Beekeeping History – Evolution of a Backyard Art

Records of beekeeping and honey gathering has been dated back to many civilizations. Some of the earliest evidence of gathering honey was depicted on rock paintings in Spain that have been dated 8000 years old.

The first shift in beekeeping history is from honey gathering to domesticating bees in skeps, hollow logs, wooden boxes, and other hives. Honey collecting evolved from the destruction of the entire hive to simply collecting honey frames and extracting them like we do today. Honey collectors would break into the wild hive and crush and strain the honeycomb along with the larvae and eggs in the hive to collect the honey.

During the 18th and 19th century, we saw huge strides forward in the beekeeping industry and hobby. The shift from keeping destructive skeps and logs to hives with removable frames really revolutionized the way people kept bees prior to this movement. Thomas Wildman around 1768-1770 affixed removeable wooden bars across the top of a straw hive (skep) and could more easily harvest honey without destroying the hive and harming the bees.

In the 19th Century, Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth made the practical use of the scientific
study that showed that bees had very specific spatial preferences on how their comb was spaced. This “bee space”, which is between 5-8mm, was the cornerstone to the design of the Langstroth hive. This hive design was complete with specialized removable frames. In fact, it was such a well thought out design that it has remained largely unchanged. This design allows beekeepers to manage each frame of comb individually, inspect the hive, remove honey and extract without harming the bees. The precisely measured space helps to prevent cross comb and boxes can be easily added or taken away to manage the amount of space the bees need.

The Top Bar hive is another easily managed and great hive design that has revolutionized beekeeping and is perfect for low-budget beekeepers because the hives can be made for little-no expense out of scraps and require less precise measurements. These hives are popular in the United States because they allow for less heavy lifting and a beautiful hive design. This design is also used in Africa and were originally used in Greece and Vietnam as well.

 The art and science of beekeeping continues to be studied and taught as the importance of pollinators becomes more apparent. Learning from beekeepers such as Les Crowder (author of Top Bar Beekeeping) and Tanya Phillips (author of Beginning Beekeeping and owner of Bee Friendly Austin) about the methods of Top Bar Beekeeping has brought to light, for me, the need for beekeepers to share this knowledge with 3rd world countries as a skill that can not only help them with survival but to thrive.

Beekeeping in your backyard is a constant adventure of learning and experimenting if you’ll let it be. This hobby can be rewarding on so many levels. Whether you choose to keep your bees in a Langstroth hive, a top bar, or one of the less used hives like a Warre, the basics of managing bees is constant. Know the bees and you’ll do a great job of managing them despite the container in which you keep them.

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