What can we learn from the history of humans and bees?

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

Rewilding Our Planet Bee Exhibition

Woking Library Foyer, Surrey. Until 16th April 2019

Honey bees have a long evolutionary history evident from fossil records. A worker honey bee fossil, of the Apis henshawi species, was discovered in 30-million-year-old shales from Germany. Also a fossil of our modern honey bee species, Apis mellifera, was collected in East Africa which was about 1.6 million years old. Modern humans, homosapiens, are a recent evolutionary innovation compared to honey bees, arriving some 150,000 years ago in the African savannahs.

The earliest humans were hunter gatherers who hunted bees for their honey. Bees in those times were living in tree cavities, within rock faces and places high up in nature. People still in existence, the Hadza of northern Tanzania, spend 4-5 hours per day bee hunting.

Bee hunting began to be superseded by beekeeping some 10,000 years ago, when people in several cultures started farming and began domesticating plants and animals.Two regions where this transformation in human history occurred are the plains of Mesopotamia and the Nile Delta.

In both places, ancient hive beekeeping has been documented by archaeologists. Both have open habitats where swarms seeking a nest site probably had difficulty finding natural cavities and occupied clay pots and grass baskets of the early farmers. In Egypt there is a stone bas-relief ca. 4400 years old that shows a beekeeper kneeling by a stack of nine cylindrical clay hives.

This is the earliest indication of hive beekeeping and marks the start of managed colonies living in circumstances that differ markedly from the environment in which they evolved and to which they were adapted.


When bees are taken from the wild into domestication it is common to witness a decrease in health and wellbeing. Taken from Tom Seeley’s research in his book, Following the Wild Bees, below is a comparison of the environments in which honey bee colonies live today:


So beekeeping looks different from an evolutionary perspective.

We see that colonies of honey bees lived independently from humans for millions of years and during this time they were shaped by natural selection. They were skilled at surviving and reproducing wherever they lived, in Europe, western Asia or Africa.

We also see that ever since humans started keeping bees in hives, we have been disrupting the exquisite fit that once existed between honey bee colonies and their environments. We've done this in two ways:

1) By moving colonies to geographical locations to which they are not well adapted

2) By managing colonies in ways that disrupt their lives but provide us with honey, beeswax, propolis, pollen, royal jelly and pollination services.

We can’t go back to over 10,000 years ago to pre-domestication. We can only work with what is being shown through science, insights from history and observation. So what is the stepping stone back to the greatest possible health of bees, and consequently human health?

Can tree beeping and log hives help?

Tree Beekeeping is a 1,000 year old practice of keeping bees in slots cut high above the ground into living trees, akin to the natural cavities in trees. The tree hive is designed so that the tree is not harmed and will continue to live for many years.

Leading on from this the log hive, as shown in this exhibition, has been developed from hollowed out trees that would otherwise be wasted. This is a bee-centred approach guided by the biology and nature of the honeybee. This sympathetic, considerate approach to beekeeping enables people to live in harmony with bees and simply enjoy their presence and support their health.


Our work is to support honey bee and human health and we would like to grow what we do in the following ways through an invitation to become involved:


We work with log hives and cork insulated hives that support optimum bee health. We invite as many individuals and organisations to support the distribution of these bee habitats as a crucial role in returning bees to health.


A group experience to explore the dynamics of the hive through Constellation Coaching and how this applies to organisational problem solving. Opportunity to have a Q&A afterwards on the workings of the bees. The bees are a symbol of how to work as the We and not the I, we can learn from this as humans.


The headquarters of our work is in the mountains of Central Portugal.

The land is called Quinta Das Abelhas (Bee Farm) which is a place to learn from nature with particular emphasis on the honey bee. We see the health of bees and all of nature as a mirror to our own human health.


Deborah Richmond

Tel: 07817 480195


Content from the Natural Beekeeping Trust.

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