In Food History 101, we're hitting the books -- to explore the who, what, when, where, and why of what we eat today.
Today: How honey was discovered -- and how it became what it is today.
Shop the Story
Honey and humans have a history stretching back before domesticated animals, baked goods, or farms. The humans to first encounter honey over 10,000 years ago would have found it inside of a wild bee’s nest and, for some reason, decided to taste the sweet spoils.
In a time when fruit was they sweetest thing they had ever tasted, honey seemed like a revelation from the gods. In the earliest centuries, nearly every culture had a myth explaining the immortal sweetness of honey.
For thousands of years, the only foolproof method of gathering honey was to find a wild hive -- the locations of which were fiercely guarded. The first “domesticated” beehive likely traces back to the Egyptians. The earliest apiarists made hives from old logs or tree trunks to mimic the homes of wild swarms.
It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century -- when a clergyman and apiarist named Lorenzo Langstroth designed the “collateral hive” -- that the honey harvest became just a simple tax on bees. It revolutionized domestic beekeeping by allowing individual combs to be lifted out; finally, you could get honey without replacing your entire colony. His invention was based on the idea of “bee space": an observed distance between each comb that was large enough to keep each comb from sticking together, but small enough that bees didn’t attempt to seal it themselves. After centuries of living with bees, humans had finally discovered something useful to our relationship with them -- instead of simply destroying them.
We’ve slowly come to recognize honey as something more important than a sweetener. Eighty-percent of the food we eat relies on pollination. Whether or not bees were created for human enjoyment, without them and without honey we’d live in a world where plants could not grow and fruit could not ripen.
What are your favorite ways to use honey? Let us know in the comments!
Top photos by Tom Hirschfeld, bottom photo by Emiko Davies
On our new weekly podcast, two friends separated by the Atlantic take questions and compare notes on everything from charcuterie trends to scone etiquette.
Tove Danovich is the founding editor of Food Politic: Journal of Food News and Culture. She's worked with Epicurious and been published in Grist, The Brooklyn Rail, and others. Most days you can find her at home in NYC trying to keep the dog from eating her lunch.