April 2020

How has beekeeping changed over time? An archaeobeekeeper and an archaeological open-air museum in Germany showcase pre- and proto-historic beekeeping methods


Archaeological finds provide proof of beekeeping in man-made places for bees to live in for the first sedentary cultures. Tubular wooden constructions (log hives) and skeps are the typical bee habitations for (pre-)historic beekeepingin Central Europe. Only two really groundbreaking changes can be pointed out that have led to the modern type of beehives which are a very new development in comparison to the ancient practice of beekeeping.

Archäologische Funde belegen die Bienenhaltung in von Menschen hergestellten Bienenbehausungen für die ersten sesshaften Kulturen. Hölzerne Röhren (Klotzbeuten) und Stülper sind die typischen Bienenbehausungen für die (prä) historische Bienenhaltung in Mitteleuropa. Nur zwei wirklich grundlegend neue Veränderungen können bis zu den modernen Magazinbeuten aufgezeigt werden. Letztere stellen eine sehr neue Entwicklung im Gegensatz zum Alter der Bienenhaltung in der Menschheitsgeschichte dar.


Honeybees – Beekeeping – Archaeology – Beehabitations – Central European Pre-/Early history

A summary of beekeeping in prehistory is often reduced to two highlights: a representation of the so-called honey hunting in Mesolithic rock-art and the images of honey harvesting, commercial collection of honey of wild or semi-wild honeybee colonies in living trees) in the Middle Ages Zeidlerei (known inGerman as Zeidlerei. Interestingly, this picture of honey harvesting as the origin of our beekeeping has a strong impact. There are also pictures of manmade beehives and beekeeping from that time, but the honey harvester (Zeidler) is obviously considered so archaic that it remains in memory. Between these two highlights there are approx. 7000-10,000 years and all the archaeological eras that have brought great changes and developments in handicraft and cultural techniques. This could also lead to the conclusion that from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages “bees were kept in the living tree” implying that there was no development from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages and that sedentism had no influence on beekeeping, and instead, that the first development towards modern day beekeeping happened after the Middle Ages. But this is not the case…

The Archaeological Beekeeping Project at the Zeiteninsel – Archaeological Open-Air Museum Marburger Land, Germany (www.zeiteninsel.de) started with one beehive – in a modified modern bee dwelling to show people how bees build the combs and construct their homes. However, the aim of the project from the beginning was to show beekeeping in five different prehistoric eras – Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age and finally the early Germanic Peoples – in Central Europe.

The starting point of the prehistoric display was the Neolithic. Wooden tubes found at a lake dwelling (Arbon Bleiche III on Lake Constance in Switzerland) were interpreted as bee habitations. Based on these wooden tubes, the first “Neolithic beehive” was introduced at the Zeiteninsel-project in 2017. The log hive was reconstructed according to the smaller find from Arbon Bleiche III and was accepted very well by the bees.

Next to be reconstructed was the bee dwelling for the early Germanic peoples. So, in 2018, the first wicker skep was introduced to the project. This is based on a find from the northern German coast dated to the 1st/2nd century CE from Feddersen Wierde, a terp settlement. The reconstruction of this skep started with harvesting the willow branches and working with techniques of basketmaking in order to build the frame of the skep. This frame was covered with a mixture of clay and long hay. There are no remains from the cover of the frame, therefore this is open to experiment and discussion. It is important that the clay can be applied in a very thin layer, so the skep will not become too heavy for handling and the clay will not crack. Until now, it is still an experiment in progress about how to harvest honey and find the right management technique for the hive in the wicker skep. The bees accepted the wicker skep very well, so the hive works! (In this project, the standards of modern beekeeping with regard to animal welfare and legal requirements are guaranteed.)

So today there are three different types of bee habitations at the Zeiteninsel: a wooden tube as a Neolithic bee dwelling, one wicker skep as a Germanic bee home and one modified modern beehive to actually show people more of the life of the bees, for example, for visiting school classes.

There is archaeological evidence of wooden tubes aka log hives nearly throughout all the time periods of central Europe, starting with the Neolithic (as mentioned above). The Bronze Age is a particularly interesting era for the question of the use of bee products. A steady availability of huge amounts of wax was required for the lost wax process. Beekeeping management may well have been implemented during the Bronze Age to ensure the availability of wax. There is evidence of a wooden log hive in a Bronze Age settlement in Berlin Lichterfelde, Germany. During the first centuries CE (early Germanic peoples) there are several archaeological finds of log hives, e.g. in Pinnow, Germany. For the early Middle Ages there is a find in the Venemoor, Germany, and there is evidence of the same types until recent centuries, for example, a log hive dated to 1770 from Spreewald, Gemany. The first evidence of a man-made bee dwelling that is not a wooden tube is the wicker skep of the Feddersen Wierde, Germany (as mentioned above). You can find a written source from a Roman author (Columella,1st century CE) and pictures of wicker skeps from the 8th century CE until the late Middle Ages. Sometime in the middle of the first millennium of the Christian Era is when skeps made of straw must have appeared, but we have no archaeological evidence for exactly when. There are pictures of straw skeps from the Central Middle Ages onwards. And there was beekeeping in straw skeps in Germany until the middle of the 20th century.

As explained in the article before “Which came first, bees or crops? Why does it matter?” by Debra A. Reid, there was a huge development towards beekeeping on a larger scale, having more control over the bees, possibilities to manipulate the hive and of course to centrifuge the harvested honey thanks to inventions in the mid-19th century. This is the origin of the modern bee dwelling nearly all beekeepers all over the world now use: (Mostly) wooden supers with moveable frames.

These are the three different types of central European bee hives: log, skep and modular supers. Log and skep have one central factor in common: these beekeeping methods work with fixed frames, with wax combs that are built by the bees in their free order and these are fixed at the insides of the habitation (top and sides, not the bottom). Only the invention of the movable frames brought a basic change in the handling of beehives.

So what is the reason for development or, let’s say remaining with what is already there? Is it a question of time or are there different influencing factors? There were two major changes in beekeeping methods:

1) the beginning of beekeeping in man-made bee habitations near settlements co-evolving with sedentism and keeping livestock in general

2) there was this huge development within beekeeping techniques in the middle of the 19th century (see above) and there was a completely different area of beekeeping in living trees in forests, but this is more an issue of different natural, agricultural and cultural landscapes and not a time-related development.

Dr. Sonja Guber, Immenzit (www.immenzit.de

Literature and Sources

COLUMELLA: De re rustica

CRANE, E. (1999). The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting. Cardiff, 1999.

DE CAPITANI, A., DESCHLER-ERB, S., LEUZINGER, U., MARTI-GRÄDEL, E., SCHIBLER, J.(2002). Die jungsteinzeitliche Seeufersiedlung Arbon Bleiche 3, Funde. Departement für Erziehung und Kultur des Kantons Thurgau.

GUBER, S. (2018). Prähistorische Bienenhaltung in Mitteleuropa – ein archäoimkerliches Projekt. In: Experimentelle Archäologie in Europa, Jahrbuch 2018. Unteruhldingen, 2018.

GUBER, S. (2019). Prähistorische Bienenhaltung in Mitteleuropa – Rekonstruktion und Betrieb eines Rutenstülpers. In Experimentelle Archäologie in Europa, Jahrbuch 2019. Unteruhldingen, 2019.

LEHMANN, H. (1965). Ein dreitausendjähriger „Klotzstülper“ aus Berlin-Lichterfelde in Berliner Blätter für Vor- und Frühgeschichte. 11, 1965, Berlin.

RUTTNER, F. (1981). Ein Bienenkorb von der Nordseeküste aus prähistorischer Zeit in: Werner HAARNAGEL (ed.): Feddersen Wierde: die Ergebnisse der Ausgrabung der vorgeschichtlichen Wurt Feddersen Wierde bei Bremerhaven in den Jahren 1955 bis 1963. III, Steiner, Wiesbaden.

What can law do for bees? A touch of history


We have evidence for honey-gathering from rock art dating back to the Mesolithic, but there is also information about beekeeping in the context of laws (and literature) in early Ireland – what do you do when a neighbour’s bees invade your property? Worse still, what happens if one stings you? Even worse, what happens when a bee stings a king in the eye and he can no longer reign as unblemished sovereign? Today, our customs and our laws – read pesticides, among other subjects – can deeply affect the existence of honeybees and the other bees so essential to production of agriculture, horticulture and even your flower garden.

Wir haben Hinweise auf das Sammeln von Honig welche bis in das Mesolithikum zurückreichen aber es gibt auch Informationen zum Thema Imkerei im Kontext von Gesetzen (und Literatur) im frühmittelalterlichen Irland – was passiert, wenn die Bienen eines Nachbarn auf das eigene Besitzgrundstück eindringen? Schlimmer: was passiert wenn man von einer Biene gestochen wird? Und sogar noch schwerwiegender: was passiert wenn ein König von einer Biene ins Auge gestochen wird und nicht weiter als makelloser Herrscher weiterregieren kann? Heute beeinflussen unsere Gewohnheiten und Gesetze – Pestizide und andere Dinge – die Existenz der Honigbienen und anderer Bienen so tiefgreifend, dass diese sogar Einfluss auf unsere Landwirtschaft, den Gemüseanbau und sogar unseren Blumengarten entfalten.

Nous avons des preuves de la collecte de miel de l’art rupestre datant du Mésolithique, mais il existe également des informations sur l’apiculture dans le contexte des lois (et de la littérature) en Irlande médiévale – que faites-vous lorsque les abeilles d’un voisin envahissent votre propriété? Pire encore, que se passe-t-il si la petite bête vous pique? Pire encore, que se passe-t-il lorsqu’une abeille pique un roi à l’oeil et qu’il ne peut plus régner en souverain sans tare? Aujourd’hui, nos coutumes et nos lois – voir la question des pesticides, par exemple – peuvent profondément affecter l’existence des abeilles, bourdons et les autres espèces si essentielles à l’agriculture, à l’horticulture et même à votre jardin à fleurs.

bee-keeping – bees – Old Irish law – legal texts – museum practice

People all over the world are concerned about bees of every sort that ensure pollination and produce the honey that has been prized by humans for millennia, attested by the many examples of rock art paintings of honey-gathering, such as the well-known Mesolithic scene from the Cuevas de la Araña near Valencia in Spain (caves). That was long before any written legal documents, but among the earliest laws that have come down to us in Europe are in Old Irish, which had a special treatise on bee-keeping called the “Bee-Judgments” (Bechbretha).i

Mesolithic rock painting of a honey hunter harvesting honey and wax from a bees nest in a tree at Cuevas de la Araña (dated around 8000 to 6000 BCE). By Achillea – Drawn from a painting from the caves of Cueva de la Araña by fr:Utilisateur:Achillea converted to svg by User:Amada44, GPL, Source

Although there is much debate about whether the honeybee in the British Isles is a native or was introduced by its human admirers, there is a tradition in Irish literature that it was brought to the island by a saint, and the 6th-century lady Saint Gobnait was patron of beekeepers. Saints in early traditions are often credited with introducing highly valued objects and practices. It may well be that monasteries practiced bee-keeping on an impressively large scale due to their need for large amounts of beeswax for candle-making.

Stained glass by Harry Clarke (1889-1931) of Saint Gobnait of Ballyvourney, 1914, Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York, in the public domain in the United States (published before 1925). Wikipedia “Beekeeping in Ireland”

In any case, bees are exciting for lawyers. They fly away from you, even trespass on your neighbour’s land, hence the inclusion of bees in laws about good (or not) relations among neighbours. They can also be stolen from you, and bee-rustling figured among the penalties to be paid, which applied to swarms, just as did legal sanctions against making off with cattle, pigs, horses, sheep, goats, chickens and geese. Linguistic analysis of terms in Old Irish relating to bees and bee-keeping indicates that the honeybee was present in Ireland well before the arrival of Christianity. Keeping track of one’s bees was deemed so important that it was not included in the activities forbidden on Sundays.

Old Irish lawyers were sticklers for detail and the bee-keeping laws are unique in containing a mention of the bees themselves as villains, in that they could wander off and indulge in “grazing-trespass” on other peoples’ property, just like a cow thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. This involved bees “stealing” from a neighbour who had an especially fine stand of nectar-bearing flowers and the culprits might have been identified by sprinkling flour on them. This “offense” could seriously reduce a farmer’s honey-production.ii

Since bees and their honey were so highly valued, it is no wonder that a bee sting counted in legal proceedings. If a person was moving, robbing or even watching the hives during swarming, s/he was not compensated for resultant injury. However, if bees sting anyone not interfering with them, the beekeeper is obliged to provide the victim with a meal of honey. An extreme case is also cited: if a bee sting caused the loss of an eye. That was an incident said to have happened to a king, who consequently had to relinquish his kingship because of this blemish. He sued the bee-keeper, and the legal judgment was to cast a lot on all the hives in the apiary. The lot fell on one hive and the king confiscated that. Hence, all the bees in the hive were held to be guilty for the offense of one bee. The human eye-closing reflex is so rapid that a bee sting would be unlikely to penetrate to the cornea, so there are good chances the story is simply a fine tale. Later commentary on the law, however, mentions payment of one hive for blinding and two hives for killing a person by bee sting.iii

Honey was the main sweetening product until sugar-cane was imported to Europe, perhaps in the 12th century, and honey was valuable as a source of carbohydrate energy. It was especially prized in the winter months, and honey figures in literature as well as law, baked into bread, as an ingredient in fine cuisine (honey salmon or rubbed into meat before roasting) and in making mead or combined with malt to make bragget, between mead and beer in strength. Although honey was not considered appropriate for anyone suffering from diarrhea, it was highly recommended in restoring general health and could be demanded from a beekeeper for an invalid, even during the first three years of a hive’s “life”, when it otherwise had immunity to all obligations to neighbhours. As to bees’ legal home, there is some indication that hives were made from hollowed logs and later, wickerwork, with woven straw not coming in before the 17th century.iv

How does the law protect bees in your area? What are your traditions of honey in cuisine and in making beehives? Are bees associated with particular figures in your traditions? Above all, are there beehives in your collections?

Art in the beehive panels at the SEM Slovene Ethnographic Museum, Ljubljana

Illustrations of beehives and all the materials appurtenant to beekeeping, even the human beings, are buzzing in to our files. So, mark this blog in your agenda and send us illustrations from your own collections.

Cozette Griffin-Kremer (FR) and Hanna Ignatowicz (PO), at the Slovene Ethnographic Museum, Photo Kerry-Leigh Burchill


i Among several texts, the only complete copy is in the oldest surviving Irish legal manuscript (H.2.15A pp.20a19-26a7) in D.A. Binchy Corpus Iuris Hibernici pp. 444-57 (vol. II) and the language is dated to the mid-7th century CE. See Thomas Charles-Edwards and Fergus Kelly (eds.) Bechbretha, An Old Irish Law Tract on Bee-keeping, Dublin Insitute for Advanced Studies, 1983, pp. 1, 13.

ii See discussion in Bechbretha p. 40-43, 190.

iii Fergus Kelly Early Irish Farming, Dublin Institute, 1998, pp. 156-157.

iv EIF, 113, 191, 335, 338, 348, 350.

Which came first, bees or crops? Why does it matter?

Flying insects, particularly bees, transfer pollen to flowers to facilitate plant reproduction. The Western or European honeybee (Apis mellifera) may get the most attention because of the honey they produce, but other bees pollinate vegetables, berries, and other fruits on which we all depend. Adding the natural history of bees to the agricultural history of food production underscores the fragile relationships between pollinator, plants, and humans.

Les insectes volants, en particulier les abeilles, transfèrent le pollen aux fleurs pour faciliter la reproduction des plantes. L’abeille à miel occidentale ou européenne (Apis mellifera) attire souvent le plus d’attention en raison du miel qu’elle produit, mais d’autres abeilles pollinisent les légumes, les baies et les autres fruits dont nous dépendons tous. Ajouter l’histoire naturelle des abeilles à l’histoire agricole de la production alimentaire souligne les relations fragiles entre les pollinisateurs, les plantes et les humains. (Google Translation)

Fliegende Insekten, insbesondere Bienen, transportieren Pollen zu Blumen, um Pflanzenreproduktion zu ermöglichen. Die Westliche oder Europäische Honigbiene (Apis mellifera) mag am meisten Aufmerksamkeit genießen aufgrund des Honigs, den sie produzieren, aber auch andere Bienen bestäuben Gemüse, Beeren und andere Früchte von denen wir alle abhängig sind. Das Hinzunehmen der Naturgeschichte der Bienen zur Agrargeschichte der Nahrungsproduktion unterstreicht die fragilen Zusammenhänge zwischen Bestäubern, Pflanzen und Menschen.

bees – pollination – crops – beehive – agriculture – the environment

Flying insects, particularly bees, transfer pollen to flowers to facilitate plant reproduction. The Western or European honeybee (Apis mellifera), native to Europe, Asia, and parts of Africa, often receives the most attention because of the honey that results from their pollen-storage system. Yet other bees bear the burden of pollinating vegetables, berries, and other fruits on which we all depend.

Stereograph of an apiary in the Foothills of San Gabriel (Mission San Gabriel Arcángel), Los Angeles County, California, circa 1878. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Plants and insects developed mutually beneficial relationships over millions of years. The plants depended on insects to reproduce through the transfer of pollen from pollen grain to flower stigma, as the insects ate the plants’ pollen and nectar. Bees, a flying insect, became distinct by gathering and storing pollen to feed themselves and their young. DNA research confirms that bees coexisted with flowering plants from the beginning of flowering plants 130 million years ago. Archaeologists find evidence of bees in fossilized resin (amber).

Baltic Amber with Fossil Inclusions. Size 5,5 cm. April 22, 2014. Wikipedia Commons.

All bee species (about 20,000) evolved along with plants in localized biospheres, but only those classified in the genus Apis are technically honeybees. Millenia before humans moved Apis mellifera around the globe, squash bees, bumble bees, and solitary bees, among many others, pollinated crops, including crops native to the Americas, i.e., squash, pumpkins, cranberries, tomatoes, avocados, and potatoes, to name a few. Native bees pollinate plants in their ecosystem more efficiently than does the popular Apis mellifera. In fact, the imported European or Western honeybee completes with the native species for pollen, and humans give Apis mellifera an advantage through special treatment to ensure honey production. This puts other bees more proficient in plant pollination at a disadvantage.

Stereograph of an apiary at Shaker Village in Canterbury, New Hampshire, circa 1875, with elder Henry Clay Blinn holding a frame. The individual beehives appear to be made of stackable boxes with removable frames in the style patented by Lorenzo L. Langstroth in 1852. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Do museums interpret the complexity of human intervention in the natural process of pollination?

Often interpretation focuses on honeybees, and the artifacts of the beekeeper who worked with them. In North America, colonists imported Avis mellifera to ensure access to honey and to sustain crops imported with the bees. When honeybees swarmed into hollow trees, the beekeepers sometimes cut out the tree and moved the pollinators closer to their gardens, orchards, and clover fields and moved the honey source closer to their kitchen table.

A hollow log-type beehive that likely began as a refuge for a swarm of honeybees in the “garden state” of New Jersey, U.S.A. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Humans intervened further in the lives of pollinators by designing different types of homes for bees. The most lasting example of innovation resulted from close and persistent observation of bee behavior. Lorenzo L. Langstroth’s 1852 U.S. Patent for an improved method of constructing beehives revolutionized beekeeping at the time. Langstroth established the concept others have called “bee space” and his basic removable-frame-in-hive design remains an industry standard.

At least one patent holder took inspiration from bees’ natural homes, but only the form, not the function. An 1869 U.S. Patent confirms that tree-hives captured the imagination of Charles E. Spaulding. He explained that his “honey-boxes of a round form…conform more nearly to the natural depositories of the wild bee” and that they “correspond to hollow limbs, which are sought out by the bees in their natural or wild state.” Spaulding, a cheese-box maker in Theresa, New York, thought in the round anyway (the common form of cheese boxes), but his improved hive suited human need more than that of bees. Security features to reduce the likelihood of theft and exterior artwork advertised his product while appealing to consumers. Bee behavior influenced his innovation little.

C. E. Spaulding, “Bee-Hive,” U.S. Patent 89,896 (May 11, 1869, antedated April 8, 1869). The top half contained the honey-boxes, the bottom half, the hives. The top could be rotated to close the passage between hive and honey. From the Collections of The Henry Ford.

Rarely do museums address the other side of the honeybee story.

Pollinators evolved with other native vegetables and fruits. Intimate relationships between native bees and native varieties developed over time, and native bees do not naturally pollinate invasive species. Neither do honeybees (technically an invasive species in parts of the globe) pollinate native species that they did not evolve in tandem with.

In fact, honeybees undermine the natural relationship of native species because honeybees compete for pollen to produce honey which can undermine the work of less numerous native pollinators in their natural habitat. Humans bear some responsibility for ensuring balance between the bees that exist to pollinate, and those that exist to produce honey. Exploring this reality increases opportunities for history museums to interpret the environment, and agriculture.

In museums that do not interpret agriculture as either their focus or as a topic relevant to their mission, staff can still link their collections to link natural history and the history of domestication. Specifically, advertisements or decorative arts featuring beehives provide a hook to discuss relationships between honeybees, domestication, natural and domesticated plant pollination, and human manipulation of the process. Discussion of foodways in historic houses may naturally lead to the topics of bees and pollination. Those discussions can provoke more thought by distinguishing between food on the table, between imported plants compared to native species, and between imported and native bees. Namely, crops such as grain (wheat, rye, oats) and maize (corn) remained dependent on the wind to move pollen. Humans cultivating these crops did not have to manage hives as market gardeners and truck farmers did (and still do). These comparisons beg for explanation of both natural history and the history of domestication.

Practice your powers of observation by identifying the fruits in this painting by a Mexican artist, and then explore the types of native species that cohabitated with them. Find a still life of foods from your museum’s home (or use your own well-researched foodways program as the basis). Then put the food on a plate in a historic house interpretation that prompts conversations about plant propagation through the natural act of pollination specific to your site (bee-specific about both the local and the imports). That paints the most comprehensive picture of bees and their direct relationships to food supplies historically and today.

Bodegón con frutas (con alacrán y rana) [Still life with fruit (with scorpion and frog)], 1874, by Hermenegildo Bustos (1832-1907), Guanajuato, Mexico.  WikiCommons.

In conclusion, most market-garden and truck-farm crops (i.e., cabbage, green beans, and black-eyed peas); berries (i.e., strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries); and orchard crops (i.e., apples, grapes, pears, peaches, and plums), depend on the mighty pollinator, the native bee, to survive and thrive. Bees also pollinate crops that livestock eat (buckwheat, clover), and crops that produce the fibers we wear (cotton and flax). Bees also pollinate the flowers of matured plants that then yield seeds for the next year’s crop. For these reasons, native species play a significant role worthy of consideration to enrich conversations that the honeybee otherwise dominates.


Goulson, Dave. A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees (2014); for an excerpt see Goulson, “The Beguiling History of Bees,” Scientific American (April 25, 2014),

Horn, Tammy. Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation (2005), 

Langstroth, Lorenzo L. “Improved Mode of Constructing Beehives.” Patent No. 9,300 (October 5, 1852),

_______. Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee: A Bee-Keeper’s Manual (originally published in 1853),

Spaulding, C. E. “Improvement in Bee-Hive.” Patent No. 89,896, May 11, 1869, antedated April 8, 1896.

Debra A. Reid
Curator of Agriculture and the Environment, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan