Tag Archives: beehabitations

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

Abstracts:

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.

Keywords:

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.