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References to bees and honey can be found in early civilizations from the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, Romans, and Mayans in the warmer climates to Celts, Slavs, and Northern Europe in colder climates. Honey as a sweetener was valued even in areas where sugar was available. A number of these early civilizations held the bee and its honey in high regard, using the bee as a symbol for royalty and honey for anointing their kings and for embalming the dead. Besides using honey for a sweetener in food, it was also used medicinally during the Middle Ages and Renaissance in Europe, where beeswax was also used for candle making and for molds to cast statues.

There is evidence from an Egyptian tomb dating to 2400 B.C. that this culture had learned to raise bees in man-made hives and no longer had to rely on raiding beehives for their honey. In southern climates, a round type of beehive was constructed from hollow tubes made of mud or clay and baked in the sun. The bees then built their honeycombs in these early beehives. In the northern climates of Europe, a horizontal hive was developed that was made of wicker or straw. Other materials used were cane in China, cork in Spain, and hollow tree trunks in eastern Europe. The bees were smoked out from the hive in order to collect the honey, as they frequently are today, especially with bee colonies that are aggressive in nature.

A vertical beehive was invented by François Huber in 1792 that was made of wooden frames, hinged like a book, and with glass covering the end leaves so that the bees' activities could be observed. Many other similar hives were developed, but they all shared the problem of becoming gummed together by the beeswax that was produced along with the honey. In 1851, a Pennsylvania minister solved the problem by establishing the correct measurement for bee space needed around the frames and other movable parts of man-made hives. This measurement is one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch or six to ten millimeters.

A subsequent innovation in beehive construction was the introduction of a fabricated wax honeycomb foundation on which the bees could accelerate the production of honey, since they did not have to spend time building the honeycomb. Further improvement in honey production was made after the introduction of a mechanical honey extractor.

Beekeeping is carried out by large-scale commercial beekeepers and by thousands of hobby beekeepers. It is estimated that the annual worldwide production of honey exceeds a million metric tons. Besides marketing honey as a product, beekeepers serve agricultural businesses by supplying bees for pollinating at least 90 commercially valuable crops, such as fruits, nuts, and field crops like alfalfa. Beekeepers often migrate from northern locations in the summer to southern ones in the winter. The largest honey-producing beekeepers are found in California, Florida, and Minnesota, but New York, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois also have commercial beekeepers. While a hobbyist might have only a dozen or so hives to tend, a commercial beekeeper often has thousands of hives.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ballistic galvanometer to Big–bang theoryBees - Bee Families, Solitary Bees, Social Bees, Honey Bees, Beekeeping, Killer Bees