Nov. 17, 2022

5000 Years of Beekeeping in 24 Minutes (100)

5000 Years of Beekeeping in 24 Minutes (100)

Honey Bee Obscura celebrates its 100th episode with this release! Jim Tew and Kim Flottum invite, Beekeeping Today Podcast’s Jeff Ott to join them to take a look at 5,000 years of beekeeping history, sorting out some of the highlights, discoveries,...

Honey Bee Obscura celebrates its 100th episode with this release! Jim Tew and Kim Flottum invite, Beekeeping Today Podcast’s Jeff Ott to join them to take a look at 5,000 years of beekeeping history, sorting out some of the highlights, discoveries, and mistakes, along with some of the people behind it all.

Come along as we go from bees in trees, skeps, boles, boxes, hives, back to boxes and finally, back to trees. There’s lots to learn and lots to entertain.

All in 24 minutes!

We hope you enjoy the trip.

We hope you enjoyed today's episode. Please follow or subscribe today and leave a comment. We'd love to hear from you!


Thanks to Betterbee for sponsoring today's episode. Betterbee’s mission is to support every beekeeper with excellent customer BetterBeeservice, continued education and quality equipment. From their colorful and informative catalog to their support of beekeeper educational activities, including this podcast series, Betterbee truly is Beekeepers Serving Beekeepers. See for yourself at


Honey Bee Obscura is brought to you by Growing Planet Media, LLC, the home of Beekeeping Today Podcast.

Music: Heart & Soul by Gyom, All We Know by Midway Music, original guitar music by Jeffrey Ott

Copyright © 2022 by Growing Planet Media, LLC


Honey Bee Obscura

Episode 100 – 5,000 Years of Beekeeping in 24 Minutes

Jim Tew: Hey, listeners, this is a special event for us today. This is our 100th segment. 100 times we have talked 20 minutes about bees and all the ramifications of bees. Kim, what do you think?

Kim Flottum: Are you sure about that count? Seems like a lot more to me.

Jim: No. A lot of time has passed. One of us has really gotten old doing this, Kim.

Kim: [laughs] Well, I'll raise my hand for that one. I've gotten old lately.

Jim: You know, 100 sounds like a lot but I was reading just several days ago that beekeeping probably has about a 5,000-year history. Can we say that we've discussed 5,000 years in 100 segments, 20 minutes at a time? I don't think so.

Kim: I don't think so either.


Jim: I'd like to do something special here and have us contact Jeff Ott, let him be involved in this too, since this is a special event.

Kim: I think it's a good idea.

Jim: I'm going to give him a call. I'll be right back.

Kim: Hi. I'm Kim Flottum.

Jim: Hi, I'm Jim Tew.

Kim: Today we're going to talk about 5,000 years of beekeeping and we're going to wrap it up in 20 minutes, maybe. [laughs]

Jim: More or less.

Introduction: You are listening to Honey Bee Obscura, brought to you by Growing Planet Media, the folks behind Beekeeping Today Podcast. Each week on Honey Bee Obscura, hosts Kim Flottum and Jim Tew explore the complexities, the beauty, the fun, and the challenges of managing honey bees in today's world. Get ready for an engaging discussion to delight and inform all beekeepers. If you're a long timer or just starting out, sit back and enjoy the next several minutes as Kim and Jim explore all things honey bees.

Jim: Jeff.

Jeff Ott: Hey, guys.

Jim: Hi, man. Are you there?

Jeff: I am here. I am here. I'm glad to be here. What are we doing?

Jim: You're on the team today and-

Jeff: [chuckles]

Jim: we're going to play a new game where we bring somebody in as a special guest and we don't tell them what they're going to talk about-

Jeff: [laughs]

Jim: -and still we start quizzing them. Are you up for that? No, really, we were thinking about all the things that beekeeping has been through through all the years and kind of where are we now, and where were we then. I don't know if we're going to try to decide where we're going, that's overwhelming, but beekeeping's had a colorful history.

Jeff: Definitely, it has.

Kim: You know we only got 20 minutes. Where are we going to start?

Jim: That's right, and we're burning through a lot of it here.

Kim: [laughs] Where are you going to start?

Jim: I want to back just briefly to the fact that there are some indications in the Nile Valley that people were actually maintaining colonies, keeping colonies, about 5,000 years ago. We probably have about a 15,000-year lifespan overall on this whole thing. That's a lot of beekeepers over a lot of time. First off, listeners, we're a unique group. We go back a long way. All those years ago, one of the hypotheses is that bees actually colonized us. We didn't colonize them, but bees moved into farm sites and went into empty pots and baskets and whatever, and the farmer was surprised to see that he had a hive of bees in what had, here before, been an empty basket.

There's one thought that says, "Well, that's how this whole skep thing evolved." Was that the farmer didn't come up with it, the bees came up with it. Do you know anything about that Kim or Jeff?

Kim: Well, I know a little bit about it. There's been some things written about it that I've read over the years and basically what it was, if you want to take all of the details and sum them up and put it into a couple of sentences, one day a lady went and overturned a basket, and surprise, it was full of bees and honeycomb. From there, life changed.

Jim: Well, life's still changing, isn't it? The thing that also happened, well, you know, they had to kill those bees. Pick up here, Jeff. You said early on, when we were talking about this a few days ago, that you thought that those bees were actually killed. Yes, they were. Talk.

Jeff: No, I was still thinking about the bees 5,000 years ago and before they even moved into skeps or baskets, beekeepers would find the tree that they were in and mark the tree and just rob the tree occasionally.

Jim: Yes. Honey hunters.

Jeff: I think yes, that's a great start, and [chuckles] it is always a joy and a surprise to turn over something and find a colony of bees in it.

Jim: You're motivated again. You're young, you can leap tall buildings, you can run fast. They're still very exciting. That's one of the things that hasn't changed very much about bees. They were stinging 5,000 years ago, and they'll be stinging this afternoon if I went out there and opened them.

Kim: Jim and Jeff, part of this has to do with geography. If you go back that far and you're talking about trees, if I'm having a bee tree, you got to have a forest or you got to have a jungle, so you've got that. If you're in the desert of Egypt, there aren't a whole lot of trees out there, so then you're looking at cavities in buildings, and in fences, and in places like that, but the thing that ties all of this together is that people already knew that the bees that were in trees or in walls made honey, and made wax, and that was a desirable product. Where they were and how they got it, I think, probably, maybe less important than the fact that they knew that it had value and that they should probably pursue this.

Jeff: I think that's solid. That's a great observation. Not only because we think of honey as the motivator, but there is also the wax and the protein from the grub and everything else, so it was a one-stop shop for people for many years.

Jim: That's really a useful bug. I hadn't thought about the wax, but there's a news item right now about a ship that's been found in Oregon that's still washing up beeswax chunks 200 years later after the ship sank. That beeswax was very valuable for nighttime light, otherwise, it was dark and they're burning smelly beef tallow as a candle.

Jeff: It's pretty fun to see all the excitement and stories you can generate just by throwing all your old Burke home out along the beach in Oregon.


Jim: You think someone might have done that? I'm not going there.

Jeff: I'm not saying who might have done that, but I'm just saying. [laughs]

Jim: Right. People are having an archeological good time with that. I'm a woodworker, and I've really enjoyed through the years looking at these old colonies, and the structure, and the design, and the weirdness of them. One of the things that came along, there's so many, many, many different styles and designs of those hives, was the way people did the best they could with what they knew at the time. One of the hives I built, I very carefully put the slanted bottom board back in it because in that particular hive it was thought that the wax moths would drop off the comb, and roll down the slanted bottom board, and drop out in the yard where the chickens would eat them. That's amusing now and elicits a chuckle maybe, but that didn't work. That didn't work at all. That was in the American beehive that had got designed over here in Ohio.

Kim: Jim, I want to back up a half a step. You've jumped to the US and making beehives, between discovering that bees made honey and wax, and lived in trees, and maybe lived in skeps, there's another step that I think you got to consider. Part of that step is the fact that once people figured out how to keep bees in skeps, i.e. how to transfer a piece of a comb from one skep to an empty skep and let that then become a new beehive so that they have something for next year, so they could harvest the one from this year, they were doing the same thing in stone walls in England at the same time. They were taking pieces of comb from an empty hole in a stone fence that they made, moved it to another empty hole in a stone fence that they made so they had a new one for next year, and then they could harvest the one from this year.

The evolution of robbing, and then robbing and helping to continue evolve into the future, and then finally keeping bees as we keep them today, there's several steps in there that you got to not forget.

Jim: Yes, I agree. I didn't know I was forgetting it. I didn't know it was actually there in that way, but it's been a long torturous path. I agree with that, and those bee bowels describing, all those kind of things, people did the best they could with the information they had at the time.

Kim: And the equipment they had.

Jeff: That makes me think about, they were doing all that management of the honeybee, and we're not even up to the 1800s yet, without fully understanding the intricacies of the biology of the bee that we just obsess over today. They didn't even understand that the queen was the one laying the eggs or that--

Jim: Oh, they did. They understood there is a king-

Jeff: Yes, there's king.

Kim: Yes.

Jim: -and the earth was flat. They had everything figured out. [chuckles] Now we're amused by that but at the time, it was the best information available.

Jeff: Then they kept them successfully without a full understanding of the biology of the bee, which was fun to think about.

Kim: Kind of amazing is what it was.

Jim: Yes, I think that's a scary thought, you don't have to know what you're doing for it to work.

Kim: [laughs]

Jeff: Yes, [laughs] [crosstalk]

Jim: That sounds like my beekeeping right now.

Kim: I'm thinking.


Kim: The move from robbing completely, to robbing and helping, to mostly helping, I think that mostly helping part, somewhere in the 1800s, there are some people in Europe that were doing frames, not moveable but the evolution there was slow and, I'm going to say, cranky because I'm guessing there's a lot of stings involved in working bees and frames that don't move and you don't have leather gloves and good veils but it kinda comes down to the next big step, I think, is going to be what? What's the next big step here?

Jim: Removable frames.

Jeff: Yes.

Kim: There you go. There you go. In some form, format someplace-- There are people who claim it was in Europe. There are people who claim it was Langstroth. I think it's less important who rather than how did it work?

Jim: What do you think? That it happened in multiple places at different times. There was no internet. There's late-breaking news so someone could do something in a remote village and everybody could do it for several hundred years and a few thousand miles away no one would know anything about it. There could have been multiple generations of these kinds of things before we ended up with all these concepts of taking these frames out.

Kim: [crosstalk] how many human history. Yes, exactly.

Jeff: Much like Henry Ford is often credited for the first automobile which he wasn't. He's the one who made it mass manufacturing of the automobile and that's what his real claim to fame was. That's much the same with Langstroth, isn't it?

Jim: It is the same.

Jeff: The bee space wouldn't necessarily his observation that was the bee space. He took all of that together and the movable frames and made it a mass-marketable product.

Jim: Well, in a way, up to this point, we've come a long way, but we haven't come a long way at all. Instead of claypots and bee boards and stone walls and whatever, we use plastic hives and wooden equipment, and, boy, what we had to go through to get to that point and we're still not finished evolving.

Kim: Jim, you took a jump here from quite a while ago to almost to today, and I think that's a good time to sit down, take a deep breath, and listen to what our sponsor has to say today.


Voiceover: He has winter's chill and weather forced you inside? Well, did you know that Betterbee offers winter classes you can take from the comfort of your own home? Our classes are taught by Dr. David Peck and Eastern Agricultural Society master beekeeper, Ann Fry. Her classes range from basic courses on essentials of beekeeping all the way up to specifics on planning for the seasons ahead and for your success. Visit to view all of our upcoming learning opportunities.


Jim: There are, oh, so many different hive styles and designs, ideas. Our burn pile and beekeeping history is just stunning on how big it is on the good ideas that just didn't work. Finally, one boiled down more or less to Langstroth. I know others in the world want to argue about it, but our hero here in our beekeeping industry tends to be Langstroth and the hive that he came up with and then the variations on it that have followed up until this very day.

Kim: It hasn't changed much up until this afternoon. Part of that has to do who controls the press. It doesn't matter what you invent. If nobody knows about it, nobody knows about it. If somebody discovers what you've discovered and tells the world about it, then suddenly, you're the hero and that's kind of how Langstroth, I think, jumped into the forefront of all this. He was discovered.

Jim: Okay, yes. There were so many people doing so much, but somehow he did something right. Maybe you're spot on, Kim, that he was in the right place at the right time, but it's still evolving. Would you guys agree to that? I mean, to this day, Kim, you've got some kind of plastic hive in your backyard that came from England or the UK or somewhere, a hive designed-- What's up with that?

Kim: Not only plastic hives, take it a step further. I had people contact me this week that want to find out more about artificially intelligent hives, hives that are run by machines and aren't visited by beekeepers more than once or twice a season. The artificial intelligence in the machine tells it when it's full of honey, when it needs to be fed, when it needs, when it needs, when it needs. Interestingly, all of the things that it needs are stored up above on top of the hive in a compartment someplace.

These artificially intelligent hives, are they going to be the future? Well, some people seem to think they are and I'll go back to what the press has to say about this. The people who discovered Langstroth were the press first, and then the people who discovered artificially intelligent hives pollinating almonds out in California, is that going to be next? Who knows? I don't claim to know a bit.

Jim: I can't get off the subject but what I'm fearful of is that the almond people and other growers, developers, and plant propagators are on the job and while we're making artificially intelligent hives, they're going to be making self-propagating varieties-

Kim: Bingo.

Jim: -and that the whole thing won't even be a pollination issue anymore. I don't know.

Kim: [laughs]

Jim: We have jumped from 5,000 years ago to 500 years some now so I really have a hard time seeing forward because so much could happen or not happen. Way back in the '70s we were breeding and selecting queens and learning to do instrumental insemination work. Dr. Rothenbuhler told me here at Ohio State, a grand old master of instrumental insemination and hygienic behavior, that the first instrumental insemination device he ever used, used a mechanical pencil as a dispensing mechanism for releasing the semen inside the queen. That was just as primitive as it can be, but they made it work and now I see all this new modern instrumental insemination equipment.

There's all of that but at the same time, I think many of the queens that are produced are still produced by the bees themselves. I mean, time and time again you find out that you had a swarm go and they re-queen themselves and there was no buying a queen, no instrumental insemination. The bees are still in control in many ways.

Kim: They're probably living in a tree. [laughs]

Jeff: Yes.

Jim: Living in my neglected hives, which could be a tree.

Kim: That too. Sidestep here we missed, and it's one that I'm particularly fond of, and one of the products of a beehive is mead, honey wine, and that too has evolved over the years and the production of it has evolved from winemakers being fussy about the source of the honey, the flavor of the honey, and then all of the production that goes into it from there. That, too, has evolved along with all the other things that bees have moved into in our time.

Jeff: Years ago, early '90s, Kim, I was living in Colorado, you sent me to Boulder to talk to the lady who's in charge of the American Mead Association and I did an article on that for you. She took me to her garage where she had these 5-gallon jugs of honey fermenting. I can't imagine that's evolved much from 5,000 years ago.

Kim: Oh, but it has. Oh, but it has.

Jeff: Fermenting honey is fermenting honey no matter where it ferments [laughs] and I have no desire to drink mead today. Thank you.


Jim: Wow.

Jeff: Sorry.

Jim: You mean this specific day or do you mean any day?

Jeff: Any day. I know I've alienated half our listeners here right now because [crosstalk]

Jim: Yes. They just hung up on you. [laughs]

Jeff: I'm sure mead is a wonderful product and, obviously, many people enjoy it and smarter than I am but that was an interesting discovery. Yes, mead. That's a good one.

Kim: I'm surprised she wasn't making it in a skep. [laughs]

Jim: [laughs] I got to say is that my thing is the big change. The really big change has been pollination. Kim and I danced around it a bit ago. It may not stay the big thing, but right now it rules the bee industry and all those years ago. It wasn't that long ago. 150, 200 years ago, nobody cared about pollination but, boy, we care about it now so our world has flipped away from honey, to this desirable food, to pollination to get us all the other food. It's really big business in the bee industry. That's a big change.

Kim: Take that half a step further to support pollination in the bee industry. We have moved bees into controlled environments for overwintering. We control the air they breathe, the temperature they live in, the outside influences they're subjected to. Right now, everything we're doing to keep bees is to keep bees alive for pollination. Now the question is, what happens when pollination, because as you adequately stated, it becomes self-fertile almond trees, and self-fertile strawberries, and all the other crops, because it's going to go there. It's got to go there. The genetics of crop has to change. Once that happens, what's going to happen to indoor overwintering? Will that explode so we can produce more honey or is it going to go the way of the skep?

Jeff: It's interesting this flap to pollinations away from honey has only happened in the last, what, 30 years, 20 years?

Jim: All right. It's been really a short time, 30 to 40 years.

Jeff: Yes. That's amazing.

Jim: We did apples and pumpkins and all of that, but almonds really have been the driving force here. We do the same thing in many ways. We talk about indoor overwintering and pollination and all these things, but I'm going to go out tomorrow and I'm going to light a smoker. That's a nice smoker but my ancestors all those years ago did something with a smoking rag or something and they wrapped whatever they had around their head to try to keep the bees out of their eyes. Why? Because the bees were stinging, they sting today, they were stinging thousands of years ago or-- How far have we progressed? The bees are still the bees. We really haven't done a lot other than introduce mites and harass them along the way but the bees are still themselves.

Kim: You got to wonder who's running who here.

Jim: You're right. who's in charge?

Kim: [laughs]

Jeff: I think it's funny that after 5,000 years, the current talk about keeping bees is back to natural, keeping them in logs. I don't know if we've progressed very far at all. We're right back where we started.

Jim: No, we know a lot more about those bees in the log.

Kim: [laughs]

Jim: I mean, we can recognize Varroa mites and we're worried about virus infections so those bees in the log are much better maintained now than they were bees in the log 1,000 years ago.

Kim: Yes, they trained us pretty well, I think.

Jim: Yes, we have really been trained to keep these things alive.

Kim: [laughs]

Jim: We know we couldn't do justice in 20, 25 minutes here or so on all of the history of it got. I feel like that our bee experience is just a snapshot because I look at my 50 years of keeping bees and think, wow, this has really been a big deal. No, it hasn't. There's been a lot of other 50 years that have come and gone and other people snapshots. This is just our time. This is just our phase of beekeeping. I don't know what'll be happening in the future, but there'll be something going on with bees. It'll just have to be. It always has been.

Kim: Yes. I think you got it right.

Jeff: I hope you guys invite me back for your 200th episode and we can talk about whatever new developments or old developments you want to at that time.

Kim: Consider yourself invited, Jeff.

Jeff: I will.

Jim: Yes, I'm still trying to get my arms around that. How old will I be then, 131? No, I will not. It seems like a lot, but I've had a good time doing these. I've had a good time and a hundred. I appreciate everyone who listens. I appreciate the sponsors for keeping us on the air. It takes a lot to keep it going.

Kim: Jim, we got to take a half step back and say thanks, Jeff, because behind all the stuff that you and I are doing every week, Jeff's making it happen.

Jeff: [chuckles]

Jim: He's right. Thanks, Jeff.

Jeff: Well, you're welcome. It's an honor and pleasure working with you both and I'm looking forward to the next 100 episodes.

Jim: I had a good time.

Kim: Me too.

Jim: Thanks for letting me reminisce.


[00:24:32] [END OF AUDIO]