The earliest records of humans eating wax and honey date back over 10,000 years. There are Mesolithic cave drawings in Cuevas de la Araña, Spain dated 6,000 - 8,000 years ago that show a human hunter harvesting bees and wax from a bee nest. The Egyptians were practicing a form of beekeeping almost 3,000 years ago. The Spanish imported the first European honeybees into South America in 1538.
With a few thousand years of beekeeping history it’s surprising that, according to author Claire Preston, it wasn’t until 1700 that it was understood that bees gather nectar from flowers which they make the honey with. Prior to 1700 it was thought that the honey was collected ready-made from within the flowers.
Maybe bees didn’t want humans knowing about their secret method to making that delicious substance that humans have been using in homemade remedies and as a sweetener for eons. I’m sure the first child to stick his finger in the honey jar like Winnie The Pooh probably did it right after the first pot of honey in human history was collected.
The perfect thing about honey is that honey is perfect when you get it straight from the bees themselves. You don’t need to add anything to it or to process it in any way. You don’t need to cook it but some folks have found resounding success distilling it into mead for the last few thousand years. Many types of liquor such as some Schnapps, gins, vodkas, rums and bourbons have honey in them. It has been the go-to ingredient for liquors over the last couple of hundred years. In China pots have been found from 7,000 years ago that showed the presence of honey, rice and organic compounds associated with the fermentation process. The fermentation of honey in Europe was discovered by studying residual samples found in ceramics from the Bell Beaker Culture (c. 2800–1800 BCE).
The Hispanic-Roman naturalist Columella gave a recipe for mead in De re rustica, about 60 BC.
“Take rainwater kept for several years and mix a sextarius (approximate 1.1 pints) of this water with a [Roman] pound (approximately 12 oz.) of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water then boil spring water.”
Today people still harvest honey with the same methods as previous centuries Now though, they have sting-resistant protective clothing to wear and they’ve refined the fermentation process somewhat as compared to converting Roman pounds to US measurements and not having to let a jug of rainwater and honey sit next to the hearth in your living room or the chimenea in your back yard for 6 weeks. Some cultures of indigenous peoples with thousands of years of honey gathering history still go out and find hives and take the honey and honeycomb away in buckets or pottery. They don’t wear protective gear and face the stings with impunity as they harvest the liquid gold.
The most revered aspect of honey is its health benefits. One of the most accepted beliefs regarding honey is that it helps with allergies. It’s believed that if you purchase and consume honey from your local area that it will alleviate allergies. This is based on the fact that bees in your area use pollen collected from local flowers and trees. It’s believed that the locally collected pollen going into their honey helps your system build up immunity or at least a tolerance to local allergens.
Honey also contains antioxidants and has been used to treat wounds for thousands of years. Many say that honey also aids digestion and soothes sore throats. All of that without being processed in any way, just pure natural honey.
Runnels County and other counties in this area have a large number of dedicated beekeepers. Bees provide a critical benefit to farmers throughout the world. Here in west Texas the work that the bees provide free of charge can add money into the wallets of the farmers, “Bees will travel up to 7 miles. A healthy bee population can increase cotton harvests by up to ¼ to ½ bale per acre. Bees don’t miss flowers, they hit every flower along that 7 mile travel area,” says local beekeeper and Olfen school district FFA teacher Mark Pittman III. “Bees are especially useful to melon and gourd farmers. They help a great deal and can significantly increase the harvest which means more money for the farmers.”
Pittman works with several farmers out in Olfen and Rowena where he has multiple hives on their farms, some of which have 1,000,000 bees in them, “Most of the hives I have contain about 20,000 to 50,000 bees but some are much larger.”
We visited one of the farms and he had 10 hives in one location. Providing the hives and tending to them helps earn him some extra income, “Farmers will typically pay about $100 to $200 per hive in some areas. Here it is cotton and vegetable farmers that benefit the most. In other places it’s almond farmers. Almonds are 100% pollinated by bees because of the shape of the flower. Some almond farmers will pay beekeepers to truck in 1 billion bees per season. They have them for about 6 – 9 weeks. Almond farming is a billion dollar industry and the more bees they have the better their harvest.” The California growers website says that bees are absolutely essential to pollinate the almond crop.
After the almond flowers are pollinated the beekeepers will pick up their hives and move on to other areas of the United States, using those same bees to pollinate over 90 other crops. It’s a win-win for the beekeepers as they get paid for the hives, for the work to put them out there and to establish them while the bees then do all of the work pollinating the flowers. The bees make honey that the beekeeper will bottle and sell. The beekeeper and his buzzing companions then move on to other crops as he continues to get paid and sell his honey across the country.
Pittman, like many, learned beekeeping from a family member, “My grandfather was a beekeeper. I used to help him when I was growing up and we spent hours together. I really enjoyed it. Later on when I graduated and went on with life I joined the army, got out a few years later and went to work in various areas and just got back into beekeeping about 3 years ago.” His services were in demand when he lived in south Texas, “I have a friend that is a master beekeeper down there in south Texas. When I lived down there he would call me when he’d get called to go remove bees from a house or other building. He would get paid a few hundred dollars and he’d pay me a couple of hundred dollars for each place I helped him out.” Much like his grandfather, Pittman shares his beekeeping hobby with his children who accompany him on many of his trips to tend the hives.
Pittman will still do bee removal from time to time but his time is now spent tending to his own hives more and more, “Removing bees is an involved process. To remove a bee colony I use an infrared camera to locate the bees. Bees give off heat and they’re easy to locate with that camera. I remove the paneling or other material to get to the bees. I built a vacuum that I use to gently suck the bees out and it puts them directly into a little cage. Once I have the bees removed I removed the honey and honeycomb. I don’t sell the honey or honeycomb from bees I remove from buildings because I don’t know if the people have sprayed any chemicals in there or if the bees have ingested insulation or some other materials.”
Removing all of that honey and honeycomb can be labor-intensive, “Usually the size of the colony depends on the time of year. In summer there could be 100,000 bees in there. I’ve removed ten 5-gallon buckets of honeycomb at one job. If the bees haven’t been in there long then there won’t be quite that much honeycomb and there will be fewer bees. It can easily take a full day to remove a bee colony and the honeycomb.”
The worker bees have a short lifespan and live only about 35 days where the queen can live for up to 4 years.
Bees are a necessity to any farming operation and many countries throughout the world have felt the downside of not having bees. In some places in China the people have to pollinate the flowers by hand because there are no bees due to pollution, insecticides or a combination of the two. In those places people with paintbrushes pollinate the flowers, a slow and tedious process that creates an added expense to the farmer that is then passed on to the consumer. In the United States insect pollination of plants is estimated at 14.6 billion dollars making it easy to understand the significant cost to farmers by having to rely on humans to do the work of the insects in other places around the world.
Pittman sells his honey, currently it runs about $12 per pound but right now honey is not as plentiful as at other times, “We are technically in a dearth right now. There aren’t any flowers and it makes the bees unhappy with not having any pollen or nectar. They have to search hard for the honey and nectar. Then add in that it’s been cool and raining for a month and they get cabin fever just like anyone else and it adds to their stress so they get angry. We also have to keep the hives clean because a dirty hive affects the bees negatively.”
One a sunny afternoon I accompanied Pittman to tend to one of his locations that contained 10 hives. The bees were aggressive, as Pittman noted, because of being in a dearth, the cold and rainy weather and the fact that he’d not tended their hive since the rains had arrived a couple of weeks earlier. He used a hand-held smoker that he had filled with smoldering pine needles to remove the bees from the hive as he cleaned it out. The clothing Pittman provided protected us although he did suffer a couple of stings when some Nave SEAL bees were able to invade the sleeve of his over-garment and sting him. For Pittman it was just par for the course and as is his way, he brought up the positive side of it, “Bee sting therapy is really good for you. They say that it can alleviate pain, promote healing and help with inflammation in your body.”
Beekeeping may not be for everyone but it is a fact that if it were not for bees famine would be rampant all over the world. They perform a truly critical service for humanity and people like Pittman and other beekeepers help farmers and the economy with the bees that they provide. The health benefits of honey are well documented and if you happen to find a Mesolithic cave drawing of a beekeeper getting buzzed by bees while carrying a honey-pot, you might understand the mindset of modern beekeepers a little better. It’s an ancient and worthy endeavor and even getting stung can have its benefits as long as you aren’t allergic to them.X