So just how long have humans and honeybees had a relationship?
A new study says that humans have been using and relying on the labor of honeybees for more than 8,500 years. Researchers discovered beeswax residue on fragments of ancient cooking pots from archaeological sites across North Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The findings were published in the journal Nature Wednesday.
Beeswax contains complex fats that leave a unique residue on pottery and other archaeological artifacts, according to Scientific American. And they used that residue to determine the earliest known bee-to-human association.
Researchers say that the beeswax residue at these sites, which were once occupied by humans, may give us clues inside the beginnings of bee domestication.
Lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher specializing in archaeological chemistry at the Univeristy of Bristol, Melanie Roffet-Salque, told Christian Science Monitor that humans “have been living with honeybees for a long time and they’ve been exploiting them.”
“The most obvious reason for exploiting the honeybee would be for honey, as this would have been a rare sweetener for prehistoric people. However, beeswax could have been used in its own right for various technological, ritual, cosmetic, and medicinal purposes, for example, to waterproof porous ceramic vessels,” Roffet-Salque said during a press release.
The paper includes the analyses of pottery from two decades of studies, Roffet-Salque said. Most of the years of research were led by Richard Evershed, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol.
The purpose of the research wasn’t always the same over the years. Sometimes other substances, such as milk, were the focus, but all substances were always documented (beeswax included). At some point, they decided to look at all of the accumulated beeswax evidence and draw some insights, The Washington Post reports.
“Sometimes in papers we would report one single evidence for beeswax in a site, which is fine — but then we thought thought it would be fine to collate everything together and just write a paper,” Roffet-Salque said.
The researchers discovered evidence in Neolithic pottery throughout Europe, in a small corner of North Africa and in the Near East. But the oldest evidence came from Anatolia, or Asia Minor; it dates back to the seventh millennium B.C., according to The Post.
This indicated that humans and honeybees have been interacting for a long time, and a professor of apiculture and social insects at Simon Fraser University Mark Winston says that is not too surprising. However, “it 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,” Winston added.
The honeybee has been of concern for years due to widespread die-offs, which the causes scientists are only starting to understand. Though parasites and diseases could be factors in their disappearance, humans could have a huge influence as well with the use of pesticides and destroying bees’ habitats.
Honeybees have a significant impact on modern agriculture and the public has made an effort to preserve the species. Maybe learning that humans have relied on honeybees for so long could provide more motivation to help keep them around.