Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind [NOOK Book]

Overview

In Letters from the Hive, Professor Stephen Buchmann takes us into the hive - nursery, honey factory, queen's inner sanctum - and out to the world of backyard gardens, open fields, and deserts in bloom, where the age-old sexual dance between flowers and bees makes possible life on earth as we know it. Hailed for their hard work, harmonious society, and (mistakenly) for their celibacy, bees have a link to our species that goes beyond biology. Letters from the Hive explores that link, looking at the role bees have ...
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Letters from the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind

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Overview

In Letters from the Hive, Professor Stephen Buchmann takes us into the hive - nursery, honey factory, queen's inner sanctum - and out to the world of backyard gardens, open fields, and deserts in bloom, where the age-old sexual dance between flowers and bees makes possible life on earth as we know it. Hailed for their hard work, harmonious society, and (mistakenly) for their celibacy, bees have a link to our species that goes beyond biology. Letters from the Hive explores that link, looking at the role bees have played in human culture and mythology, in art, literature, religion, medicine, and the culinary arts. From traditional honey hunters in Malaysia to an amateur beekeeper on a Paris rooftop, our species continues to love and honor the honey bee.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Amateur beekeeper, entomologist and conservationist Buchmann (The Forgotten Pollinators) surveys humankind's relationship with the oft under-appreciated bee from prehistoric times to the present, emphasizing the necessity of protecting their habitats from environmental degradation. He discusses bees and honey in myth and legend, observes honey hunters in Malaysia, Nepal and Australia who use ancient methods to collect wild honey, and provides histories of beekeeping and the honey trade and an account of the activities of beekeepers. The meat of the book includes chapters on honey-making, the mechanics of pollination, and bee behavior. Buchmann also includes a catalogue of honey varieties, recipes, a chapter on mead, a survey of honey's medicinal uses, and several appendices, including a glossary, an inventory of bee species and a list of honey and beekeeping resources and supplies. This is a lot of material for one slim volume, and Buchmann can't cover it all in depth, but he does present a highly entertaining and informative introduction to the world of the bee, as well as an enlightening look at "the enduring bond between bees and mankind." Illustrations not seen by PW. Agent, Judith Riven. (Apr.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Beekeeper and entomologist Buchmann brings together scientific rigor and environmental zeal in a passionate history of the relationships among people, honey and bees. Buchmann (Univ. of Arizona/The Forgotten Pollinators, 1996) opens with a cri de coeur against fast-paced environmental destruction. Human development and human waste are conspiring to destroy "the foraging areas, or 'bee pastures,' " where bees feast on flowers and find nectar and pollen. But Buchmann makes a strictly environmental plea only at the start. For then on, his strategy seems to be to inspire in readers the same affection and wonder he has for bees-perhaps then those readers will be moved to save apiary environments. To that end, Buchmann details the exploits of prehistoric honey-gatherers who left the stories of their exploits on cave walls. Bees and honey have figured in ancient lore-one can find them in Virgil, on ancient Sumerian tablets, in Thai fables and Scottish folktales. Buchmann explains bee sexuality (who knew?) and suggests that honey mead, not beer, is the world's oldest alcohol. On the more practical side, he describes the different varieties of honey, from goldenrod and orange blossom to the rarer pumpkin honey and tupelo honey. Culinary readers will appreciate the honey-friendly recipes, like gingerbread, honey butter and teriyaki chicken, and the medically minded will enjoy the chapter on the medicinal properties of honey (honey might help fight cataracts, and it does kill some germs). The prose is clear, if not exactly lyrical; the occasional bad pun ("my fascination with bees and flowers blossomed," or, "That Flower's Packing a Pistil") is a minus. And one feels Buchmann's environmental aimswould have been better served had he included a chapter that detailed exactly how people, corporations and governments are destroying the bee pastures, and what ordinary people could do to make a change. Accessible, not luminous, and nowhere near the heights of, say, a Jennifer Ackerman or Edward Hoagland.
From the Publisher
"A highly entertaining and informative introduction to the world of the bee."
--Publishers Weekly

"Stephen Buchmann's Letters from the Hive is a fascinating and lovingly informative account of one of humanity's greatest accomplishments, our symbiosis with the honey bees."
--Edward O. Wilson, Pulizer Prizewinning author of On Human Nature, and Professor Emeritus at Harvard University:

"Letters from the Hive is the engrossing story of our long and richly layered relationship with bees. It reminds us of the fragile interconnections between all the creatures on this earth."
--Alice Waters, Owner, Chez Panisse Restaurant

"Letters from the Hive is really an extended love-letter--a charming, enthralling, and deeply authoritative window into the sweet, age-old affair between humans and the honey-makers. From the seasons of the hive to the history, properties, and diversity of honey, Buchmann brings us into the confidence of the bees as only he could possibly do."
--Robert Michael Pyle, author of Chasing Monarchs: Migrating With the Butterflies of Passage.

"Stephen Buchmann has done more to advance the conservation of all bees -- and the flowers that depend upon them -- than any other human in history. This intimate history is one very creative soul's lifework. Savor it."
--Gary Nabhan, author of Cross-Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry

"From the emperor Napoleon to a traditional honey hunter in Malaysia, from suburban Tucson to the dark recesses of a beehive, Letters from the Hive explores the world-wide, ages-long intimacy between Apis mellifera and Homo sapiens. The religion of the bee, the art and the biology of beekeeping, one man's love and his race's long fascination with the honeybee, it's all here--up to and including the treatment of cataracts, how to avoid getting stung, and a recipe for lasagne with honey. I have to say, Letters from the Hive provides everything a beekeeper's apprentice could ask for."
--Laurie R. King , author of The Beekeeper's Apprentice

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553901511
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/26/2005
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 300
  • Sales rank: 1,197,778
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Stephen Buchmann is an amateur beekeeper, associate professor of entomology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, author of The Forgotten Pollinators, and founder of The Bee Works, an environmental company.

Banning Repplier is a writer who lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Beginning of an Enduring Passion:
Prehistoric Honey Hunters

O bees, sweet bees! I said: that nearest field
Is shining white with fragrant immortelles.
Fly swiftly there and drain those honey wells.
--Helen Hunt Jackson,
"My Bees"

A few years ago, when I was still keeping honey bees in my Tucson backyard, I always found it particularly exciting to check my hives in late spring, after the blooms had begun and the honey had started to flow. What had my bees been up to? What would the honey crop taste like? If generous winter and early spring rains had tickled the sandy desert soils and brought them to life, there could have been an explosion of wildflowers. Even with normal precipitation, the old desert standbys--velvet mesquite, foothill, and littleleaf paloverde trees--would break out in riotous bloom, attracting hungry bees from far and wide. Tens of thousands of them would plunder the flowers and carry home the precious nectar, transforming it into golden honey--a sweet, fragrant crop that I was always eager to sample.

Whenever I cracked the lid of one of my hives, the bees would rush up toward the light to see what had disrupted the cozy tranquility and comforting darkness of their nest. Selecting a middle frame fat with honey, I would ease it up and out of the box while the bees, clinging to its surfaces, ran about chaotically, confused by this rude interruption of their smooth, efficient daytime routine. Only days before, worker bees would have sealed the crinkly, textured surface of the honeycomb with the virgin white beeswax they secrete as tiny scales and form into cell caps through the workings of their mandibles.

This was the moment I had been longing for throughout the long winter months--a perfect day in late April with the first honey crop of the year ready to taste, waiting for me beneath those brilliant white caps. Since I never wore clumsy bee gloves, I was able to thrust my right forefinger deep into the comb and drag it across the frame, rupturing more than a hundred cells and releasing the glistening honey, which would stream out in thick little rivulets with the bees in hot pursuit. Withdrawing my finger, I would savor my prize, for there is nothing in the world like the taste of warm, fresh honey straight from the comb.

I am not alone in my passion for honey-making bees and their honey. From prehistoric times to the present, we humans have felt a mysterious and enduring connection to these furry little creatures and the food they produce. We have endowed them with magical properties, attributed to them surprising healing and cleansing powers, and seen in them meaningful symbols representing some of our most profoundly held beliefs.

Our fascination with bees is deeply rooted in our collective consciousness. We see it in the cave paintings that our prehistoric ancestors left behind. We can read it in the rich, complex rituals and traditions that evolved to govern our relationship with these admirable insects. And we can still catch the reverberations of our instinctive connection to that part of the natural world every time a husband calls his wife "honey" or an excited child chases a buzzing bee through a bright summer afternoon. But its influence is much more far-reaching than you might imagine, extending not just to everyday moments of affection and play but to diverse cultures, religious beliefs, cuisines, and scientific study around the world. We can look for its roots in our history and, before that, our prehistory.

Thanks to petroglyphs, the spectacular painted records still visible on cave walls throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and even Australia, we know our ancestors definitely had a sweet tooth, and we know that they indulged it by embarking on arduous and often dangerous honey hunts, armed with tools that enabled them to pillage bee nests with remarkable efficiency. We don't know why cave artists put so much effort into recording these often dramatic hunts. Perhaps the honey hunts signified something more profound than the simple harvesting of an ingredient to sweeten their days--something with deep religious or ceremonial meaning. Whatever the reason, vivid paintings chronicling those honey-hunting expeditions--beautifully stylized yet powerfully real--have been found on the ceilings and walls of hundreds of caves spanning the globe.

In her recent book The Rock Art of Honey Hunters, Dr. Eva Crane, the grande dame of honey bee researchers, has collected some of the most striking examples of the cave art chronicling these prehistoric hunts. As she has vividly documented, there are a number of common elements that recur throughout this pictorial world. The honeycombs are prominently drawn, generally with great exuberance and appearing much larger than they are in real life. Bees, with or without wings, are shown flying angrily about as their nests are pillaged by the daring hunters. The hunters themselves are usually depicted either standing at the foot of a tree or cliff that harbors a bee nest or climbing long rope ladders to reach their prize. And they are typically shown naked--although to modern beekeepers, the idea of raiding a colony without protective clothing seems foolhardy at best. The honey hunters portrayed in African cave art frequently wear penis sheaths and nothing else.

When looking at photographs of some of these paintings, I can't help thinking of the brilliant frescoes that transformed the walls of medieval and Renaissance churches into graphic lessons in religious and moral history. The cave painters, who created their art thousands of years before, using mineral pigments mixed with animal fats, may also have wanted to give their work a didactic or sacred meaning. There are several clues that support this supposition: the cave walls that served as their canvases enclosed spaces large enough to have comfortably accommodated crowds of people gathered to watch or participate in ceremonial rituals; the subjects of the paintings--hunting and fertility rites--are the kind that lend themselves to sacramental reenactment; and, in addition to the honey- and animal-hunting scenes, some of the paintings show women engaged in what seems to be sacred dancing, groups of archers led by a priest or shaman wearing a large headdress, and warriors engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

I'd love to know what lessons, if any, our forebears found embedded in the painted chronicles of their honey hunts. Did the rituals of the hunt serve to enlighten them or to give them spiritual guidance? Did they inspire these nomadic clans to strive for the same kind of efficient, productive social organization that the bees had so wonderfully evolved? And what role did honey play in their daily lives? Was it a key ingredient in their primitive cuisine, a medicine used to cure a number of ills, or simply eaten raw as a palate-pleasing, energy-supplying snack after a long, hard day hunting and gathering?

Despite the dedicated work of many archaeologists, we'll probably never know the answers to these questions. But based on hunting scenes found in caves separated by thousands of miles (and executed with uncanny similarity), we can safely say that plundering bee nests has been an important human activity for many millennia, all over the globe. In fact, there are places in the world today where the ancient rituals of those long-ago honey hunters are still practiced virtually unchanged. In the rainforests of Malaysia, the remote valleys of Nepal, and the vast Australian outback, honey-hunting clans set out on expeditions so similar to those depicted in prehistoric cave art that those paintings might well have served as their primers. We will actually travel to Malaysia to witness some of those rituals as they unfold today. But first, let's travel back in time, to a cave that contains one of the most vivid of the ancient honey-hunting paintings.

We are at La Arana--the Cave of the Spider. It is one of many caves and prehistoric shelters honeycombing the limestone mountains of what is now the province of Valencia, near the city of the same name, on the east coast of Spain. Six thousand years ago, when the paintings at La Ara–a were executed, Europe had just entered the First Neolithic Age, which lasted for another thousand years.

Though we tend to think of the people who used these caves as cave dwellers, they were actually nomadic hunters and gatherers who lived in extended families or small bands and stayed in the rock shelters only for brief periods as they traveled with the seasons. The caves were often located in hillsides that offered wide views of animal migration routes and, as a result, prime hunting opportunities. The caves also provided protection from the elements and probably from natural predators and human enemies as well. Beyond their role as temporary sanctuaries, they served as burial chambers and meeting places for clans scattered over hundreds of miles. Thus the caves helped facilitate communication and intermarriage among these dispersed peoples.

The La Arana cave, explored in 1924 by Spanish archaeologist Hern‡ndez Pacheco, is set in a landscape of wild natural beauty, with rugged slopes, deep gullies, and clear-running rivers. Blackened soot on the low ceiling near the entrance indicates that early humans took shelter there, lighting fires to provide warmth and cook their meals, and recording the events of daily life in paintings on the interior walls.

Let's imagine a cold, damp winter afternoon six thousand years ago in the cave of La Arana. A small band of men, women, and children has gathered around a roaring blaze at the mouth of the cave to recount their day's activities, which include not just hunting and gathering but also crafting and maintaining a wide variety of tools, stitching animal skins together with bone needles to make warm clothing to fight off the bitter cold of winter, nursing infants, and preparing meals. Implements essential to their survival lay scattered about and include hand axes, cleavers, and scrapers to work hide and shape wood. Barbed harpoons and spears, made from bone and antler and decorated with carved animal designs as well as various ornamental pendants, can also be seen. The tools are well made, for this is a period of great innovation. Change is occurring at an increasingly rapid rate and will continue over the next centuries as agriculture takes root, the nomads settle in villages, a hunter-gatherer economy transitions to a producing one, and a whole new way of life is born. In fact, our friends in the cave may have already begun rudimentary farming to supplement the fruits of their hunting and gathering expeditions.

As the day wanes, dinner is served at La Arana. Items on the menu include reindeer, bison, ibex, horse, and red deer. And the piece de resistance is honey, dripping thick and golden from the comb.

Like nearly everything our ancestors used, honey had to be pilfered from the natural world around them--right from the nests of the bees themselves. Except for a small number of tropical wasps and ants, no other creatures collect and store concentrated reserves of sugar the way honey bees do. In Spain, the honey would have come from the European honey bee (Apis mellifera).

The challenges of harvesting honey were daunting, as we can see in the painting for which the Cave of the Spider is best known--a compelling rendition of the rigors and rituals of the honey hunt. Using a concavity in the rock wall to represent a bee nest, the painter drew a man climbing what appears to be a rope ladder and being attacked by a swarm of enormous bees defending their honey stores. The honey hunter is simply sketched, a fragile-looking stick figure, yet we sense skill, strength, and determination as he balances precariously on his flimsy ladder, enduring the painful stings and angry harassment of the bees. We also sense that something mysterious, something we can't quite grasp, is going on here. There is an almost spiritual quality to the painting, which suggests a tacit understanding between the bees and the barbarian who is attacking their stronghold. This is not simply a callous plundering of goods, a cold-blooded raid. It's as if we are witnessing a sacred contest, a battle of wills between equals. Perhaps the special relationship between humans and bees, which was to evolve into so many elaborate rituals and traditions over the millennia, had already begun to take shape.

The cave paintings leave no doubt that honey hunting has been going on for thousands of years. Long before the first humans descended from the thorny acacia trees of the African savannahs and began a new life as tool-making, fully bipedal primates, Malaysian honey bears, honey guide birds, and South African honey badgers were all plundering bee nests. But it was the ingenuity of our early ancestors that turned the honey hunt into a highly ritualized--and effective--activity. It probably didn't take long for prehistoric hunters and gatherers to discover that the nests of certain highly social bees--bumblebees (Bombus), stingless bees (Melipona and Trigona), and honey bees (Apis mellifera and other species in the genus Apis)--contained plentiful reserves of honey. And once they had figured that out, it was doubtless a short step to learning how to attack and exploit these tasty, energy-rich targets.

No one has been able to trace the evolution of the human sweet tooth, which is certainly at the root of our passion for bees and honey. We do know that our ape and chimpanzee relatives have a well-developed taste for sugar and aren't shy about availing themselves of any opportunity to gorge on it. And we also know that besides the honey from bees, the only other concentrated sources of sugar available to early humans would have been fruits, berries, and certain tropical grasses. So the honey stored by bees was a prize well worth enduring the stings delivered by the guardians of the nests. Other "spoils of war" from the nests included the juicy, protein-rich brood, consisting of bee larvae and pupae, along with equally nutritious pollen. It is little wonder that so many kinds of mammals and birds in the prehistoric world developed a taste for honey and young bees, along with the necessary skills for locating bee nests and breaking into their well-stocked pantries.

La Arana is just one of many caves in Spain where we can see paintings that memorialize our species' long-standing craving for honey. Several rock shelters in Teruel province in eastern Spain depict outraged bees that seem to issue forth from the rock itself to attack the greedy honey hunters. At Barranc Fondo in eastern Spain, a petroglyph painted about the same time as the one in La Ara–a shows at least five stick-figure honey hunters climbing a ladder leaning against a large tree. The spirits of large grazing animals and other creatures hover around the top of the tree, lending an air of magic and otherworldliness to the scene. But then in a note of earthy realism, we see one hapless hunter tumbling backward off the ladder, arms flailing in the air. Executed in black, which was derived from charcoal, and red, from ocher, the painting also depicts at least eleven other hunters gathered at the foot of the ladder, waiting for the stitched-hide honey buckets to descend from on high. This scene of hunters anticipating the arrival of their hard-earned plunder is virtually identical to what we will witness in Malaysia when we accompany modern-day honey hunters on an actual expedition.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The beginning of an enduring passion : prehistoric honey hunters 7
Ch. 2 Searching for gold : ancient rituals and modern-day honey hunters 21
Ch. 3 Staying in touch : the beekeeper's craft 45
Ch. 4 A year in the life of a beekeeper 69
Ch. 5 Secrets of the bee 93
Ch. 6 Bees and honey in myth, legend, and ancient warfare 117
Ch. 7 Trading honey in the ancient and modern worlds 139
Ch. 8 A taste of honey : sampling varieties from around the world 153
Ch. 9 How sweet it is : cooking with honey throughout the ages 169
Ch. 10 Mead : the honey that goes to your head 195
Ch. 11 Good for what ails you 207
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First Chapter

Letters from the Hive


By Stephen Buchmann with Banning Repplier

Random House

Stephen Buchmann with Banning Repplier
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0553803751


Chapter One

Chapter 1


The Beginning of an Enduring Passion:
Prehistoric Honey Hunters


O bees, sweet bees! I said: that nearest field
Is shining white with fragrant immortelles.
Fly swiftly there and drain those honey wells.
-Helen Hunt Jackson,
"My Bees"


A few years ago, when I was still keeping honey bees in my Tucson backyard, I always found it particularly exciting to check my hives in late spring, after the blooms had begun and the honey had started to flow. What had my bees been up to? What would the honey crop taste like? If generous winter and early spring rains had tickled the sandy desert soils and brought them to life, there could have been an explosion of wildflowers. Even with normal precipitation, the old desert standbys-velvet mesquite, foothill, and littleleaf paloverde trees-would break out in riotous bloom, attracting hungry bees from far and wide. Tens of thousands of them would plunder the flowers and carry home the precious nectar, transforming it into golden honey-a sweet, fragrant crop that I was always eager to sample.

Whenever I cracked the lid of one of my hives, the bees would rush up toward the light to see what had disrupted the cozy tranquility and comforting darkness of their nest. Selecting a middle frame fat with honey, I would ease it up and out of the box while the bees, clinging to its surfaces, ran about chaotically, confused by this rude interruption of their smooth, efficient daytime routine. Only days before, worker bees would have sealed the crinkly, textured surface of the honeycomb with the virgin white beeswax they secrete as tiny scales and form into cell caps through the workings of their mandibles.

This was the moment I had been longing for throughout the long winter months-a perfect day in late April with the first honey crop of the year ready to taste, waiting for me beneath those brilliant white caps. Since I never wore clumsy bee gloves, I was able to thrust my right forefinger deep into the comb and drag it across the frame, rupturing more than a hundred cells and releasing the glistening honey, which would stream out in thick little rivulets with the bees in hot pursuit. Withdrawing my finger, I would savor my prize, for there is nothing in the world like the taste of warm, fresh honey straight from the comb.

I am not alone in my passion for honey-making bees and their honey. From prehistoric times to the present, we humans have felt a mysterious and enduring connection to these furry little creatures and the food they produce. We have endowed them with magical properties, attributed to them surprising healing and cleansing powers, and seen in them meaningful symbols representing some of our most profoundly held beliefs.

Our fascination with bees is deeply rooted in our collective consciousness. We see it in the cave paintings that our prehistoric ancestors left behind. We can read it in the rich, complex rituals and traditions that evolved to govern our relationship with these admirable insects. And we can still catch the reverberations of our instinctive connection to that part of the natural world every time a husband calls his wife "honey" or an excited child chases a buzzing bee through a bright summer afternoon. But its influence is much more far-reaching than you might imagine, extending not just to everyday moments of affection and play but to diverse cultures, religious beliefs, cuisines, and scientific study around the world. We can look for its roots in our history and, before that, our prehistory.

Thanks to petroglyphs, the spectacular painted records still visible on cave walls throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and even Australia, we know our ancestors definitely had a sweet tooth, and we know that they indulged it by embarking on arduous and often dangerous honey hunts, armed with tools that enabled them to pillage bee nests with remarkable efficiency. We don't know why cave artists put so much effort into recording these often dramatic hunts. Perhaps the honey hunts signified something more profound than the simple harvesting of an ingredient to sweeten their days-something with deep religious or ceremonial meaning. Whatever the reason, vivid paintings chronicling those honey-hunting expeditions-beautifully stylized yet powerfully real-have been found on the ceilings and walls of hundreds of caves spanning the globe.

In her recent book The Rock Art of Honey Hunters, Dr. Eva Crane, the grande dame of honey bee researchers, has collected some of the most striking examples of the cave art chronicling these prehistoric hunts. As she has vividly documented, there are a number of common elements that recur throughout this pictorial world. The honeycombs are prominently drawn, generally with great exuberance and appearing much larger than they are in real life. Bees, with or without wings, are shown flying angrily about as their nests are pillaged by the daring hunters. The hunters themselves are usually depicted either standing at the foot of a tree or cliff that harbors a bee nest or climbing long rope ladders to reach their prize. And they are typically shown naked-although to modern beekeepers, the idea of raiding a colony without protective clothing seems foolhardy at best. The honey hunters portrayed in African cave art frequently wear penis sheaths and nothing else.

When looking at photographs of some of these paintings, I can't help thinking of the brilliant frescoes that transformed the walls of medieval and Renaissance churches into graphic lessons in religious and moral history. The cave painters, who created their art thousands of years before, using mineral pigments mixed with animal fats, may also have wanted to give their work a didactic or sacred meaning. There are several clues that support this supposition: the cave walls that served as their canvases enclosed spaces large enough to have comfortably accommodated crowds of people gathered to watch or participate in ceremonial rituals; the subjects of the paintings-hunting and fertility rites-are the kind that lend themselves to sacramental reenactment; and, in addition to the honey- and animal-hunting scenes, some of the paintings show women engaged in what seems to be sacred dancing, groups of archers led by a priest or shaman wearing a large headdress, and warriors engaged in hand-to-hand combat.

I'd love to know what lessons, if any, our forebears found embedded in the painted chronicles of their honey hunts. Did the rituals of the hunt serve to enlighten them or to give them spiritual guidance? Did they inspire these nomadic clans to strive for the same kind of efficient, productive social organization that the bees had so wonderfully evolved? And what role did honey play in their daily lives? Was it a key ingredient in their primitive cuisine, a medicine used to cure a number of ills, or simply eaten raw as a palate-pleasing, energy-supplying snack after a long, hard day hunting and gathering?

Despite the dedicated work of many archaeologists, we'll probably never know the answers to these questions. But based on hunting scenes found in caves separated by thousands of miles (and executed with uncanny similarity), we can safely say that plundering bee nests has been an important human activity for many millennia, all over the globe. In fact, there are places in the world today where the ancient rituals of those long-ago honey hunters are still practiced virtually unchanged. In the rainforests of Malaysia, the remote valleys of Nepal, and the vast Australian outback, honey-hunting clans set out on expeditions so similar to those depicted in prehistoric cave art that those paintings might well have served as their primers. We will actually travel to Malaysia to witness some of those rituals as they unfold today. But first, let's travel back in time, to a cave that contains one of the most vivid of the ancient honey-hunting paintings.

We are at La Arana-the Cave of the Spider. It is one of many caves and prehistoric shelters honeycombing the limestone mountains of what is now the province of Valencia, near the city of the same name, on the east coast of Spain. Six thousand years ago, when the paintings at La Ara–a were executed, Europe had just entered the First Neolithic Age, which lasted for another thousand years.

Though we tend to think of the people who used these caves as cave dwellers, they were actually nomadic hunters and gatherers who lived in extended families or small bands and stayed in the rock shelters only for brief periods as they traveled with the seasons. The caves were often located in hillsides that offered wide views of animal migration routes and, as a result, prime hunting opportunities. The caves also provided protection from the elements and probably from natural predators and human enemies as well. Beyond their role as temporary sanctuaries, they served as burial chambers and meeting places for clans scattered over hundreds of miles. Thus the caves helped facilitate communication and intermarriage among these dispersed peoples.

The La Arana cave, explored in 1924 by Spanish archaeologist Hern‡ndez Pacheco, is set in a landscape of wild natural beauty, with rugged slopes, deep gullies, and clear-running rivers. Blackened soot on the low ceiling near the entrance indicates that early humans took shelter there, lighting fires to provide warmth and cook their meals, and recording the events of daily life in paintings on the interior walls.

Let's imagine a cold, damp winter afternoon six thousand years ago in the cave of La Arana. A small band of men, women, and children has gathered around a roaring blaze at the mouth of the cave to recount their day's activities, which include not just hunting and gathering but also crafting and maintaining a wide variety of tools, stitching animal skins together with bone needles to make warm clothing to fight off the bitter cold of winter, nursing infants, and preparing meals. Implements essential to their survival lay scattered about and include hand axes, cleavers, and scrapers to work hide and shape wood. Barbed harpoons and spears, made from bone and antler and decorated with carved animal designs as well as various ornamental pendants, can also be seen. The tools are well made, for this is a period of great innovation. Change is occurring at an increasingly rapid rate and will continue over the next centuries as agriculture takes root, the nomads settle in villages, a hunter-gatherer economy transitions to a producing one, and a whole new way of life is born. In fact, our friends in the cave may have already begun rudimentary farming to supplement the fruits of their hunting and gathering expeditions.

As the day wanes, dinner is served at La Arana. Items on the menu include reindeer, bison, ibex, horse, and red deer. And the piece de resistance is honey, dripping thick and golden from the comb.

Like nearly everything our ancestors used, honey had to be pilfered from the natural world around them-right from the nests of the bees themselves. Except for a small number of tropical wasps and ants, no other creatures collect and store concentrated reserves of sugar the way honey bees do. In Spain, the honey would have come from the European honey bee (Apis mellifera).

The challenges of harvesting honey were daunting, as we can see in the painting for which the Cave of the Spider is best known-a compelling rendition of the rigors and rituals of the honey hunt. Using a concavity in the rock wall to represent a bee nest, the painter drew a man climbing what appears to be a rope ladder and being attacked by a swarm of enormous bees defending their honey stores. The honey hunter is simply sketched, a fragile-looking stick figure, yet we sense skill, strength, and determination as he balances precariously on his flimsy ladder, enduring the painful stings and angry harassment of the bees. We also sense that something mysterious, something we can't quite grasp, is going on here. There is an almost spiritual quality to the painting, which suggests a tacit understanding between the bees and the barbarian who is attacking their stronghold. This is not simply a callous plundering of goods, a cold-blooded raid. It's as if we are witnessing a sacred contest, a battle of wills between equals. Perhaps the special relationship between humans and bees, which was to evolve into so many elaborate rituals and traditions over the millennia, had already begun to take shape.


The cave paintings leave no doubt that honey hunting has been going on for thousands of years. Long before the first humans descended from the thorny acacia trees of the African savannahs and began a new life as tool-making, fully bipedal primates, Malaysian honey bears, honey guide birds, and South African honey badgers were all plundering bee nests. But it was the ingenuity of our early ancestors that turned the honey hunt into a highly ritualized-and effective-activity. It probably didn't take long for prehistoric hunters and gatherers to discover that the nests of certain highly social bees-bumblebees (Bombus), stingless bees (Melipona and Trigona), and honey bees (Apis mellifera and other species in the genus Apis)-contained plentiful reserves of honey. And once they had figured that out, it was doubtless a short step to learning how to attack and exploit these tasty, energy-rich targets.

No one has been able to trace the evolution of the human sweet tooth, which is certainly at the root of our passion for bees and honey. We do know that our ape and chimpanzee relatives have a well-developed taste for sugar and aren't shy about availing themselves of any opportunity to gorge on it. And we also know that besides the honey from bees, the only other concentrated sources of sugar available to early humans would have been fruits, berries, and certain tropical grasses. So the honey stored by bees was a prize well worth enduring the stings delivered by the guardians of the nests. Other "spoils of war" from the nests included the juicy, protein-rich brood, consisting of bee larvae and pupae, along with equally nutritious pollen. It is little wonder that so many kinds of mammals and birds in the prehistoric world developed a taste for honey and young bees, along with the necessary skills for locating bee nests and breaking into their well-stocked pantries.

La Arana is just one of many caves in Spain where we can see paintings that memorialize our species' long-standing craving for honey. Several rock shelters in Teruel province in eastern Spain depict outraged bees that seem to issue forth from the rock itself to attack the greedy honey hunters. At Barranc Fondo in eastern Spain, a petroglyph painted about the same time as the one in La Ara–a shows at least five stick-figure honey hunters climbing a ladder leaning against a large tree. The spirits of large grazing animals and other creatures hover around the top of the tree, lending an air of magic and otherworldliness to the scene.

Continues...


Excerpted from Letters from the Hive by Stephen Buchmann with Banning Repplier Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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