Bees and beekeeping

The bee

This fossil of a bee in amber was found in Burma and it is thought to be the oldest known bee at 100 million years old. At this stage in it's evolution it has characteristics of both carnivorous wasps and pollen gathering bees, but is thought to be more bee than wasp.

Fossilised bee
Fossilised bee, Melittosphex


This fossil may help us understand when wasps, which were mostly just meat-eating carnivores, turned into bees that could pollinate plants and serve a completely different biological function.


Professor George Poinar

You can read more about this discovery on the BBC site.


Bees and flowers developed together. Honey bees collect nectar for carbohydrate and pollen for protein. This high protein pollen when mixed with honey forms an essential part of food for the bee larva. But the bee also transfers a certain amount of pollen from one plant to another thus fertilizing the plants seed. 

The honey bee's body hairs have developed to be bristle like so that they trap pollen when visiting plants. They then comb their hair with fore legs so that it can be collected in the pollen baskets on the back legs to bring back to the hive.



Honey hunter
Honey hunter rock painting from Spain
But it's not only plants that have found a use for bees. It did not take long for humans to discover the honey and wax that the bees produced.

Initially the honey was gathered by honey hunters, as it still is today in some regions of the world. This rock painting, estimated at approximately 15,000 years old was discovered in the early 1900's in Valencia , Spain. It is one of the earliest records of honey gathering, and shows the honey hunter reaching into the hive, with what appears to be a container for the comb.

Some of the oldest records of beekeeping are from Egypt, where the walls of the temples show cylindrical hives, and sealed pots of honey were found in the grave goods of the Pharaohs.

Through the ages, the methods of maintaining colonies in hives to harvest the honey and wax developed according to what was available, the climate, and the culture. Remnants of this history can be found in the traditional hives of many cultures. The website of Gilles Ratia has photos that show traditional hives.

Modern beekeeping using hives that are more familiar to us can be said to have started in 1851, when the Rev. Llangstroth produced his movable frame hive, thus allowing the manipulation of the bees without destroying the nest. He achieved this by using what we call bee space around the frames, a space too small to fill with comb and too big to stop them sticking them in with propolis. While this fact was well known, it had not been utilised to any commercial extent previously. 

Bees and Beekeeping in Ireland

The legends of Ireland include extensive references to mead, honey and wax. The Death Tales of the Ulster Heros has mention, as part of a trick played by Celtchar. The tale of Deirdre of the Sorrows in the Glenmasan Manuscript has birds coming with three sips of honey from Emhain Macha and Ith declares of Ireland “good is the land wherein ye dwell; plenteous its fruit, its honey, its wheat and its fish” in the Book of the Taking of Ireland.

The Bee Judgements (Bechbretha) from the 7th century are a complex arrangement of laws around the rights and responsibilities of those who had bees on their land, and indicate a developed culture of bee keeping. This is not surprising, as honey was the only sweetener of note, and beeswax would have been of great utility for preserving, waterproofing and sealing. Another use was as a modelling material for use in the 'lost wax' process to produce jewellery and weapons, and possibly use in wax tablets for writing. There are a number of ancient wax specimens in the National Museum in Dublin.

Bee boles in the The Lost Gardens of Heligan
Bee boles in the Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall
In the great monasteries and castles, bees were generally kept in skeps, housed in wall recesses called bee-boles, in honey houses, or in specially built towers. There is a record of a Nicholas de Verdon erecting a bee tower in about 1230 A.D. at Clonmore, Co. Louth. In Enniscorthy there is a record of bees kept in bee boles up to 1934.

The more recent history of beekeeping in Ireland belongs to the Congested District Board, and the introduction of the moveable frame CDB hive. Beekeeping was suggested as a source of income for subsistence farmers along the West and South coast of Ireland, but housing the bees in straw skeps was an inefficient way of proceeding, as many colonies of bees were killed off each year using sulphur to harvest the honey and wax.

From Instructions in Beekeeping for the use of Irish Beekeepers
From Instructions in Beekeeping for the use of Irish Beekeepers (1905)
In 1880 an eventful 'mission' arrived in Ireland with a bee-tent from the British Bee Keeping Association and traveled through the country making people aware of the unexplored potential that existed for honey production. This was the catalyst that triggered the formation of many Irish associations. In 1881 the Irish Beekeepers Association was formed.

The Congested District Board was established in 1891 and made a start in 1893 towards developing beekeeping industry. The CDB Hive was designed in 1894, and the CDB supplied a government grant, a swarm of bees and a hive together with instruction to subsistance farmers in the West, starting in Mayo.

The CDB sponsored a 'bee-tent' to go around the country to demonstrate the new method of keeping bees in a hive specially designed to cope with the rough weather of the West, and to produce the sections of honey that were in much demand in the towns and cities of Ireland and England. They also funded Turlough Butler O'Bryen, as an Inspector and Instructor, to travel to remote areas and introduce people to the advantages of the moveable frame hive.

The CDB in the initial stages took up the responsibility of marketing the honey in order to get the industry established. In 1896 Thomas Lipton of Liptons and Co. guaranteed to buy all the honey that was produced by the Congested Districts Board so that their costs could be covered, and was so pleased with it's quality that he requested further supplies.

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