Exactly how long honey has been in existence is hard to say because it has been around since as far back as we can record. Cave paintings in Spain from 7000BC show the earliest records of beekeeping, however, fossils of honey bees date back about 150 million years! Its ‘magical’ properties and versatility has given honey a significant part in history:
The earliest record of keeping bees in hives was found in the sun temple erected in 2400BC near Cairo. The bee featured frequently in Egyptian hieroglyphs and, being favoured by the pharaohs, often symbolised royalty.
The ancient Egyptians used honey as a sweetener, as a gift to their gods and even as an ingredient in embalming fluid. Honey cakes were baked by the Egyptians and used as an offering to placate the gods. The Greeks, too, made honey cakes and offered them to the gods.
The Greeks viewed honey as not only an important food, but also as a healing medicine. Greek recipes books were full of sweetmeats and cakes made from honey. Cheeses were mixed with honey to make cheesecakes, described by Euripides in the fifth century BC as being “steeped most thoroughly in the rich honey of the golden bee.”
The Romans also used honey as a gift to the gods and they used it extensively in cooking. Beekeeping flourished throughout the Roman empire.
Once Christianity was established, honey and beeswax production increased greatly to meet the demand for church candles.
Honey continued to be of importance in Europe until the Renaissance, when the arrival of sugar from further afield meant honey was used less. By the seventeenth century sugar was being used regularly as a sweetener and honey was used even less. As bees were thought to have special powers, they were often used as emblems:
Pope Urban VIII used the bee as his emblem.
The bee was the sign of the king of Lower Egypt during the First Dynasty (3,200BC).
Napoleon’s flag carried a single line of bees in flight, and his robe was embroidered with bees.
In the third century BC, the bee was the emblem used on coins in the Greek city of Ephesus.
The bee was the symbol of the Greek goddess Artemis.
The bee was the emblem of eros/cupid.