A Honey of a Post

8000-year-old cave painting near Valencia  Spa

Oldest image of honey gathering

Stands the church clock still at three?
Is there honey still for tea?

Joanna here, talking about honey, which I'm fond of. 

The aldenberry bestialry

Medieval bestiary

Humans have been exploiting honeybees for a long, long time. This cave painting on the left, from Valencia, Spain shows someone honey stealing 8000 years ago.
(Is that a tree being robbed, or a cliff face over who knows how great a fall?)

Somebody taking a chance, anyway.

The wandering hunter gatherer would notice some bees innocently engaged in bumbling about on some ancient clover and say to herself (or himself) “By golly, I’d like a spot of honey on my Neolithic bread.”

St gobnait is the patron of bee keepers

St Gobnait is the patron saint of beekeepers

Your bee-seeker would follow the bee across the clearings and through the woods to the hive. Little did the worker bee realize what he’d let the communal homestead in for.

Bees, by the way, are fussy about the tree cavity they’ll live in. About a 12 gallon space (ask at your local fish store) is preferred and between 3 and 15 feet above the ground. Our gymnastic honey-napper seems to be going after one of the high ones.

The intrepid prehistorical type would shinny up the tree or hang down from a ledge with – that looks like a basket or a bag, doesn’t it? – and grab out big gobs of honeycomb and carry them off.

“Ouch, ouch, ouch,” prehistorical type would go, hotfooting home.

Once home they may have eaten it and the comb like candy or might have doled it out bit by on top of the stew or bread.
Or they might have made mead.

I favor mead, myself, the oldest reliable booze. They’ve found the remains of mead of a sort (wild grapes, honey and rice ) in 9000-year-old pottery jars in Northern China. The linguistic root of the word mead, medhu, is Proto-Indo-European. Its lineal descendants are found in ALL the Indo-European languages.That tells you how old mead making is.

Our clever prehistoric forebearers probably found uses for the nifty beeswax, waterproofing baskets or hats, slippering up bowstrings. Cosmetics, too, I’ll bet. 

Gracious words are like honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.
Proverbs 16:24

Clay hives tel rehov

A cylinder hive with bee door
Lide at opposite end

lid at opposite end

In the fullness of time, the honeybee, like the horse, the goat, and the dog, was domesticated. Humans made irresistibly tempting houses to lure them in.

Some of the oldest beehives we’ve found are 3000 years old. These Middle Eastern hives were long clay cylinders made of unbaked clay, straw, and dung, stacked several high. One end, with an entry hole for the bees—bees like a single entry. The other end was a door for the beekeeper to extract the honey.


It may not be crystal clear that these Egyptians are smoking bees and collecting honey



Collect_honey_tube_w Hossam Farag Abou-Shaara

modern cylinder hives

In the same time period tomb portraiture shows us the Egyptians were smoking the bees to quiet them while the honey was gathered. Here on the right they're doing just that.

Surviving examples of these tube hives are laid out in batteries of longitudinal hives. Massive operations of hundreds of thousands of bees.

Interestingly, the three-millennia-old bees found in Tel Rehov, Israel, are most closely related to Turkish bees. Were these early apiaries staffed by carefully imported honey bees?
I’m trying to imagine travelling the ancient world with honey bees.

The Romans kept bees. They left us apiaries built as rows of little caves.


Roman beekeeping on Malta

Their preferred honey was thyme honey, which is admittedly pretty good.

Pliny the Elder called honey the “sweat of the heavens” and the “saliva of the stars.” Had a way with words, Pliny did.


De Natura animalium  Cambrai ca. 1270 Douai  Bibliothèque municipale  ms. 711  fol. 37r

Bee skep and unhappy beekeeper

Medieval beekeeping in Europe departed from this Mediterranean custom of clay cylinders and caves and went for a shape and material that would keep the bee sisterhood warm and dry and comfy. 

Enter the bee skep, a woven conical structure that breathed in warm humid days but also shed water nicely on the rainy days. Think of them as baskets placed open end down. They were in use in Europe for 2000 years, right up to the end of the Nineteenth Century.

A woman’s sewing kit would not have been complete without a piece of beeswax, usually a lump about half the size of a hen’s egg.  The wax was used to weld together the loose ends of threat or to make a needle more slippery.

Our folks in the Regency would have encountered these skeps as a familiar sight in the country.

Cottagers treasure

Telling the bees

There'd be a couple in every cottager’s farmyard. They were part of the smallholder’s economy. A market product as well as a welcome addition to the table.

Beeswax “is become the greatest supply of light in all polite assemblies."  1827

Weaving a bee skep

Weaving a skep


By old tradition, every hive was politely informed of the important events of the family. Births, deaths, marriages. All the news.
Who knows what would happen if this duty was ignored?


Are you a fan of some particular honey?
My favorite is Tupelo, made from the tupelo gum tree. Best. Just the best.

We’ve come a long way from just grabbing whatever happened to be in the tree.


Photocredit AbouShaara amithaimazar