How Beekeeping Works

By: Dave Roos

The History of Beekeeping

history, beekeeping
Antique illustration of an apiary with skep hives. Nastasic/Getty Images

The first human beekeepers weren't "keepers" at all, but foragers of wild honey. In the Cueva de la Araña (Cave of the Spider) near Valencia, Spain, is a cave painting dating from 9,000 B.C.E. clearly depicting a brave man climbing a tree to stick his hand directly into a beehive [source: Comunitat Valenciana]. The prehistoric artist even sketched a few honeybees buzzing nearby.

Domesticated beekeeping was a common practice throughout the ancient world, starting at least as early as 2500 B.C.E. in Egypt and likely even earlier in China. Depictions of beehives and honeypots, and beekeepers using smoke to calm bees, were found on the walls of the Sun Temple of the Egyptian pharaoh Nyuserre Ini, and intact clay and straw hives from 900 B.C.E. were discovered in archaeological sites in Israel [source: Galway Beekeepers' Association].


Aristotle wrote about beekeeping and bee behavior in his book "Historia Animalium," and the Chinese statesman and philosopher Fan Li explained the benefits of a wooden hive box in his treatise "Golden Rules of Business Success" circa 500 B.C.E. [source: Foundation for Agriculture].

The first domesticated beehives were fashioned from the hollowed-out stumps of trees and fallen logs, which were natural destinations for swarming honeybee colonies. To harvest the honey, the hive would be cleared of bees and destroyed, the comb squeezed to extract the golden goodness.

Around 2,000 years ago, beekeepers began using the first artificial beehives, called skeps [source: Galway Beekeepers' Association]. Skeps look like overturned pots and were made from either baked clay or woven straw. A small hole near the bottom of the skep allowed the bees to come and go, and the comb was laid down inside.

Even though skeps are rarely used today outside of the developing world, the enduring image of the beehive – and of hardworking industry – is still a woven straw skep.

The use of a skep, unfortunately, still required the destruction of the hive, and often the death of the entire colony, to harvest the honey. So, beekeepers began looking for alternative hive designs.

Wooden hive boxes became more common by the 18th century, leading to Francois Huber's moveable hive or "leaf hive," a vertical stack of moveable book-like leaves, each holding its own section of comb. Those containing honey, and not brood, could be removed without disrupting the colony, but Huber's hive design never really caught on [source: Stamp].

Moving into the 19th century, other innovative apiarists, including Thomas Wildman, began experimenting with "bar hives," wooden boxes that are equipped with a row of bars across the top under which the bees build their comb in small hanging sections. Each section could conceivably be removed by lifting up on the bar, but not without some effort. The sections of comb would often get stuck together or to the side of the box, requiring a messy cutting job that destroyed comb and sacrificed honey [source: Borst].

The Langstroth Hive

Then came Lorenzo Langstroth, a minister and avid bee hobbyist from Pennsylvania, who is credited with discovering "bee space" and revolutionizing modern beekeeping.

In the 1850s, Langstroth built a wooden hive based on his observation that bees wouldn't build a comb in a space tighter than 1 centimeter 3/8 of an inch) [source: Oertel]. He invented a type of hanging bar hive with removable frames spaced exactly 1 centimeter apart and 1 centimeter from the box walls. Frames heavy with honey could be easily removed without sticking to or disturbing neighboring frames.

Langstroth hives are still the most popular hives for professional beekeepers and hobbyists, and we'll talk more about the parts of a Langstroth hive in the beekeeping equipment section. But next, let's cover the basics of honeybee biology and colony structure.