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Humans have relied on honeybees for nearly 9,000 years — and now they’re mysteriously declining

(Image credit: Eric Tourneret)
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With the help of 20 years’ worth of research and thousands of prehistoric shards of pottery, a large group of scientists have presented evidence that the deep relationship between humans and honeybees is far older than we thought — giving us just one more reason to care about the conservation of a species that we’ve relied on for thousands of years.

Honeybees are a cornerstone of modern agriculture, valued both for their importance as pollinators and for the honey and wax they produce. Today, they’re considered a largely domesticated organism, commonly kept by humans in managed hives — but it wasn’t always this way. Like all domesticated creatures, honeybees  started out as wild animals.

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, a group of researchers find that the relationship between humans and honeybees goes back all the way to the Neolithic age, starting around 8,000 years ago. They figured this out by analyzing residue found in Neolithic pottery from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa to see if beeswax was present. Finding beeswax residue in pottery suggests that humans were exploiting bees to use their wax (and probably their honey, too).

The paper includes pottery analyses from two decades of archaeological studies, said Melanie Roffet-Salque, a postdoctoral researcher specializing in archaeological chemistry at the University of Bristol and the paper’s lead author. These many years of research were largely led by Richard Evershed, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol.

The purpose of the research varied over the decades — sometimes the scientists would be focusing on finding other types of residues, such as milk — but they would always document any other substances they found on a potsherd, including beeswax. Eventually, they decided to take a look at all the accumulated years of beeswax evidence and see what kind of insights could be gleaned.

“Sometimes in papers we would report one single evidence for beeswax in a site, which is fine — but then we thought it would be fine to collate everything together and just write a paper,” Roffet-Salque said.

The researchers found beeswax in Neolithic pottery throughout Europe, in the Near East and in a small corner of North Africa. The oldest evidence comes from Anatolia, or Asia Minor, dating back to the seventh millennium BC. There was also abundant evidence in the Balkan peninsula, in parts of Central and Western Europe and in the corner of North Africa now occupied by Algeria. The pottery in question ranged from the seventh millennium to the third millennium BC.

The indication that humans and honeybees have been associated for so long is not particularly surprising, said Mark Winston, a professor of apiculture and social insects at Simon Fraser University, who was not involved with the paper. But, he added, “it does demonstrate the close relationship that humans have had with honeybees for many thousands of years and suggests that the current crisis of honeybees is one that we should take very seriously, because it interferes with that close symbiotic relationship.”

The honeybee has been a subject of concern for decades, now, thanks to mysterious widespread die-offs, the causes of which scientists are only beginning to understand. While disease and parasites have likely played a major role in the decline of the honeybee, human influence — including habitat destruction and pesticide use — are also thought to have been major contributors.

But because of bees’ profound importance to modern agriculture, the public has largely rallied around efforts to preserve the species, and the White House even released a National Strategy to Preserve the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators earlier this year.

Now, learning more about how long and pervasive the history of human reliance on the honeybee has been could provide even greater motivation for people to make sure that relationship continues to last.

The paper also provides insight into the honeybee’s historic range, which has been poorly understood until now.

“Honeybees have been quite invisible throughout the archaeological record because they’re so tiny and disappear very quickly,” Roffet-Salque said. But the pottery evidence shows clearly where honeybees existed during the Neolithic age — and it also provides some evidence as to where they didn’t.

The researchers failed to find any beeswax in areas of Europe above the 57th parallel, which would include Scotland, parts of northern Scandinavia, Norway, Sweden and Finland. Because bee exploitation seemed to exist in other parts of Europe during the same time period, the most logical explanation is that bees simply didn’t occupy these northern areas.

These results suggest that the 57th parallel represented “the natural ecological limit for bees at the time,” Roffet-Salque said. Since modern-day honeybees can now be found in areas above that line, this evidence suggests that bees have adjusted their historic range over the last 10,000 years, likely in response to climatic changes.

“This information could prove very useful in understanding how climate change will affect populations of honey bees,” said Gene Robinson, director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology and the Illinois Bee Research Facility at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in an e-mail to The Post. (Robinson also was not involved with the paper). “We already know that warming temperatures are shrinking the ranges of closely related bumble bee species in Europe and North America.”

But Winston says these results are not particularly surprising, either. “As climate changes, we should expect organisms like bees to increase in some places and decrease in others,” he said. But being aware of the potential for these climate-related changes is useful, as these shifts can have “major implications in some places for how agriculture is conducted,” he added.

At the very least, the paper offers fresh insight into poorly understood aspects of the honeybee’s history and introduces a novel, albeit time-consuming, method of investigating these questions. And given the honeybee’s importance to modern agriculture and close association with human culture, the study can be considered an intriguing look back into both man and insect’s early history.

According to Robinson, it’s “an exciting new European biogeographical narrative for the most beneficial insect on the planet.”

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