Honey and beeswax

Honey and beeswax have an important place in history. Honeybees were brought to the Americas in the 1600s.

Honeybees are without a doubt one of the most prevalent insects in modern human culture. We depend on honeybees for honey and for their help in pollinating large fields of crops, which tend to exclude most other pollinators because of their prohibitive shape, size and heavy pesticide exposure.

Due to their ability to live and work together in huge easily contained communities, honeybees can be quickly moved around when needed, while giving a beekeeper the option to quickly tend to their hives at a moment’s notice. This combined with the fact that honeybees are able to forage miles away from their hive makes them important for pollinating a large amount of modern agriculture while still supplying a sweet treat. This relationship is far from one-sided, however.

In most of the world, the honeybee is so imperiled that without help from human beekeepers even the strongest hives would not survive longer than a few years. Unfortunately, many of the reasons that honeybees find themselves in such a dire predicament come from humans as well.

While there are over 20,000 species of other bees worldwide that each excel at their specific tasks, none are tied closer to the evolution of human history as our friend the honeybee.

Recent genetic testing suggests that the honeybee first emerged in Asia, nesting in cracks and crevices they found in trees and rocks. Some time around 300,000 years ago, they found their way into Europe and Africa. It is unclear when early humans began to care for the honeybees that they found, however evidence from ancient Egypt shows that they relied on honeybees extensively for wax and honey.

The Greeks and Romans were also fond of honeybees, and would commonly crash symbols together in the hopes of attracting any nearby swarms to their property. In some ancient myths baby Zeus was even raised by honeybees in a secluded cave must have been nice.

Honeybees were also very important in Medieval Europe. Beeswax was primarily used in the candles of churches and most parishes tended to their own hordes of bees. As Europeans began to explore the New World in the 1600s, they brought their beloved honeybees with them. Since then, honeybees have been a major part of North American culture and economy. The major allure of honeybees is even in their name; whenever bees are mentioned most people think about that sweet, sweet honey.

Honeybees make honey by a relatively simple process, wherein they ingest some nectar and mix it with an enzyme called invertase. This enzyme basically breaks up the sugars in nectar into smaller pieces which allows them to fit much closer together. Honeybees then put this mixture into honeycomb, evaporate some excess water, and viola.

Honeybees aren’t the only bee species to make honey, and in fact some bees native to North America make honey too, bumble bees being an example. Unlike the vast majority of other bees, however, honeybee colonies survive the winter. This forces them to constantly store large amounts of honey in order to have food during the long, cold and flowerless down time.

Due to a variety of stressors including pests and diseases, modern honey beekeeping is a costly game of triage, constantly bracing hives for the next inevitable battle. Studies are also beginning to show that honeybees can actually be detrimental to native bee populations, outcompeting local species for floral resources and other necessities. Because of this, if you are looking into getting into this ancient human hobby, please stick to only a few hives at most.

Brannen Basham and his wife, Jill Jacobs, operate Spriggly’s Beescaping, a business dedicated to the preservation of pollinators. Contact him at brannen.basham@gmail.com.