Tag Archives: honeybees

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.

Les textes et l’iconographie du Moyen Âge en Europe recèlent une pléthore d’informations sur l’apiculture, sur les ruches, sur qui s’en occupait et… pour qui.

Honeybees – Beekeeping – Archaeology – Middle Ages – Written Sources – Honey

Honey was highly important in the Middle Ages. Cane sugar was known in Antiquity, but it was rare until the 17th century, so honey was used in food and drinks, as well as in medical treatments. Remember, too, that wax was needed for civil and religious lighting. We have evidence of all this from medieval texts such as agricultural treatises, encyclopaedias, fable-books and even religious texts, as well as the illustrations in them. They show us a great diversity of beehives in medieval times and deep interest in the insects’ lives.

There seem to have been three periods according to the shape and function of beehives. The first has fixed honeycombs – the bees attach their combs to an immobile upper wall and this is the only kind used in the Middle Ages. The second type has movable components added to the upper part of beehives with fixed combs and it is only subsequently that we see hives with movable frames appear. Still, the beehives we see in illustrations have a wealth of shapes and materials that highlight regional diversity and personized craftsmanship, since peasants made their beehives from their own local resources.

Trunk or box beehives

Widely used in Gaul, tree trunk beehives are fairly rare in medieval images, although a few appear in Italian illuminated manuscripts, while their widespread use is attested to in texts from southern France and in Spain. This kind of beehive is the closest to what bees do naturally, when they set up home in hollow trees. Medieval written sources tell us that people often  harvested a wild forest swarm by cutting out part of the tree trunk and bringing it back as a beehive. In that case, the trunk was cut out half-way down to provide a flight entrance.

Of course, there are other cylindrical beehives, always Italian and made of wooden slats or boards side-by-side. On the other hand, although we have much evidence in written sources from Provence, central and southern Italy, Spain and Portugal, of beehives made of a band of cylindrical cork oak off a tree trunk, we have no illustrations of these.

Log beehive (Polish) Barć in the museum (Bialowieża, Poland), Wikipedia Creative Commons “Beehive”, source Przykuta (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Przykuta)

Parallel to trunk beehives, the box beehives so widespread in Greek and Roman Antiquity, seems to exist in nearly all Italian testimony, made of wide wooden boards, although we do not know what kind of wood – conifer, as Columella recommended because they resisted honeycomb moth.* Illustrations of light-coloured beehives might attest to this. Probably derived from a tree trunk laid out on the ground, these parallelepiped hives were always large, seeming to be about a meter long, even 1.5m, and about 1.30m wide. In most of these hives, flight holes were small, but there were many of them and they seem to be made of two movable partitions. Pliny mentioned “the cover should penetrate the hive, if the hive is too large or if the honey harvest is too small, for fear that the bees will be discouraged and not work well, then it can be made smaller, so that they are fooled about how much their work has progressed.

English: Galleria_mellonella ; Français : Galleria_mellonella – Fausse teigne de la cire (honeycomb moth), 21 February 2009, Source: dhobern (https://www.flickr.com/photos/dhobern/3298989266/), Creative Commons, FR Wikipedia ‘Galleria mellonella

Wattlework hives

The beehives we see the most often in medievial illustrations are made of wickerwork woven wattle or split-wood. This kind of basketwork, which was used in Roman times, continued in Gaul and was widespread in the Middle Ages – we see it in illuminated manuscripts in England, northern France, Flanders or in the Rhineland, whereas we hardly find them in more southern manuscripts.

Bees and beehives, Tacuinum sanitatis d’Ibn Butlan, (14th century, Lombardy), Rome, Bibl. Casanatense, ms. 4182, f. 182, public domain, EN Wikipedia “Beekeeping”

We can see several types in these illustrations – some have a ribbed outside of woven wattle over a framework, without any visible coating, so insulation from heat and wet must have been poor. However, this woven surface was more frequently covered with a brownish coating, which matches the written sources indicating the use of cow pats, as in Antiquity, as the most common covering.

All this kind of beehives, usually about 50 cm in height, were woven over a wickerwork frame: a barked branch was split into several bundles for the vertical stays the wattles were woven around, usually with 8 to 12 ribs and sometimes these ran down to the bottom to make short feet, unless the bottom had a loop around it for the flight hole. The often golden colour of the wattlework does not enable us to see if they were made of oak, hazel, osier or clematis, as suggested by the texts.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Beekeepers and the Birdnester, ca. 1568, line drawing, Kupferstichkabinet Berlin, Source: Christian Vöhringer – Pieter Bruegel, 1525/30-1569 Tandem Verlag 2007 (h.f.ullmann imprint) S. 129, public domain, EN Wikipedia “Beekeeping”.

These beehives came in many shapes, some of them like a small dome with a flattened top, others conical with a narrow top like a sugarloaf. It is rarer to see a trunk-shaped hive with a flat top or a bell shape. Most of these hives had a handle formed by the end of the branch under the woven framework, which made it easier to carry and to attach the winter covering of straw.

Several of these hives are illustrated without a flight hole, but most of them have a small opening in the lower part where the basketwork is looser or in the wooden hoop between the sides and the base in the form of a small arch or rectangle. Only conic or bell-shaped baskets have a hole in the lower third in the form of a narrow slit.

Straw hives

These are less frequent than the basketwork hives, and most are found in manuscripts from northern France or Flanders and entirely missing in southern, especially Italian, documents. This is due to the fact that they are connected with cereal-growing, especially rye in more northern areas.

This kind of beehive is mainly made of eight to 10 rows of light-coloured straw twisted into rolls. Depending on the source, this is mainly of well-dried rye straw, the stems of which are far longer than those of other cereal grains, put together in rows and linked up with vertical osier (water willow) ties (occasionally oblique).

Straw hives are usually dome-shaped and fairly small, hardly over some 40 cm. They may be capped by a round or stick-like handle, but most of them have none, in contrast to the wattle hives. They usually have a flight hold at the base, a simple arch in the straw, and more rarely, a rectangular slot in the lower third.

Making traditional beehives called skeps. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 27 June 2004, Creative Commons EN Wikipedia “Beehives”.

Written and ethnographic testimony tells us that these basketwork or straw beehives had a central cross to hold the swarm at the beginning of the comb construction and they could be open at the bottom for work on the colony.

head of his army to put down a rebellion in Genoa (January to May 1507). 5th illumination of the manuscript Le Voyage de Gênes (ca. 1500) by Jean Marot. The motto NON UTITUR ACULEO REX CUI PAREMUR means “the King whom we obey does not use his goad”. NB porcupines were also one of the symbols of Louis XII. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abeille#/media/Fichier:Voyage_G%C3%AAnes_Marot_Louis_XII_2.jpg

This diversity of medieval beehives shows us the privileged relationship of human and bee at all times, even if the Middle Ages especially prized beehive products in the domestic economy. This is confirmed in the 14th and 15th centuries by permission for Royal, religious or secular lordly appointment of a bigre, a specialized forestry expert responsible for capturing, for his lordly masters, wild swarms of bees and putting them into productive beehives.

Perrine Mane, Emerita Director of Studies, CNRS (CRH-EHESS) Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, translated and edited by Cozette Griffin-Kremer

* For honeycomb moth (FR teigne) -> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galleria_mellonella and https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galleria_mellonella

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.