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The specialist international beekeeping organisation

Bees and people

People's relationship with honey bees goes back into the mists of time with the plundering of nests for their sweet honey treat. This is vividly shown in Mesolithic rock paintings and is underlined by historic accounts of honey hunting techniques in Asia and Africa. The inclusion of bees in sacred texts or as part of creation myths in so many cultures and religions is an indicator of just how long bees have been important to people.

By the Middle Ages people were regularly harvesting honey crops from specially marked tree cavities in the extensive forests of Northern Europe. True beekeeping began when people discovered how to transport nests of honey bees, perhaps contained in logs, clay pots or woven containers, to places of the beekeeper's choosing.  In these hives bees built their combs as if this was a wild nest, with combs fixed to the edges of the hive body. This meant that combs could not be removed without breaking them which often destroyed the whole nest. Nonetheless, many thousands of beekeepers still use these methods both successfully and sustainably. In 17C Greece people used a type of top bar hive that gave them greater control of the bees, but it was not until 1851 that the Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth came to understand the secret of the bee space. He invented a hive where the combs could be removed and replaced at will: this became the foundation of moveable-comb beekeeping which allowed different techniques of colony management.

Worldwide, people have historically exploited several species of bees for the honey they produce. Stingless bees and several of the Asian bee species remain important resources in many countries. The differing biology and behaviour of these species has meant people have developed sophisticated methods of honey hunting or ingenious techniques such as rafter beekeeping.

From the earliest times people have understood that bees provide a cornucopia of delicious, useful and medicinal products.  The best known are honey and beeswax. However, minor hive products are also sought after, while value added items are as important today as ever. Apiculture gives some of the world's poorest people the opportunity to enhance their income from the practical and frequently indigenous skill of beekeeping. However, people need to be sure that the beekeeping techniques they use are sustainable so that these precious pollinators and valuable producers survive to serve and enrich future generations as well as they have served us in the past.


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