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Honeybees and Humans—Partners Since the Stone Age

April 11, 2016

Bee Colony Collapse, Honey Bees

Modern agriculture is what is today due to centuries and even millennia of improving and refining techniques and, for some agriculture, domesticating animals from cows, dogs, and even honeybees to a degree. From their roles as pollinators and the products they produce—honey, beeswax—honeybees have gone from largely wild animals to domesticated creatures whom we can respectfully and mutually work with to create food sources, becoming the cornerstone of modern agriculture that the US Department of Agriculture states provides one in every three bites of food Americans eat.

Honeybees and humans have maintained their mutual relationship for thousands of years, which is why researchers and scientists have been working to discover why honeybees have been dying at growing rates for several decades now. With the imperative to save the honeybees in place, a large group of scientists, led by Melanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol, recently published their study in the journal Nature on the ancient relationship between humans and honeybees.

Using 20 years’ worth of research and finding thousands of prehistoric shards of pottery, Roffet-Salque’s group has acquired the oldest evidence of humans using honeybees and possibly some of the origins of that relationship—by looking for minute traces of beeswax on ancient pottery. Even though the research’s objective varied over 20 years (the scientists were sometimes looking for traces of other residues), but the reported beeswax findings still provided plenty of accumulated knowledge for Roffet-Salque’s group to take advantage of.

According to Roffet-Salque’s study, there are no fossils of bees that date within the past 10,000 years, making them “ecologically invisible,” which is why samples of beeswax were chosen to be the foundation of the study. Samples were found from all across the world including parts of Europe and East and North Africa, with these samples or “fingerprints” dating back to the Neolithic Age (the earliest being an 8,000-year-old sample from Turkey). Interestingly, no beeswax samples were found further north than the 57th parallel, which cuts through Scotland and Denmark, suggesting that honeybees couldn’t survive further north than that.

Our ancient ancestors from thousands of years ago began our modern relationship with honeybees by collecting beeswax for gluing together stone arrows and spears and making pots waterproof (since the Stone Age predates metalworking). While beekeeping came later to the honeybee-human symbiotic relationship, it was this beginning that developed into our dependence on honeybees for survival, which is a large part of what fueled Roffet-Salque’s group to understand honeybee origins. With such a significant reliance on an increasingly endangered species, this large group of scientists hopes that conservation efforts will learn something from the crucial information they found and apply it practically to help save the honeybees.

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