Faculty of Science - Department of Biology Universiteit Utrecht

Pobox 80056, 3508 TB, Utrecht, The Netherlands. Tel: +31 620026754, Email

Rinus Sommeijer Marinus J. Sommeijer

The history of the bees and beekeeping

The bees (Hymenoptera, superfamily Apoidea) are unique insects because of their essential relation with the flowering plants (Angiosperms). Whereas most groups of Hymenoptera ("wasps" in the broad sense) evolved a carnivorous diet for their offspring, we could consider the group of the bees as a group of wasps that during evolution has obtained the specialization of feeding their young on a plant product: pollen.

Apis worker on Borago flower.
Apis worker on Borago flower.

The "coevolution" of bees and flowering plants is much studied. It is concluded that the flowering plants appeared in the same evolutionary period as the insects that feed on pollen and nectar from flowers.

Pollen trap placed in front of hive exit. Dublin, J. Kerkvliet and M.J. Sommeijer, Palynology workshop, Apimondia, August 2005.

In evolutionary time those groups of bees that store honey in the nest developed during the Cretaceous period and the "true honeybees" (Apini) evolved during the Tertiary. More than 100 million years ago, in the Cretaceous, flowering plants became the dominant type. The pollinating systems of these plants developed mostly in that period. Colony-living insects also appeared during this period.

Costa Rica, Stingless bee Tetragonisca angustula ground nest.

Costa Rica, Stingless bee Tetragonisca angustula ground nest.

The group of bees named the stingless bees (Apinae: Meliponini) is considered the earliest group that split off from solitary ancestor bees. Stingless bees developed highly social behaviour (permanent colonies, typical queen and workers castes, etc.). These bees are restricted in their distribution to tropical regions. The first fossil stingless bee in Eocene amber of the Fushan Coalfield, Liaoning, China is described and figured by Engel & Michener in 2013. It is named Exebotrigona velteni Engel & Michener. This new genus and species is remarkably similar to the present stingless bee species of the New World genus Trigonisca Moure s.l. This species and other recent findings of fossile bees are of great interest for the study of the “coevolution” of bees and flowering plants.

Some time after the Meliponini diverged from the other groups of bees, two other groups of the apid-bees (Apinae) developed: the bumblebees (Bombini) and the “true honeybees” (Apini, Apis spp.). Certain honeybee species and most species of the bumblebees became sucessful in temperate regions.

Honeybees for the production of honey and beeswax

China, honey for sale.
China, honey for sale.

The true honeybees (Apis spp.) have been and still are the most important bees for “honey hunting” and “beekeeping” by man.

Honey hunting, which is the collection of honey from natural nests of colony-living bees, is as old as man himself. It is of interest to note that the bees themselves and their nests remained almost unchanged throughout the development of human societies. Beekeeping starts with nest ownership of natural colonies. Natural nest ownership is a very old tradition in many different cultures.

Among the earliest recordings that we have of domesticated bees, many records come from ancient Egypt. An illustration on the walls of the sun temple of Nyuserre Ini (from the 5th Dynasty, circa 2422 BC) shows beekeepers blowing smoke into hives in order to remove the honeycomb. The first written record of beekeeping—an official list of apiarists–is nearly as old and dates back to 2400 BC. Cylinders filled with honey were found among the grave goods discovered in royal tombs.

In September 2007, it was reported that 30 intact beehives dating back to the mid-10th century and the early ninth century BC were found by archaeologists in the ruins of Rehov, Israel. This ancient King Solomon dynasty town is located in the Jordan Valley, which is a part of the great river valley running from Africa to Turkey. The beehives, made of straw and unbaked clay, were found in orderly rows of 100 hives, demonstrating evidence of an advanced honey-producing beekeeping (“apiculture”) industry over 3000 years ago in the city, thought to have a population of about 2000 Israelite and Canaanite residents at the time. The exceptional preservation of these remains provides unequivocal identification of the clay cylinders as the most ancient beehives yet found. Each ceramic hive was fashioned with two holes. On one end was a small hole that acted as a door for the bees. On the opposite end was a clay lid beekeepers used to access the honey and wax. According to the researchers, this indicates that, “beekeeping already was an elaborate agricultural process in Israel 3,000 years ago.”

Why we need bees

Despite the development of beekeeping all over the world and the importance of the production of honey, beeswax and other bee products, pollination is certainly the most important contribution that bees make to the natural environment and to our own society.
The global decline of bees has lead to a worldwide recognition of the ecological and economic importance of bees. Previously, bees were mainly known by the public for their production of honey and other valuable products. Now they are widely acknowledged as world most important pollinators. The estimates for the global value of pollination by bees reach above 200 billion US dollars. Many new studies of bee biology are now related to the pollination of natural flora and of field- and greenhouse crops. Other bees than the Honeybee, Apis mellifera, are also considered important for this. This resulted in studies of the biodiversity and ecology of solitary bees and Bumble Bees.

Bees are of also of great importance since they are interesting objects for biological study because of their complex behaviour including phenomena such as orientation and communication mechanisms particularly in species that live in social groups (“colonies”).?

Colony living bees

The study of the behavioural ecology of social bees is important for fundamental behavioural research. Most highly social bees (“eusocial bees”, living in permanent colonies), more than 500 species, are tropical. Only less than five eusocial bee species occur originally in temperate regions. The bumblebees form a group of bees with less complex, mostly annual, colonies. Bumblebee colonies are, in general, started by a solitary queen that has overwintered by her own. The geographical distribution of the bumblebees is mainly restricted to temperate zones; and nearly all of the few species that occur in the tropics live at high altitudes.

Particularly the social bees are a major pollinator group, first of the natural flora, but also of cultivated crops. They often occur in large numbers in the field. In temporate zones, overwintering colonies of A. mellifera can supply directly after winter numerous pollinating individuals.


Melipona favosa, large storage pots for honey and pollen in periphery of nest. Bees of this colony are individually marked  for behavioural observation.

Department of Biology of Utrecht University
Dr. Marinus J. Sommeijer


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Last update: 2018-03-06 / m.j.sommeijer@uu.nl