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

Why all the buzz about bees? AIMA bloggers encourage us to Bee Aware!

Bees – one short name accounts for 16,000 to 20,000 species of hairy flying insects classified into seven families. All live within social communities that depend on strict work routines. They all seek the same food sources – pollen and nectar – and each processes their harvest and preserves it in hives built in the ground, in hollow trees, or in human-designed apiaries.

The bee quest for pollen served plants well for 130 million years because bees helped plants reproduce. Bees and humans have a much shorter but more emotional relationship. Bees need plants for food, as do humans. Bees ensure plant fertilization which ensures that humans will have food crops. Over millennia, humans domesticated one species of bee to satisfy this and many other needs – Apis mellifera (the honeybee).

Humans built hives for their honeybees and clustered these hives (apiaries) around orchards, grape arbors, and other areas of intense flowering-plant cultivation. These hives take many forms, but each houses a colony of honeybees. The hard work of the pollinators filled the hives with honey, and from the hives, humans harvested the most natural and veritably the only sweetener available before the introduction of heavily processed cane sugar – honey. Honey, pollen, and bee venom also had medicinal value, as did beeswax. Beeswax when processed became the binding agent for pigments in encaustic art, a component in the mummification process, the candles that lit cathedrals, and the sealing agent for small containers. Finally, the bees themselves were part of the supply chain on which apiarists depended as they harvested queens to propagate new honeybee colonies.

Museums may hesitate to include hives in public areas because of the added expense and expertise required to maintain them or because of concerns about allergic reactions to bee stings. The hives, however, can launch numerous discussions about the long and complicated history of bee, plant, and human interactions.

The absence of hives can also lead to conversations about native pollinators, the thousands of other bee species often ignored and feared. Sometimes all it takes is a brief prompt – Bee Aware – to engage the public in an exploration of nature and human interaction.

Seasons affect the stories to tell. During flowering seasons, all bees collect pollen from flowers. Watch closely and you will see Apis mellifera as well as other species native to your area including bumble bees and carpenter bees (also in the Apidae family) and sweat bees (the Halictidae family). These all have hairy bodies. Other striped flying insects may look like bees, but if they have hairless bodies, they are not bees. These insects, including paper wasps (Polistinae) or yellow jackets (Vespinae), are predators and they can be aggressive, especially in the fall when they have no responsibilities for their colonies, and food is in short supply. Stay calm, observe them in action, take a picture to identify the species later, and enjoy your nature lesson in a museum.

This series of blogs address topics that museums of all types may find useful in interpreting the bee- human relationship.

Installments include:

Which came first, bees or crops? Why does it matter?
Evolution across the globe resulted in mutually dependent bees and flowering plants, but human intervention to ensure pollination of crops affects natural bee-plant relations.

What can law do for bees? A Touch of History
Old Irish laws, the Bee-Judgements, help readers assess how humans legislated behavior in support of bee work.

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

Did anybody care about, or for, bees in the European Middle Ages? Medieval texts and iconography have much to tell us about beekeeping in Europe, from how hives were constructed to who took care of them, and… for whom.

Poetry of Agriculture? On the Significance of Beekeeping in Slovenia. Beekeeping is one of the oldest traditional activities and an important part of Slovenia’s identity, natural and cultural heritage. It is a kind of a national hobby with historic roots.

How to do bee business despite Covid-19? Some practical and personal experience from Firestone Farm, Dearborn, Michigan

Which hive do bees prefer? Treehives and cultural heritage in Poland
Adaptive use of trees as beehives support an exploration of the relationship of tangible and intangible cultural heritage in Poland.

What do bumblebees do that we overlook? A case-study in Norway
Farmers today rely on other bee species, specifically the bumblebee, to pollinate greenhouse plants, as this museum documentation project in Norway explores.

How do museums support bee preservation?
Learn about a range of efforts supported by AIMA museums that can help sustain bee diversity and spread the word to the general public.

How do bees inspire artists? Bee art from AIMA blogger museums
Explore artistic expressions feature art and imagery inspired by bees in AIMA-member museums.

Submitted by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan

How often do you step out of your “field”?

The relevance – and challenges – of non-field crops for agricultural museums

“Bruising” furze, Courtesy of Ulster Folk & Transport Museum Collections*

Farmers around the world do much more than farming, often taking on stewardship for much of the environment we associate with the countryside and important activities that do not usually “fit” into field agriculture can be a vital part of farming economies. A good example of this is furze (Ulex spp., also known in English as gorse or whins), which played a major role in fodder production and had many other traditional uses.

Les paysans à travers le monde s’occupent souvent autant de l’environnement que de l’agriculture dans le sens strict du terme. L’ajonc (Ulex spp.) en est un bon exemple, ayant servi pour l’approvisionnement en fourrage, entre autres utilisations traditionnelles.

Bauern weltweit betreiben oft viel mehr als reine Landwirtschaft und sind wichtige Partner in Umweltschutzfragen. Der Stechginster (Ulex spp.) liefert ein interessantes Beispiel in Bezug auf die Rolle einer Pflanze als Trockenfutter und einer ganzen Reihe anderer Verwertungen.

furze – Ulex spp. fodder field agriculture environmental stewardship

It takes but a brief glance at the environment to see how very much farmers around the world affect their immediate environment, from mending fences to keeping roads passable, from spreading microbial disease in effluents to campaigning for safe bio-controls in the place of pesticides. The engagement of farmers with crops outside their fields – if and when they are mainly in field agriculture – is often considered incidental and nigh invisible. A good example of this involves the many fodder crops aside from hay, or even such crops as “tree-hay”, that do not fit into the stereotyped schema of what we give our animals to eat when they cannot graze. In Irish testimony, furze (Ulex spp.) was often part of a fodder complex, mixed with straw, hay, bran or boiled turnips to make it still more delectable.

Popular tradition and even law (Kelly 42, 380-1, 395) saw furze land as valuable and the plant can “talk” – if you are there to listen, since its pods make a loud popping noise in warm weather when they expel their ripened seeds. Since it flowers nearly year-round, it gave rise to the popular saying “when kissing’s out of fashion, the gorse is out of bloom”.

O.W. Thomé, 1885, Wikimedia Commons; Wikipedia Creative Commons, “Whin or gorse on Fife coastal trail”

Furze may not be just “one” thing, in some places. Also known in English as whins or gorse, there may be up to seven species that hybridize easily in the British Isles, though they were usually seen as quite distinct in local traditions. The plant had uses in addition to fodder, as especially noted for Ireland: as a dye plant, as a natural harrow, to sweep chimneys, line storage pits, provide bedding for human and litter for animals. Furze ash was used as fertilizer, plant extracts as medicinals and to make soap, as well as being an important cash crop as fuel for bakers, to such an extent that it was considered a major fire hazard when stored in great quantities in towns.

Furze is a fire-climax plant and regenerates strongly when burned, so that some research might indicate the plant self-oriented genetically to be more flammable! It was once a familiar sight in the environment as ditched hedging and in constructing drainage systems and, today, it is often used, as is its cousin, broom (Genista), for land reclamation, because of the nitrogen-fixing capacities and the cover they provide for wildlife.

Nutritionally, furze provides an important protein supplement to livestock, but obviously it was far too prickly to suit the mucosae of horses, cattle, goats and sheep, so it had to be processed to “gentle” it. Once done, the plant was especially valued for putting a sheen onto animals’ coats and its protein content was a special boost to working animals.

Lucas Furze billhook and hand guard and how to make a furze mitten, both p. 76, Courtesy of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society*

Billhooks with leather hand guards or straw “mittens” were used to gather it. It was softened for use as fodder by “bruising” because, unlike broom, it is quite prickly. Agricultural engineers and scientists term this process “promoting bioaccessibility”. Furze was often bruised with a mallet, while in some kind of hard support, such as a furze stone or whinstone. Such stones were often found near homes or stables. In some cases in Irish tradition, the processing was even done inside the house in a furze pit not far from the family fire, so it was also a winter task in a convivial spot. Furze was at times worked with flails with an iron beater or with beetles like those used to pound potatoes. There is even mention, in a case in Scotland, of a circular trough for furze with a rounded stone pulled by a horse. Of course, there is ample attestation to furze or whinny mills, and Mackenzie of Ross-shire in Scotland was producing these for “export” to other parts of the British Isles as early as the 1840s. Mechanized furze “machines” followed upon these early versions and at times were so large that they needed a special building for themselves.

“Bruising” furze; the second method could be done outdoors or indoors, Courtesy of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society*

 Another technique involved using a chopper on furze in a ground-level trough as one would a pestle with a single-bladed or cross-bladed head. In fact, for hand processing, a pounding technique could precede or follow a chopping technique to produce a “mash”. This sort of “food” ferments quickly, but – as today with dark “homemade” hay – animals often especially liked the taste. (N.B. don’t try letting it ferment yourself for a demonstration – it is against EU regulations!) Some testimony speaks of special skills, of the right “trick” to turn the chopper while bringing it down, that accelerated the work and produced a better mash. Lack of information on such tricks may disguise the intricacies of processing furze effectively and this recalls one of the remarks Isabel Grant made about Highland Scotland: when she asked a potential collection contributor about the price he wanted for an implement, he stressed that it was very valuable: it might not take long to make it, but it took a lifetime to learn how to use it (Grant 104).

There may once have been a particular geography of the tools, techniques and types of furze used, but it has escaped us, with the passage of time, so do remember in collecting testimony to enhance your array of implements: if you know someone who knows how to do it, catch them while you can!

Meanwhile, how often do you step out of your familiar “fields” to look at the plants beyond them, once valued for so many reasons? Tell us about it.

Notes and Literature: There is a summary of a fine volume on hay and hay-making in AIMA Newsletter N° 11: “A Place for Hay. Flexibility and Continuity in Hay Meadow Management” in MARTOR The Museum of the Romanian Peasant Anthropology Journal 21/2016, see For the British Isles, discover the delights of everything you ever wanted to know about furze in A.T. Lucas “Furze. A Survey and History of its Uses in Ireland”, the entire issue of Béaloideas, Vol. XXVI, Dublin, 1958-1960. The remark about the value of an implement comes from Isabel Grant Highland Folk Ways, Edinburgh, Birlinn, 1961/1997, and in his Early Irish Farming, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1998, Fergus Kelly details the value of land as seen through the plants that grew on it.

* For kind permission to use the illustrations from Lucas’ issue on furze, special thanks to Rionach uí Ógáin and Cristóir Mac Cárthaigh of Béaloideas, Journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society, and Michelle Ashmore of the National Museums of Norther Ireland Picture Library for facilitating authorization to use the photograph from the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum Collection.

Cozette Griffin-Kremer, Associate Researcher, CRBC Brest,

Marlene Hugoson and Cozette Griffin-Kremer at the Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum in Bucarest, Romania, 2018