Saturday, May 19, 2018

Early Beekeeping

Although the Vikings were fond of mead, an alcoholic drink made from honey, there is some dispute about whether they kept bees or whether they imported the honey from which their mead was made.

But whether or not beekeeping was a skill cultivated by the Vikings, human beekeeping activity clearly goes way back in human history.  This article from discusses recent archaeological evidence that the Etruscans were already expert beekeepers back in 500 BCE.  (The more formal report of the find, from the Journal of Archaeological Science, is paywalled, but the abstract is available for paid download here.)

The key to the find are fossilized honeycombs--a particularly rare item to find in a preserved condition.  The honeycombs were preserved after an ancient fire had charred them, and the site was buried in clay soil to allow rebuilding.  The combs were, of course, partly melted but still recognizable.  Bee breads (a mixture of pollen and honeycomb) and remains of dead honeybees were also found at the site.

Most interesting of all is that these bees appear to have been selected for keeping based upon the types of plants they were pollenating.  The pollen showed that the bees had been feeding on waterlilies and wild gravevines--types of plants that did not grow near the site where the combs had been found.  Interestingly, the find confirms some of Pliny the Elder's observations about period beekeeping.  The LiveScience article observes:
Indeed, the finding confirms what Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote more than four centuries later about the town of Ostiglia, some 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the site. According to Pliny, the Ostiglia villagers simply placed the hives on boats and carried them 5 miles (8 km) upstream at night.  
"At dawn, the bees come out and feed, returning every day to the boats, which change their position until, when they have sunk low in the water under the mere weight, it is understood that the hives are full, and then they are taken back and the honey is extracted," Pliny wrote.
One wonders what waterlily honey must have tasted like.  Now that this find has been published, some enterprising entrepreneur may make some so we can find out.

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