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The History of Bees

Springtime is just around the corner and very soon we'll be enjoying the sight of bees buzzing around in our gardens and parks. The history of these amazing creatures is fascinating and spans a very long time. To start at the beginning we need to travel back to prehistoric times!

If you've been reading our blogs you are probably aware that bees need to collect flower pollen and nectar to survive and that many plants rely on bees and other pollinators to reproduce. For this reason the history of bees is intrinsically linked to the history of flowers as both have evolved together over the course of millions of years.

While some of their natural history still remains a mystery, the evidence we have from fossils, bees trapped in amber and more recently DNA sequencing, has really helped our understanding of the evolutionary history and origins of bees as we know them.

The beginnings of bees

140 million years ago there were no flowers on Earth. Common plants were ferns and other non-flowering plants which had evolved over a very long time from early water plants into land plants. The world would have been very green without any of the bright and colourful flowers we see around us now. The very earliest flowering plants would have relied on the wind, early beetles and other little bugs to pollinate.

The origin of bees starts when plants first evolved to produce flowers and it was the change in diet to nectar and pollen that lead to the evolution of bees as we know them. All the 20,000 bee species worldwide we see today share a common ancestor with wasps. That common ancestor is what we call the proto-bee.  What makes the proto-bees different from the wasps was the furry thorax which all bees have. Our bee history starts with the very first flowers and the proto-bee, which was essentially a larger furry vegetarian wasp!

The explosion of flowers and bees

Flowering plants were around before bees but it was the bees that allowed them to thrive and dominate the plant world as they do today. During the early Cretaceous period there was a massive explosion of bees and flowing plants. It was this plant-pollinator interaction with early bees that changed much of the planets ecosystems around 120 million years ago.

During this time bees and flowers really solidified their symbiotic relationship and flourished because of it. Flowers became more colourful to attract bees, because they have relatively poor eyesight. However bees have a unique vision that allows them to see patterns in the ultraviolet range which a many flowers produce. As flowers evolved to attract more bees, the bees evolved to be better pollinators, developing hairier legs and bodies along with longer tongues to slurp up that nectar!

After the mass extinction event that killed the dinosaurs at the end of Cretaceous period, it was bees that allowed flowering plants to recover and thrive again. Today there are around 5,000 species of flowering plants, all of which require pollination. But the spread of flowering plants across the planet only happened when bees started to evolve into the perfect pollinators we know them as.

Flowers need bees and bees need flowers, neither can thrive and be successful without the other. Insects are by far the most effective way of pollination which gives flowering plants a big advantage over non-flowering plants. Pollination by bees allows more variation, quicker adaptation and better survival. Both bees and flowers have co-evolved to be completely dependent on each other and have been perfect partners for millions of years. 

Humans and honeybees

The main difference between honeybees and other bees is that most other bees are solitary. Where as honeybees are social, living and working together. All apis (honeybee) species come from a common ancestor 10-12 million years ago that were the first social bees living in complex hive society. As well as being social they have all evolved to have their complex dance language. The origins of these social bee societies are not really understood, however studies have shown that the environment may have played a large part. It seems that when living in colder and wetter places bees stayed solitary, in warmer places the bees became social.

The relationship between honeybees and humans goes back thousands of years The earliest known cave drawings and wall art of people collecting wild honey are from around 13,000 years ago. Honey is also described in Mayan scrolls and was being used in cooking.

The origins of a closer human interaction with bees dates back to ancient Egypt over 4,000 years ago and this seems to be when beekeeping originated. This was the point in time that humans started managing bees as a form of livestock for honey and beeswax. Bees were clearly very important to the ancient Egyptians as they were even depicted in hieroglyphs. This means beekeeping as we know it has a 4,000 year unbroken tradition. Looking back through human history it would appear that bees and honey has touched every human civilization in some way.

It is a very unique relationship that humans have with bees and it seems the fate of bees and us are completely intertwined. It's a strange thing to think about but without the evolution of bees as pollinators, we may not even exist.

Making sure bees can continue

Because of their evolutionary path, bees and flowers go together. You cannot separate them and one cannot survive without the other. Right now habitat loss is the probably the biggest threat to bees especially in our towns and cities. Many people have paved over their front gardens to have off-road parking and our back gardens are often neat lawns and patios.

It's not only in cities that we have problems, a lot of farming land in the countryside is covered in monocrops and while rapeseed fields can provide many species of bee with a bounty of pollen and nectar, once that crop is harvested it's gone leaving those same bees with a lack of food. Those fields of easily visible crops can also mean that nearby wildflowers can be severely under pollinated. Bees need a variety of flowers that bloom at different times of the year.

We desperately need to stop habitat loss, improve existing habitats and create new bio-diverse habitats so that our bee populations can live and thrive for millions more years to come. Planting wildflowers is important and we can all help, if you don't have a garden of your own you can spread seeds wherever you can. From the side of roads to your local park, from schools to the smallest pots outside your front door, we can all do something. If you've been collecting up our free bee-saving seeds over the winter, it won't be long before it's time to get planting!


  • I love reading about bees, our little miracle workers! There are lots of references to honey in the bible so honey and bees have been highly valued for many millennia. I’m expecting a delivery of three of your honeys any day! Very excited.. may you live in a land flowing with milk and honey 🍯

    Chrissy Gisbey
  • Good morning I have just tryed your sleep time honey I have to say when I don’t take it my sleep is not quite as good great honey amongst others I have tryed 🤗😋

    Shirley collins
  • Thanks for this beautiful article about bees. It’s so interesting.
    May God bless you all.

    Dawn Juliet Santhiapillai

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