A taste for honey: Bees in African rock art

Helen Anderson, Project Cataloguer of African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

In Summer 2014 the green roof of the newly opened World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) at the British Museum became home to a colony of bees. The bees were introduced as part of an initiative by an organisation called Inmidtown – to boost the diminishing population of bees and train Museum staff in the craft of beekeeping. I, along with a number of keen volunteers, have taken up the exciting challenge to look after our bees on the roof on a weekly basis until September.

Beekeepers from the Urban Bee Project on the roof of the WCEC building (Photographs: Michael Row, British Museum)

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My own fascination with bees goes back to my childhood in Norfolk. I vividly remember watching their comings and goings on an oversized lavender bush in our garden; an attraction which didn’t wane despite being stung on more than one occasion. However, my role as project cataloguer on the African Rock Art Image Project has firmly established that the human-bee relationship is one that is very likely to be several thousands, if not tens of thousands of years old. Depictions of bees, their nests and the harvesting of honey can be found at rock art sites across the African continent.

Recent genomic studies indicate that the honeybee, Apis mellifera, originated in Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. While European populations contracted during Ice Ages, African populations expanded during these periods, suggesting environmental conditions were more favourable and that, historically, climate change has had a strong impact on honeybee populations.

Apis mellifera (Photograph: by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Africa has more rock art relating to bees than any other continent where populations of bees are found (Europe, Asia and Oceania), although there are no secure dates for the origin of these images. Only a few engravings and paintings relating to bees exist in northern Africa, and these are at widely dispersed sites. The African honeybee builds a nest in dark cavities, typically trees. Where there are no suitable trees, such as in the Sahara, bees may nest in termite mounds, rock hollows, depressions or crevices, and the honeycombs of such nests are sometimes visible. In Libya, for example, nests are located in rock fractures in the steep sides of wadis (dried up riverbeds), which can be between 100 and 200 metres high. There are significantly more depictions associated with bees in the rock art south of the Sahara; why this should be the case is not entirely clear – it may be due to environmental conditions. I should, at this point, make the distinction between the activity of beekeeping in which I am engaged, and the more apt term of honey-hunters, which most closely explains the activities seen in the rock art representations of southern and eastern Africa. It has been suggested that historically hive beekeeping was never developed in these regions as there were sufficient nest sites that provided plentiful honey for local communities.

Granite rock shelter in Tanzania with paintings above the head of the man on the left. Sticks form the ladder to enable the men to reach out and extract honey from the bees’ nest within the large cavity. © TARA/David Coulson.(Image not yet catalogued)

The bees’ nest consists of a number of parallel honeycombs built into the cavity, suspended from an upper surface. Honey-hunters would have observed the nest structure when harvesting the combs, perceiving the different shapes and forms they take depending on the angle of entry. For example, in an upright tree trunk, looking at the combs face on they appear as a suspended curved structure (catenary pattern); seen in a tree cavity or in a cavity from below, the ends of the combs look like oval or elliptical-shaped parallel compartments. These particular composite shapes were termed ‘formlings’ by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius in the 1930s, and comprise a distinct category of feature in African rock art.

Wild bees' nest showing combs hanging down in catenary curves or elliptical adjacent compartments. (Photo:

Engraved rock art showing feature similar to catenary pattern of bees' nest. Loumet Asli, Ouarzazate Province, Morocco. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson)

Fifty-six catenary patterns have been found at thirty-eight rock art sites, only five of which are in northern Africa. Catenary patterns are the easiest bee-related image to depict when engraving and are found at one site in Algeria and four in Morocco. Painted rock art of nested catenary curves, possibly representing bees’ nests, sometimes depicts clusters of small crosses which bear resemblance to a group of flying bees.

Two sets of nested curves. The lower set of curves has black dots (maybe bees?) between curved lines. Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. © TARA/David Coulson. Image not yet catalogued.

More than 300 depictions of formlings can be found at over 220 sites – over 95% of which come from Zimbabwe alone. Studies of honeybee nests have been compared to artistic representations of catenary patterns and formlings, and suggest that depictions of both were originally based on observations of bees’ nests made by the producers of rock art.

Painted rock art showing carefully drawn ‘formling’ with five ovals surrounded by cloud of tiny red crosses (perhaps bees?). Two figures in the middle of the formling are facing each other with arms outstretched (maybe they are harvesting?). Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

The harvesting of honey in rock paintings shows honey-hunters in groups, sometimes using ladders to reach the nests. In one painting from Zimbabwe, fire or smoke, which was used to ward off the bees, is depicted.

Painting of a seated figure with a large headdress, apparently surrounded by insects – possibly bees. From near Thawi, Kondoa, Tanzania. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

In southern Africa, shamans of the San people describe being stung by bees while in a trance-like state (Lewis-Williams, 2001); and in the Kalahari Desert, the San dance when bees are swarming which they believe strengthens the efficacy of the dance. Examples of such dances are depicted in painted rock art, where bees are painted on people’s bodies and limbs. For the San, bees and honey are highly potent symbols.

Painted rock art showing large mythical animal with paws and long curved trunk surrounded by tiny crosses – perhaps representing bees. Drakensberg Mounatins, South Africa. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

My own forays into beekeeping are in their initial stages and I am looking forward to learning about these productive insects and helping them to thrive in their increasingly endangered habitats; but it is thought-provoking that our taste for honey reaches back across the millennia.


For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.

The African rock art image project is supported by The Arcadia Fund.


Further reading

Crane, Eva, 2001, The Rock Art of the Honey Hunters, Cardiff: International Bee Research Association.

Dixon, Luke, forthcoming, A Time There Was: A Story of Rock Art, Bees and Bushmen.

Kidd, Andrew, B. and Schrimpf, Berthold, 2000, ‘Bees and bee-keeping’, in R. Blench, Kevin C. MacDonald (eds), The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography, London: Routledge.

Lewis-Williams, D., 2001, ‘Brainstorming images: neuropsychology and rock art research’, in David S. Whitley (ed.), Handbook of Rock Art Research, California: Altamira Press, pp. 332–60.

Mguni, Siyakha, 2006, ‘King’s monuments: identifying “formlings” in southern African San rock paintings’, in Antiquity, 80: 583–98.

Wallberg, A., Han, F., Wellhagen, G., Dahle, B., Kawata, M., Haddad, N., Simões, Z.L.P., Allsopp, M.H., Kandemir. I., De La Rúa, P., Pirk, C.W., Webster, M.T., 2014, ‘A worldwide survey of genome sequence variation provides insight into the evolutionary history of the honeybee Apis mellifera’, in Nature Genetics, 46: 1081–88.

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Saving honeybees in the US

honeybees on honeycomb

honeybees on honeycomb

With a workforce of billions, they contribute more than $15bn (£9bn) to the US economy each year – but as populations decline, can the humble honeybee be saved?

A giant inflatable corn on the cob towers over the hundreds of stalls at the Wisconsin State Fair. Food is the main draw, in what’s a showcase for local produce. The unhealthier, it seems, the better.

Families can be seen piling in mouthfuls of everything from sausages dripping in fat, to cheese curds, and sticky cherry pie. Some of the more unusual delicacies include deep-fried cookies and fish and chips on a stick.

Standing on the stage under the tent at the Wisconsin Food Pavilion are two immaculately dressed young women wearing crowns on their heads and sporting silk sashes, the kind usually seen at beauty pageants.

Anna Kettlewell (right) and Lois Hoftiezer Graf (second from right) join two other former Wisconsin Honey Queens in promoting the honey industry

Anna Kettlewell (right) and Lois Hoftiezer Graf (second from right) join two other former Wisconsin Honey Queens in promoting the honey industry

They are former Wisconsin “Honey Queens” – statewide ambassadors for the beekeeping and honey industry. Their job is to travel throughout the state, speaking about honeybees at schools, festivals and farmers’ markets.

Anna Kettlewell held the title in 1998. She is on stage showing off the benefits of the sticky stuff in a cooking demonstration, as she makes an ice-cream syrup.

But she is also here to educate people about the wider importance of the honeybee, which is the official state insect of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin honey producers association

Wisconsin honey producers association

“Honeybees are absolutely vital for the nation’s food supply. One third of our diet is dependent on the honeybee,” she says, reciting her Honey Queen talking points.

“The beekeeping industry in Wisconsin is very important for our cranberry industry. Honeybees are responsible for pollinating our cranberry crops in the state, which is our state fruit.”

Another Wisconsin Honey Queen, 60-year-old Lois Hoftiezer Graf, is handing out samples of the different varieties of honey made in the state. She dishes out spoonfuls dressed in the immaculately preserved sash she was given when she took the title in 1972.

“I think the marketing has improved quite a lot,” says Lois of the changes in the honey industry since then. “The other thing that has changed in our culture, is we’re much more interested in natural and organic foods.”

The honeybee is important to both the Wisconsin and the US economies

The honeybee is important to both the Wisconsin and the US economies

But as tastes have changed, so too have the fortunes of the honeybee, which has seen its population decline across the United States.

In the past 60 years the number of honeybee colonies has fallen from six million beehives in 1947, to just 2.5 million today, according to the White House.

The honeybee’s decline

honeybee cleaning spilt honey from damaged honeycomb

honeybee cleaning spilt honey from damaged honeycomb

In October 2006, some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90% of their hives. While colony losses are not unexpected, especially over the winter, this magnitude of losses was unusually high

In 1995-96, Pennsylvania beekeepers lost 53% of their colonies without a specific identifiable cause

In 1903, in the Cache Valley in Utah, 2,000 colonies were lost to an unknown “disappearing disease” after a “hard winter and a cold spring”

Source: US Department of Agriculture

This decline, the White House says, could pose a real threat to US agriculture, because of the role the honeybee plays in the pollination of fruit, nuts and vegetables.

It might be a tiny little insect, but one mouthful in three, directly or indirectly, benefits from honeybee pollination, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Honeybees enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in the US.

honeybees on honeycomb

honeybees on honeycomb

In a sign of how seriously this is being taken, in June, President Obama launched a taskforce to protect the honeybee. The White House is investing $50m into research and action to stem the decline, improve habitats and promote better education around the issue.

It is welcome news for Ryan Stern, a beekeeper who runs Concord Farms in Sullivan, Wisconsin. His business began as a few hives, and is now a large, commercial operation.

“I was growing in [terms of] numbers of bee hives and I was starting to not be able to manage those bee hives and work full-time correctly, and I had to make a choice of what I wanted to do.

“I really enjoy working with the bees every day, it’s nice being out in the sun working with them. Being stung is not the most enjoyable thing but every job has its downfalls.”

Ryan Stern's business began as just a few hives but has grown over the years

Ryan Stern’s business began as just a few hives but has grown over the years

Ryan pulls out a frame from one of his 48 hives, to reveal a swarm of bees, navigating the honeycomb furiously. As he scratches a small section of the frame, a large, sticky drop of honey falls from it.

This is Ryan’s livelihood, but harsh winters, and pesticides have made it tough for him to keep all his bees alive.

“If you can keep your bees alive you can make money, but keeping bees alive definitely costs a lot of money by itself.

“Between the pests, the disease, nutrition, lack of forage, it’s definitely just a hard environment to keep them alive in, and unfortunately with genetically modified plants some of the pollens and stuff off of these crops you don’t really want to get into your bee hives.”

Some years Ryan says he measures success by how healthy his bees are, not by what is produced.

Ryan Stern says keeping bees alive is a costly business

Ryan Stern says keeping bees alive is a costly business

The White House has named Wisconsin as one of five states where farmers and ranchers will be given extra funding to continue their work in establishing new habitats for honeybee populations, but Ryan is not yet sure if his farm will reap the benefits of that.

Still, he thinks President Obama’s action on the bee industry is a good move, and he says everyone, even those who aren’t in agriculture, needs to focus more on the role the honeybee plays.

“You don’t have to have 100 acres to help with the issue. Every lawn, every yard can help. It’s important because it will affect the food supply everywhere.

“If there’s a shortage in one area, it’s a global economy, so it’s going to change food prices all across the world.”

Article originally published here

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