The History of Bees with Plants and People

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Honeybees have been round since before humans, approximately 93 million years before the first humans arrived.
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“Planting for Honeybees” by Sarah Wyndham Lewis teaches gardeners to use their backyards to give the honeybee population a helping hand.

Planting for Honeybees (Quadrille, 2018) by Sarah Wyndham Lewisis a guide to help gardeners attract these friendly buzzing bees to their yards all season long. Wyndham Lewis also gives readers a look into the world and history of honeybees, showing why it is so important that they stick around. In the following excerpt, she goes through the history of honeybees evolving and interacting with plants and people.

Honeybees evolved millions of years before mankind, as did plants. Flowers evolved alongside the bees and in the race to spread their genes, made themselves ever more attractive to pollinating insects. Bees and plants together weathered everything that time could throw at them until modern humans arrived and began ‘improving’ nature.

About 100 million years ago (93 million years before the first proto-humans emerged) plants and bees started an elegant coevolution. Their story begins in the Cretaceous period, when dinosaurs were still very much part of the ecology. Some wind-pollinated plants began developing flowers to attract insects, which were much more dependable as pollinators than pollen carried on air currents. Initially, they lured insects by developing petals as landing pads, conspicuous colors and distinctive scents. Later, they evolved to produce nectar, an irresistible sugar-rich meal.

Fossil records from the Cretaceous period show both the earliest flowering plants (known as angiosperms) and a recognizable honeybee (Melittosphex burmensis, found in Myanmar in 2006). Perfectly suited to one another, they prospered in their symbiotic relationship and survived the mass extinction of flora and fauna that spelled the end of the giant dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Along the way, honeybees began clearly differentiating themselves from their wasp ancestors, evolving unique structures such as a honey sac, a second stomach, to collect nectar, and pollen baskets to gather the bounty of nutritious pollen grains. Bees and plants also began building colonies, storing and managing supplies and evolving the dance languages and labor division that is still seen today.

Amongst the estimated 25,000 species of bee worldwide today, there are only seven species of honeybee. Unique amongst their kind, they overwinter as a colony, living on honey stored in the wax comb. The most successful of all honeybees, Apis mellifera (still the species most commonly kept today), was originally a cavity-nesting bee and is currently thought to have spread from Asia into Europe and Africa between two and three million years ago. One of mankind’s earliest ancestors, Homo habilis, raided wild bee nests in Africa around that period. It was the original luxury food.

Time moved on. The flowers and the bees continued their quiet courtship and eventually, around 12,000 and 11,000 years ago, Homo sapiens gradually started to select and breed plants and animals. The clock for a major ecological shift had started ticking. Life was going to change significantly for the honeybee and, it turns out, for flowering plants, too.

Everywhere honeybees were to be found, man harvested honey from wild colonies and then learned how to farm them, first by claiming and tending nests and later by building purpose-designed ‘nests’ in pots and baskets to attract swarms; these were the earliest hives. By the time of the First Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (c. 3000 BC) hieroglyphs depict bees being kept in mud tubes horizontally stacked to form wall structures.

All over the world, successive cultures have practiced beekeeping, and honey and beeswax have provided essential ingredients for everything from food, religious ceremonies and embalming to cosmetics, art and much else. For example, the earliest copper objects cast in the lost-wax process were found in Israel, wrapped in reed mats later carbon dated to between 3500 and 2800 BC.

While man’s relationship with the honeybee has largely been to nurture and protect it, the same cannot be said of flowering plants once mankind began domesticating wild food crops on a larger scale, saving and sowing seed from preferred plants. Transitioning from nomadic hunter gatherers to settled famers with storerooms allowed humans the leisure to explore their creativity and satisfy their restless curiosity, enabling a life beyond the requirements of simply staying alive.

The artistic eye that saw even our earliest ancestors produce sublime cave paintings and embellished pottery is an innate part of the modern human’s skill set, as is our perpetual search for the beautiful and the unique. It was only a matter of time before that eye turned towards the countless species of exquisite wildflowers, still peacefully advertising their wares to the industrious honeybee.

Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings and the remains of flower garlands placed on mummies show that the Egyptians cultivated both native and imported species, including cornflowers, daisies, chrysanthemums, hollyhocks, red poppies, jasmine and roses. Even then, flowers were beginning to be chosen for particular qualities of color, scent, size and petal formation. Ultimately, making these selections led to an emergence of specific ‘garden flowers’ in many different places, including the Middle East and China.

Fast forward to Europe in the late 1500s. The development of herbs, fruits, vegetables and garden flowers through importation, selection and deliberate or accidental crossbreeding began to elevate gardening into an art, supported by wealthy patrons. By this time, the simple wild forms of many flowers had become the extreme dandies of the horticultural world. Tulips, long cultivated and refined by the Turks in the Ottoman Empire, were exported to Europe where they were transformed by the Dutch into frilly, virus-streaked, multi-petalled, crazily colored living artworks. So prized were the plants that they triggered ‘Tulipmania’, the very first commodity boom (amazingly, in 1633 one bulb of the variety ‘Semper Augustus’ was valued at about £60,000 in today’s currency), which reached its height (and downfall) in early 1637. Many other plant species, including hyacinths, auriculas, and orchids, have spawned similar excitements.

The problem for the honeybee is that plants continue to be bred like this, rapidly moving away from the time-crafted architecture of the ancient wildflower forms. We are offered ever-brighter/-bigger/-smaller/-hardier/-earlier/-later flowering forms, with more novel or more complex petal structures, usually at the cost of accessible pollen and nectar. Many are sterile. As a consequence, today’s gardens full of beautiful ornamental flowers might offer little sustenance to honeybees or the many other pollinators who evolved slowly alongside the wild forms. Compare a showy pompom dahlia with its densely clustered and folded petals to the delicious pollen-packed open flower-head of its earlier type, which looks exactly like what it is – a giant daisy.

This is why there is so much noise nowadays around growing wildflowers. But please don’t get hung up on this. Wildflowers are very important, but they are not definitive in honeybee plantings. As you read this book, you’ll see that careful choices of plants, often favoring older, wilder varieties, give you a virtually limitless range of honeybee-friendly plants for every situation, from the smallest to the largest, most formal garden. The pact between plants, bees and mankind can still be kept.

More from: Planting for Honeybees

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Excerpted with permission from Planting For Honeybees by Sarah Wyndham Lewis, published by Quadrille March 2018, RRP $16.99 hardcover.