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The Sweet History of the Honeybee

What do you think of when you hear the word bee? Do images of honey and hives come to mind? Or maybe the buzzing sound they make?  


Two honeybees collecting pollen from apple blossoms.
(Photo via Shutterstock)

There always seems to be some confusion about bees. Not all bees make honey. Not all live in hives. And not all have always lived here in the United States. Will County is home to hundreds of native bee species, such as bumblebees and leafcutter bees, and each one is unique.


The honey bee's long history


Even with all those bee species, there is one that first comes to mind: the honeybee.  

 

A long, long time ago — millions of years ago — there was a bee. No one knows for sure where it came from. Many scientists say Southeast Asia. Over time, this insect, the common ancestor to all bees today, spread across Asia. Then it spread across Africa, and then Europe.

  

In fact, bees from the genus Apis (Latin for “bee”) have been found in European fossils dating back about 34 million years! While this is incredibly old, fossils do not mean that bees first appeared at this time in history. It just means this is the earliest physical example humans have found. This bee was discovered to make honey — a honeybee!  


 

Words to know

Ancestor: An early type of plant or animal form which others have evolved.

Domesticate: To tame an animal to keep it as a pet or for farm produce.

Vessel: A hollow container for holding something.

Voyage: A long journey by sea or in space.


 

As the bees spread across the continents and made them home, they changed behaviors, adapting to their new environments. Over time, these changed groups became species of honeybees. 


Humans across these continents studied these bees, much like they would animals they hunted or fished for. By studying their behavior, humans learned that honey was produced and stored in hives. Not only that, but it made a delicious treat!  


The beginning of beekeeping


And so just more than 10,000 years ago, the keeping of bees for honey production began. Evidence of beekeeping can be found in places like ancient Egypt, China and Greece. Archaeologists, who are scientists who dig for clues about how people lived in the past, found beeswax in pottery from the Middle East and some of the oldest beekeeping vessels in North Africa.  


A traditional skep viewed from underneath with other skeps on a wooden shelf.
A traditional skep viewed from underneath. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Some of the early examples of these vessels include sections of hollowed trees, pottery, wooden boxes and, most popularly, skeps.  Skeps, which are essentially upside-down woven straw baskets, were used to house bees for close to 2,000 years! 

  

In the 1700s, Europeans better understood how individual bees and colonies functioned. This allowed the construction of the movable comb hive so honey could be harvested without destroying the entire colony. A win for the hardworking bees! 


By this time, beekeeping became so popular that the honeybee went on a new voyage — across the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike the bees from thousands of years ago that migrated around the continents on their own, these bees were brought over by humans. Honeybees were some of the first immigrants to arrive in the United States!  


Historic records show that honeybees, specifically Apis mellifera, were shipped from England to the colony of Virginia in early 1622, just two years after the Pilgrims! Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, honeybees spread throughout the East Coast colonies. By 1800, honeybees were widely distributed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River, including Illinois.  


As more and more people moved throughout the United States, they brought honeybees with them. Once again, honeybees adapted to their new environment and can now be found not only across the country, but throughout most of the world.   


The western honeybee, or Apis mellifera, is the most common of the seven to 12 species of honeybees worldwide. It is also one of the two species of domesticated bees, the other being the eastern honeybee found in Asia. 


Humans domesticated the honeybee for honey production and crop pollination. Both jobs are essential to maintaining the diet we are used to. These bees are responsible for pollinating 100 crops across the U.S., including favorite foods like apples, watermelons, almonds, onions and avocados.   


A few years ago, a honeybee fossil discovered in Nevada changed what scientists knew about the genus. This fossil was the extinct honeybee species Apis nearctica. While this is the only fossil of its kind, it proved that the original bee ancestor also migrated to the North American continent. There were no bees alive in the United States when Europeans arrived with their Apis mellifera (western honeybee), but this fossil proved that there were native honeybees millions of years ago.

  

You can see what all the buzz about honeybees is about by viewing this essential species in person at Plum Creek Nature Center’s live beehive. 

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