner than other wax candles. Bees were often kept at monasteries and manor houses, where they were tended with the highest respect and considered part of the family or community. It was considered rude, to quarrel in front of bees. [10] Honey was often available only to royalty, and with time the tradition of mead was only sustained in the monasteries of Europe.

Most of man’s history has writings and art documenting our love and uses of honey. Which is not surprising, honey is a source of natural sugar, easy on the stomach and if stored correctly it will last almost indefinite. Honey can be easily adapted to use in the kitchen, the internet hosts over 148 million search results for recipes and blogs on honey. [11] Modern research has now traced the story of honey more. Honey and Beeswax leave unique chemical signatures – these signatures have been found on thousands of pottery shards dating back through Neolithic time. The researchers found traces of beeswax on more than 6,400 pottery pieces used by Neolithic farmers. The oldest evidence found dates to 7,000 B.C. in Anatolia or Asia Minor. One Stone Age site in southeastern Turkey called Çayönü Tepesi yielded exceptionally well-preserved beeswax residue.[12]

The tradition of “Telling the Bees’” dates back to the Ancient Celts; it was believed if you didn’t keep the bees in the know about long journeys, passing of a member of the household or birth of a child, the bees would pack up and leave or die. There were even special prayers to say when seeing a bee flying over a field in the middle ages to present in Great Britain. The Orthodox Church has recognized the importance of bees for centuries and has prayers for both bees and beehives.[13]

O God, the Creator of all, who blesses seed and makes it to increase and makes it profitable for our use: Through the intercession of the Forerunner and Baptist John, mercifully hearing our prayers, be pleased to bless and sanctify the bees by Your own deep compassion, that they may abundantly bear fruit for the beauty and adornment of Your temple and Your holy altars, and they may be useful for us, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be honor and glory unto ages of ages.


Celtic mythology held that bees were the link between our world and the spirit world. So if you had any message for a deceased family member or friend, all you had to do was tell the bees, and they would pass it along. Telling the bees was widely observed in England and Europe. Eventually, the tradition made it’s a way across the Atlantic to North America. The typical way to “tell the bees” was for the head of the household, or “goodwife of the house” to go out to the hives, knock gently to get the attention of the bees, and then softly murmur in a doleful tune the solemn news.

Our Dependence on Pollinators

I was deeply saddened to see Bumble Bees placed on the endangered species list recently. [14] Our dependence on bees and the many other pollinators for food is no less in modern times than in the past. Bees help humans survive, 70 of the top 100 crop species that feed 90% of the human population rely on bees for pollination. Without bees, these plants would cease to exist, and with them, animals that depend on those plants become jeopardized also. The loss of bees and fellow pollinators will have a cascading effect that will ripple catastrophically up the food chain. Losing a beehive is much more than losing a supply of honey, it is a bell tolling a final warning for us all.

The modern world’s reliance on man-made chemicals for agriculture has been proven to be devastating to bees and other beneficial bugs. We no longer value the bee as we once did, sitting and chatting with them about members of the family. The act of telling the bees emphasizes this deep connection humans share with the insect and their importance.

Fake Honey in your Tea

Fake honey on market shelves in Australia in 2018 became news. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) testing at a leading international scientific lab that specializes in honey fraud detection found almost half the honey samples selected from supermarket shelves in Australia and New Zealand were “adulterated,” meaning it had been mixed with something other than nectar from bees. Phil McCabe, the president of the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Association (Apimondia), believes the NMR test is the most accurate available and thinks consumers are not getting what they paid for. [15]

In the USA the news of adulterated honey started circulating in 2011. This prompted the FDA to post a statement in 2015: “A growing demand for honey, dwindling production due, in large part, to the collapse of domestic bee colonies, and rising prices have given rise to a practice industry experts call “honey laundering.” What’s labeled as pure honey, in fact, may be a honey blend or honey syrup — honey adulterated with cane sugar or corn syrup — or product that contains antibiotic residue”, the Food and Drug Administration said.[16]

What about the medicinal properties of Honey?

First, a reminder – do not give Raw Honey to children under 12 months – Honey can contain spores of a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum, which can germinate in a baby’s immature digestive system and cause infant botulism, a rare but potentially fatal illness.

So a spoonfull of Honey really does help – and Don’t forget to Thank bees when you see them in your yard or garden for all they do for us.

The Adorable Custom of ‘Telling The Bees’ by Kaushik: https://www.amusingplanet.com/2019/04/the-adorable-custom-of-telling-bees.html?m=1&fbclid=IwAR0k6QtdZZXDqJ82sNqZvQLZuBiTKaNAnBcFoVie3ppdq917AIMMLDTDFOs

Bees Bee Keeping and Honey: http://www.heathmonthoney.com.au/bees/HoneyHistory.htm

Ancient Cave Painting: http://www.mdbee.com/articles/cavepainting.html

[1] http://www.heathmonthoney.com.au/bees/HoneyHistory.htm

[2] Estimates of age place the rock painting depicted above at approximately 15,000 years old. Discovered in the early 1900’s in Valencia , Spain in the Cave of the Spider (Cueve de la Arana) situated on the river Cazunta, the painting speaks of man’s long fascination with honey. Before our ancestors could write, they recorded this honey hunting event in bold red paint.

[3] Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt, February 23, 2008 by beelore: https://beelore.com/2008/02/23/beekeeping-in-ancient-egypt/

[4] Sirach 11:3

[5] https://s3.amazonaws.com/alternativedaily/honey/Honey_natures_miracle.pdf

[6] Traditional and Modern Uses of Natural Honey in Human Diseases: A Review: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3758027/

[7] Avoiding Death Like the Plague: Wound Care inthe Roman Army by Gwendolyn E. Dougherty: https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1014&context=hashtaghistory

[8] Our Ancient Ancestors Probably Loved Honey Too By Marissa Fessenden November 11, 2015: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/relationship-between-humans-and-honeybees-goes-back-9000-years-180957245/

[9] Beer and mead in the Viking period: https://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-viking-age/food/beer-and-mead/

[10] https://www.amusingplanet.com/2019/04/the-adorable-custom-of-telling-bees.html

[11] National Honey Board: https://www.honey.com/recipes

[12] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/relationship-between-humans-and-honeyb

[13] First Prayer for Bees: https://frted.wordpress.com/2013/07/08/the-blessing-of-the-bees/

[14] First U.S. Bumblebee Officially Listed as Endangered: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/03/bumblebees-endangered-extinction-united-states/

[15] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-03/capilano-and-supermarkets-accused-of-selling-fake-honey/10187628

[16] Bee Culture, March 2015: https://www.beeculture.com/catch-the-buzz-illegal-honey-again/

[17] Everything you need to know about honey By Joseph Nordqvist: 14 February 2018,: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/264667.php

[18] Honey Benefits and medicinial Uses: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/264667.php

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