Urban beekeeping may have come to the ultra-hip sections of Brooklyn, but new archeological evidence has revealed maintaining an apiary has a long history stretching back nearly 9,000 years.
According to a study published in the journal Nature, ancient pottery found in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa contains traces of beeswax—signs that bees and humans collaborated for thousands of years in the ancient world.
“We’ve got the earliest evidence for man’s association with the honeybee,” study author Richard Evershed of Bristol University, told BBC News. “Man is collecting the beeswax and the honey and perhaps even domesticating them.”
For the study, researchers looked at over 6,000 pottery artifacts to patch together a map of the honeybee at a time when man had just came out of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. Our way of life was transferring from hunting and gathering to agriculture and tending domesticate herds for food.
The oldest evidence of honeybee domestication dates back nearly 9,000 years, was discovered in what is now Turkey. Evidence a few thousand years sooner was detected across the Eastern Mediterranean and then at locations occupied by early farmers in Central Europe, and the first evidence for the usage of bees in North Africa was also discovered happening around the same time.
No bees in the North
The northerly limit to the keep of apiaries appears to be Denmark, the researchers said, likely due to inhospitable conditions.
“Our study of the use of honey and beeswax seems to show there was a northern limit to where they were living during the Neolithic, with no evidence being found in thousands of pottery shards found in Ireland, Scotland, Norway or Sweden,” said Alan Outram, an archeologist at the University of Exeter.
The study team said prehistoric peoples likely used beeswax as an adhesive in multiple settings, while the probably used honey like we do—as a sweetener.
“The plentiful supply of sugary foods is a very recent phenomenon, but in the past sweet foods were very hard to find and it is clear from our study that the earliest farmers in Europe had a keen interest in exploiting the valuable products of the honeybee,” Outram said.