Bee Culture


Italian honey bee attracted to lavender plant.
(Kathy Keatley Garvey)

I decided to initiate my blog with a post about “Bee Culture,” or more accurately from the perspective of anthropology, the culture of beekeeping, honey bee that is, more specifically, Apis mellifera (honey bearing) or Apis mellifica (honey maker). Why honey bees, you might ask, and the culture of those backyard hobbyists who care for them in order to harvest their many products? I suppose it has to with stages of life and my perennial ethnographic (and philosophic) wanderings and perhaps a little synchronicity. Anyhow as the universe would have it, I was presented with an opportunity to take a class from our local Boulder County Beekeepers’ Association about three weeks ago and all of the mystic signs said, “Walk through this door.” I did and three class sessions later, my mind and soul has been blessed with the mighty deeds of the fascinating honey bee and those dedicated individuals who have spent many years learning the science and art-craft of raising these amazing creatures of the insect world.

Ancient History

Woman gathering honey
Upper Paleolithic ca. 10,000 BCE
Cuevas de la Araña, Bicorp, Spain

Humans and bees go back many years, much to my surprise. According to one of my sources, a rock painting depicting honey gathering was discovered in the Cuevas de la Araña near Bicorp in Valencia, Spain. In fact, this discovery, along with my initiation into beekeeping, has forced me to again reflect upon the type of education I have received over the years. “Why?,” I asked myself, did I not read about a single line of beekeeping in any of my cultural anthropology or archaeology texts in my studies the last forty years? I have incorporated Upper Paleolithic paintings into my lectures from the famous rock shelters and caves of the Lascaux Cave in France and most texts include photographs of the more famous images of early modern humans hunting a variety of animals common to the era, but never a mention of beekeeping. Of course, this early pictograph I have posted to the right represents a simple gathering strategy, but that it appears in Araña Cave along with others dating to the Paleolithic warrants its inclusion or mention in anthropological texts. Ransome (2004) provides a good discussion of this early time and honey gathering strategy with respect to early humans.

From the perspective of cultural anthropology, this rock depiction raises an interesting side note concerning gender interpretations that came to the fore in the late 1970s in regards to the contributions of women to cultural evolution and biological adaptation. For example, in Ransome’ s (2004) book, The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore, the figure reads, “Men gathering honey” (21), whereas Harding (nd) in his treatise, The Appropriate Beehive: An Introduction to Topbar Beekeeping, writes of this figure, “Pictured is a woman on a ladder” (nd:1). Based on my understanding of the role of women as gatherers (men as hunters), I side with Harding in assigning the female gender to this pictograph. Ransome’s book was originally published in 1937. Another book I obtained, The Hive and the Honey Bee (1987), a direct successor to Langstroth’s original publication in 1853, does not assign gender to its figure caption, but does contain the androcentric explanatory language of “Primitive man learned to get honey by robbing the bees’ nests in hollow trees or rock crevices” (1, emphasis mine). A bit further comes the explanation that “Beekeeping proper started when man learned to safeguard the future of the colonies of bees he found in hollow tree trunks or elsewhere…” (1, emphasis mine). My point is not to draw undue attention to this gender detail, but it does underscore how the past has been interpreted through the androcentric lens, the argument initially put forward by female scholars entering the field of anthropology in the early 1970s. For those readers interested in pursuing this subject further, I highly recommend the books, Toward an Anthropology of Women, edited by Rayna R. Reiter (1975), and Woman the Gatherer, edited by Frances Dahlberg (1981), available on the secondary markets.

Written History

Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyph
(bee in center)

It is to the Egyptians that my research indicates credit is due for the first solid evidence of beekeeping and comes from the Temple of the Sun with a hieroglyph series dating to about 2600 BCE (Ransome 26). However, earlier glyphs dating to about 3500 BCE depict the bee in several distinct images. It is clear from these Egyptian writings and those of other ancient cultures including the Sumerian, Babylonian and Vedic scriptures that honey bees were imbued with sacred properties. Not only did the ancient Egyptians use honey as a food and medicinal source but its use for mummification along with beeswax is well documented. The honey bee figures prominently in coins, law codes and sacred rites throughout the ancient world. Interested readers are directed to Ransome (2004) whose publication contains a wealth of information about the history and folklore of the honey bee in ancient times from such cultures as diverse as the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Indians, Chinese, Greeks, Hittites and Hebrews.

Religious Studies

Ephesian Artemis

In terms of religious studies and the anthropology of religion, I discovered some fascinating facts connecting the worship of the Ephesian Artemis and the bee as shown in the figure I have provided. We can see the archaic symbol of fertility shown by the numerous breasts and closer detail would reveal the motif of the sacred bee along the sides of her skirt including the beehive-styled headdress. Artemis was known as the “queen bee”, her castrated servants as “drones.” As a side note, Ransome writes that the word Essene means a King Bee (2004:58), this word signifying a group of officials connected with the worship of Artemis at Ephesus. I couldn’t help but make the connection to the time of Jesus and the presence of a Jewish male group, the Essenes, living a monastic lifestyle near the Dead Sea at Qumran of whom we know through the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Some have put forward the idea that the Teacher of Righteousness mentioned in these documents might have been Jesus. This tidbit of history takes us into the subject of chastity as Ransome informs us that the officials mentioned above at Ephesus were to observe chastity for a year and chastity was a strict requirement for those Essenes we read about in the Dead Sea Scrolls (58). Furthermore notes Ransome, the belief in the chastity of the bee begins to emerge at about this time of the Ephesian Artemis (150 BCE), “a belief which lasted through classical times, through the Middle Ages down to quite modern times, and which, of course, as regards the worker bee, has a foundation in fact” (Ransome 58).

Gold pin
(5th century BCE)

Reading further I also found some interesting connections between bees and lions as can be seen in the accompanying pin jewelry artifacts from the late 5th century BCE depicting sphinxes, lions and bees. Ransome tells us that two of these pin heads were discovered in a grave dating to the 5th century BCE and now reside in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The less elaborate smaller pinhead (shown on the left, with close-up to the below right) is described as depicting a “conventionalized rosebud, with three of the petals turned down, so that they rest on a small globe below. Between them are three lions, and on the bud itself there are three bees, each sucking from a small bud, and between the bees are three tiny sphinxes” (2004:61, emphasis in text). Furthermore, she opines that as these were found in a grave, they were “probably connected with the worship of one of the ‘Great-Mothers,’ if not with that of Artemis” (2004:61).

Pin detail – bee in center
(late 5th century BCE)

Ransome is not able to explain why this connection between lions and bees exists referring to it as a “curious fact” (60) but I’m sure some other enterprising scholar has researched the ancient origins now lost to the modern world. I refer readers to a more comprehensive and excellent blog on this subject written by Andrew Gough.


A white Langstroth hive

I have determined, in writing this book, to give facts, however wonderful, just as they are; confident that in due time they will be universally received, and hoping that the many wonders of the economy of the honey-bee will not only excite a wider interest in its culture, but lead those who observe them to adore the wisdom of Him who gave them such admirable instincts. L. L. Langstroth

Such were the words written by a Congregational pastor born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a gentleman by the name of L.L. Langstroth (1810–1895) who is credited with discovering the bee space (though my research indicates this discovery of the bee space had already been implemented in European hives), which prompted him to create what is now known as the Langstroth hive, a beehive with removable frames. This is probably the hive that most of us are familiar with, an invention that allowed him “complete control of the combs” so that in his words “any or all of them might be removed at pleasure” (Langstroth 14). Langstroth actually credits his advance with honeybees to Francis Huber, a Swiss inventor of the so-called Leaf Hive in 1789. Langstroth’s work reads like a true empiricist adapting his craft to the observations made directly in the field through his manipulations of the movable comb. Inventing frames that were no longer permanently attached to the sides of the hive “led me to invent a method by which the combs were attached to movable frames, so suspended in the hives as to touch neither the top, bottom, nor sides. By this device the combs could be removed at pleasure, without any cutting, and speedily transferred to another hive. After experimenting largely with hives of this construction, I find that they fully answer the ends proposed in their invention” (Langstroth 15).

Langstroth movable frames

The quote that introduces this section says something else about Langstroth, namely, his use of the word “culture” and his observation that the works of nature vis a vis the honeybee point directly to “Him who gave them such admirable instincts.” Thus, as with the arguments of contemporary philosophers and theologians today, nature either affirms the existence of a Creator or else it denies the existence of a Creator (Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker); perhaps to be fair we must acknowledge the middle agnostic category where nature confirms neither position.

Langstroth’s discovery and enthusiastic publications soon gave rise to the major business of “the manufacture and sale of bee keeping equipment” along with a multitude of “ancillary enterprises” as noted by Marty Hardison. “Queen rearing and package bee suppliers came into existence. Beekeeping periodicals and books increased. Beekeeping organizations and honey producing and packaging cooperatives were born. For more than 100 years after the invention of the moveable frame bee hive beekeeping enterprises grew ever larger” (Hardison, n.d. 2).


I have since learned from my classes and reading that the topbar hive is another way to care for honey bees and harvest their products. According to my research, the topbar hive is popular in developing countries where a low-cost alternative to the Langstroth hive stimulated their development and introduction. For example, Marty Hardison writes that Israeli apiculturalist, J. Linder, developed the David hive for use in Senegal, Africa, and English beekeepers, E. J. Tredwell and P. Paterson developed the Kenya hive for use in Kenya, Africa. However, another source claims that this hive was developed under the direction of Canadian bee researcher Dr. Maurice V. Smith. It is certain that the Langstroth hives appears to be the most popular among both hobbyists and commercialists.


About Douglas J. Anderson

Douglas has just accepted a new challenge to become a Peace Corps Virtual Service Pilot Participant (VSPP) in the Philippines to support high school teachers in developing and implementing a revised STEM (Science, technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) curriculum. Along with his wife Ana María, Douglas recently completed nearly three years of Peace Corps service as a Community Health Activist, teaching nutritional science classes, and developing the TiNi (Tierra de Niños, Niñas y Jovenes Para el Buen Vivir) UNESCO Program in the public schools of Cuenca, Ecuador. He holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy and Anthropology and currently teaches online courses for the University of New England Maine (Cultural Anthropology) and the University of the People (Philosophy and English). He also works as an Academic Coach and can be contacted at
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