In a study that’s been about 20 years in the making, researchers now have evidence that humans started their relationship with honeybees much earlier than previously thought. In fact, we’ve been relying on honeybees, a species that is currently on the decline, for about 8,000 years and counting.
Aside from the honey they obviously produce, honeybees are also a great source of beeswax and serve as pollinators. Today’s humans keep these bees in hives, with the species being mostly domesticated, but back in the Neolithic age, about 8,000 years ago, honeybees were wild animals. Their relationship with humans was gleaned from beeswax residue found in the era’s pottery from different parts of the world, which suggests that humans were using bees for their wax that far back.
According to lead author Melanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol, the study includes analysis of pottery dating as far back as two decades ago. This separate research was mostly led by University of Bristol biogeochemistry professor Richard Evershed. On some occasions, Evershed’s team would look for traces of other residue, such as milk, but they would make it a point at all times to take note of other types residue discovered, beeswax included. They then decided to look at all the beeswax evidence gathered to that point, and tried to analyze these traces gathered through the years.
The Neolithic pottery was found throughout Europe, but also in the Near East and in parts of North Africa. And the oldest evidence of beeswax was found in what used to be Asia Minor, dating back to the seventh millennium BC Other pottery samples had ranged from the seventh to the third millennium BC.
Simon Fraser University professor Mark Winston, who did not take part in the study, commented about how this discovery of a long-lasting human-honeybee relationship may serve as a wakeup call for honeybee conservation. The study, he said, “does demonstrate the close relationship that humans have had with honeybees for many thousands of years and suggests that the current crisis of honeybees is one that we should take very seriously, because it interferes with that close symbiotic relationship.”