The History of Beekeeping

Early in the history of beekeeping, the evolution of beekeeping mirrored the progression of primitive societies from strictly hunter-gatherers to learning to farm.

Just as they developed techniques and tools to grow their own plant and animal-based foods rather than simply hunting for them, they also learned to keep bees for easy and ready access to honey and wax.

honey bee skep (straw hive)

The Earliest Bee Hives

The earliest man-made hives were probably constructed of clay or mud.

Wall paintings have been found which depict ancient Egyptian beekeepers harvesting honey from pottery hives around 1500 B.C., but such hives were in use much earlier.

Even today, pottery hives are still used in some regions of the world.

Another of the early hives commonly used by beekeepers were simply fallen trees that were either found hollow or were hollowed out.

Wicker basket hives, called skeps, were also among the earliest of man-made hives; their use dates back to at least 5000 B.C.

Often, the size of the skeps were kept very small, encouraging the colonies to swarm and occupy empty skeps.

When small skeps were being used, very often the harvest consisted of simply killing the bees with sulfur smoke or boiling water and removing the combs from the hive.

The honey bee skep is still widely used.

Early Beekeeping Wasn't Easy...

Throughout most of the history of beekeeping, beekeepers were hampered in their ability to manipulate and tend colonies.

Regardless of the type of container used to house the bees, the combs and the container became an integral, interwoven unit.

Combs would be attached to each other and to the interior surface of the hive.

To remove a comb for inspection required cutting it from the hive and from other combs, causing great damage.

Even simply harvesting the honey crop required the partial destruction of the hive.

And needless to say, such damage being wrought upon a hive is not exactly conducive to peaceful relations between the bees and their keeper!

Many Hive Designs Were Tried

Many different hive designs were developed throughout the years.

The goal, elusive for centuries, was a hive design that enabled removing and replacing individual combs without damaging the hive.

Some of these designs were partially successful, but none achieved the elusive goal of being able to remove and replace all of the combs in a hive without damage.

The Answer: Give the Bees Their Space

removeable frame of honey bee comb

A breakthrough occurred in 1851 by a young pastor named Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth.

As many others had done throughout the centuries, Langstroth was attempting to design a hive with completely removable combs.

But one thing separated Langstroth from his predecessors: his hive design worked.

Langstroth had discovered the principal of “bee space.”

He had learned that if the components of a beehive were separated by a space of ¼ to 3/8 of an inch, the bees would not build comb between the components.

So if a frame containing a comb were separated by the correct spacing - no more and no less - from frames on either side, the bees would not bridge the gap with comb.

It Was a Revolutionary Breakthrough

For the first time in the history of beekeeping, beekeepers could remove every single comb from a hive, inspect them, and replace them - all without doing the slightest damage to the hive or harming a single bee.

Langstroth’s hive revolutionized beekeeping.

And though there have been many refinements made to his original hive design, his discovery of the bee space principal is inviolable. All hives designed to have removable combs must conform to this principle.

Honey bees, it seems, need their own personal space, just as we humans do!

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