A new study of prehistoric artifacts suggests that the relationship between humans and honeybees may have begun over 9,000 years ago.The findings, published Wednesday in Nature, suggest that humans have been exploiting honeybees almost as long as they’ve been farming.
Today, honeybees are largely domesticated. They are kept in hives, and their honey and wax are harvested by humans. However, this life of servitude hasn’t always been the case for these insects. Recent DNA analysis suggests the honeybee originated in Asia as cavity-nesting bees.
To determine when humans first began employing honeybees, scientists examined prehistoric shards of pottery. They found the chemical ‘fingerprint’ of beeswax on artifacts dating as far back as seventh millennium B.C. across Europe, the Near East and North Africa. The bees appeared to be spread throughout Europe at the time, with a northern limit in Denmark. In Britain, beeswax was present in the south, however not in Ireland or Scotland, indicating another northern boundary.
Neolithic farmers probably procured honey from the early bees, as it would have been rare source of sweetness in their diet, the researchers write. Beeswax may also have been valuable, as it could have been used as a glue, cosmetics or medicinal purposes.
The research offers insights into the symbiotic relationship between humans and honeybees. It also glimpses into the global history of honeybee distribution, providing hints into how the insect has reacted – and could in future react – to changes in temperature and climate.