Beekeeping is pretty hip these days among urbanites (even NPR has rooftop bees). And bees play a vital role in modern agriculture. It turns out, farmers have been fostering a sweet relationship with these honey producers for at least 9,000 years, according to a study in the journal Nature. That's a couple of thousand years earlier than previously thought.
The new date comes to us thanks to traces of beeswax found in bits of pottery recovered from well-dated Neolithic archaeological sites. The oldest potsherd was found at a Neolithic site called Ctalhoyuk in southern Anatolia in modern Turkey, which dates to the seventh millennium B.C. And it means that people established a working relationship with bees very soon after the rise of settled farming in the region.
"The first farmers were actually living with the bees and were exploiting them," says Melanie Roffet-Salque, who coordinated the research and is lead author of the study.
Roffet-Salque works in the organic chemistry unit of the University of Bristol in England, where a team looks primarily at the remains of dairy products at Neolithic sites. In its study of dairy remains, the team has examined thousands of bits of pottery, a very few of which — around 100 out of 6,400 — have the characteristic chemical signature of beeswax, rather than milk.
The pottery fragments come from sites all over Europe, the Near East and North Africa. Because the team knew where each fragment was found and how old it was, it could use the presence of beeswax to map the spread of bees in space and time. As farming practices moved out of the Near East and across Europe and North Africa, so did the use of beeswax.
No fossil bees have been found that date to the past 10,000 years — bees are "ecologically invisible," Roffet-Salque says. "So finding evidence of beeswax is important to trace the use of bees."
The presence of beeswax doesn't mean that ancient farmers were beekeepers, with proper hives. But they were exploiting wax and honey, says Gene Kritsky, a professor and chairman of biology at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati and an expert on ancient beekeeping. "This paper does extend human use of bee products back at least maybe 2,000 years" earlier than previously known, he says.
Today, of course, honeybees and wild bees are involved in pollinating many of the crops we eat — in the U.S. alone, about a third of all crops rely at least in part on bees.
As for Neolithic farmers, it's easy to understand what they were doing with honey: gorging on it, much as modern honey hunters do. But what were they doing with the beeswax? Archaeology provides some clues.
Some of the potsherds, for example, came from very large vessels, like amphorae — giant jugs that were often used to store edibles like cereal and wine in ancient times. And wax was burned in lamps to provide light. There's also evidence that it was mixed with birch bark tar, which is sticky but brittle, to soften the tar and make it more pliable. The resulting glue was then used to repair cracks in pots and to stick spear points to shafts.
Before the Bristol work, the earliest evidence of humans and bees in Europe came from a cave painting in Spain, which shows a honey hunter dangling from ropes and surrounded by bees, stealing honey from a hive.
"The painter actually used a naturally occurring hole in the rock to be the beehive," Kritsky says.
The painting, Roffet-Salque says, is younger than the oldest beeswax in Turkey, but the one country in her survey whose potsherds have not yet yielded evidence of beeswax is Spain. "I am sure that we will [find it] at some point," Roffet-Salque says.
Elsewhere, the absence of evidence is more telling. "We didn't detect beeswax up north, above 57 degrees latitude," she says. That, she says, is important, because it indicates the "ecological limit" of where bees could survive at the time. That they survive there now — and on the NPR roof — is down to human beekeepers taking care of their charges over the winter.
Jeremy Cherfas is a biologist and science journalist based in Rome.