Saturday, May 7, 2016

A Brief History of Honey Bees by Rebecca Anderson

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) foraging in a Five Spot wildflower (Nemophila maculata).

Honey bees (Apis mellifera) have populated our planet for eons.  Fossil evidence of the earliest bee ancestors date to 130 million years ago.  About 80 million years ago, bee fossils started showing characteristics of social structure.  Recent genetic analysis of modern honey bees point to the insects originating in Asia, not Africa as previously thought.  Humans have interacted with bees for millennia.  Rock art from 25,000 years ago depict honeycomb and wild honey bee hives.  Residue of beeswax has been found on artifacts dating back 9000 years.  These artifacts were located in various regions including Europe, the Near East and North Africa.

Throughout most of history, beeswax was the primary product utilized by humans.  It has been used for binding, sealing, waterproofing, embalming, and candle production. Honey should not be overlooked though.  It is one of the most energy dense foods occurring in nature, composed of 80 to 95% sugar.  It also has antiseptic properties and may improve immune function.  Today, the greatest economic impact for honey bees in the United States isn't any product they produce, but a service they provide: pollination.  In 2010, Cornell University estimated honey bees pollinated $19.2 billion worth of crops.  It is estimated that of the food we eat, one out of every three bites is possible because of pollinators including honeybees. 

Honey bees gradually spread from Asia across Europe and Africa, but once human transportation improved, the honey bee was able to move more quickly to distant lands.  The first honey bees were brought to the American colonies in 1622, principally for the production of beeswax.  The Native Americans referred honey bees as "white man's flies" as they would notice swarms arriving months ahead of the migrating pioneers.  Honey bees were documented in Kansas in 1820 and in 1848 were transported by wagon across the Rockies by Mormon settlers.  In 1853, honey bees arrived for the first time in California, being transported by ship along the East Coast then carried across Panama to be sailed north for the final leg of their journey.  Transporting bees was difficult in this era.  When aboard a ship, there were no plants for foraging unless they were brought by humans.  Wagons moved slowly across the land, but honey bees rely on an internal GPS system to return to the hive, so many were lost along the way.  In our modern times, commercial honey bees will travel across great distances on semi trucks from the almond groves of California to the cranberry bogs of Maine and the citrus groves of Florida all in the span of a single year. 

Although travel across great distances may be easier and quicker for honey bees in this day and age, new challenges face the honey bee population in the modern era.  One challenge that gets a lot of attention in the press is the phenomenon called colony collapse disorder.  This refers to situations where bees disappear from the hive without an obvious cause.  This condition has been studied extensively and is believed to be related to multiple factors including the varroa mite, viral and bacterial infections, poorer quality nutrition related to less plant diversity, and chemical exposure.  As gardeners, there are actions we can take to improve the environment for honey bees.  Adding plants to our landscapes and gardens that are preferred by honey bees is a great place to start.  Herbs and sunflowers are easy to grow and are loved by bees.  Exercising care with chemical application (or not using chemicals at all) can also make the world a better place for bees.  The long-term effects of sub-lethal levels of chemicals have yet to be determined for many organisms including honey bees.  Many communities are becoming more accepting of backyard beekeeping, so if you feel especially adventurous and have property that complies with local ordinances, consider learning about keeping your own honey bee hive to support the species even more.  If everyone does a small part, even putting a pot of flowers on a patio, we can help ensure a better world for honey bees.  Our way of life depends on their success.

For more information about the history of honeybees, check out these resources: