Researchers use beeswax to trace earliest beekeepers

International team found ‘bee products were exploited’ at least from 9,000 years ago

Beeswax has helped researchers track down the earliest beekeepers yet discovered, dating them to the dawn of agriculture at least 9,000 years ago.

Honey did not seem to be on the menu for Ireland, however, as no trace of beeswax was discovered on old pottery from this period and at least until after 6,100 years ago.

Humans have a long association with honey bees (Apis mellifera), either through pilfering their honey supplies or cultivating the insects in hives.

They feature in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs dating back 4,400 years. And honey hunting features in even older prehistoric rock art found in caves.


But because bees leave no fossil record archaeologists had no way of knowing how far back in time hive-keeping began. Nor did they know where the practice first emerged.

These questions are finally answered in a research report published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Mélanie Roffet-Salque of the University of Bristol led a large international study looking for minute traces of beeswax left behind on ancient pottery.

The chemical characteristics of the wax remain stable even over thousands of years. And the wax residues cannot be confused with other materials such as animal fats or other waxy substances.

The large international team began checking for beeswax residues on 6,400 ancient pottery vessels and pottery pieces.

Irish researchers from University College Dublin, NUI Galway and Queen's University Belfast took part as well as several archaeological consultancy companies based here.

The study was ideal for identifying time and location for early use of beeswax, even though the study included the huge area of Europe, the Near East and North Africa.

The authors showed "bee products were exploited continuously and probably extensively in some regions" at least from 9,000 years ago, with the oldest evidence found in Anatolia.

There was no sign of the wax in any of the 1,200 pottery samples analysed from Ireland, Scotland and Scandinavia and dated to the late Stone Age.

The most northerly sample was found in Denmark, and Britain had only three sites, all in the very south, with just seven of 670 vessels showing traces of beeswax.

The limited number of northerly finds encouraged the authors to suggest there must have been an “ecological limit” for honey bee hives at that time.

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom

Dick Ahlstrom, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former Science Editor.