Nature: Dieter Zechmeister, a bee keeper from Austria, charts the history of bees and their importance to mankind

My Journey with Bees

The global honeybee population is in dramatic decline. The effects of the demise of this tiny creature could have a devastating impact on global food security; since it has been estimated that honey bees are responsible for pollinating over 90 of our food crops worldwide.

Many believe that the decline of the honey bee is an alarm bell alerting our attention to problems in our wider environment and the unsustainable nature of our food and farming systems. Climate change, intensive agricultural practices, such as monoculture (growing the same crop year after year), and using pesticides, are damaging wildlife and the environment, including bees.

Honey and bees have always been part of the great myths of humanity and are extraordinarily potent symbols: mainly, they are symbolic of an industrious and prosperous community governed by their queen. In many cultures the Heads of State have used the emblem of the Bee – notably Napoleon I who used bees as a motif on all his carpets, as well as on his coronation robes.

Throughout history the Honey Bee has been worshiped in religious ceremony. In Greece, the bee is identified with Demeter, the goddess of the earth and crops. And globally, in many different cultures, the bee symbolizes the soul that flies away from the body.

Bees in History

For thousands of years, honey was the only sweet available to humans. To get honey, though, they had to search for a colony in the wild. I witnessed this old tradition in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco where honey is one of the most expensive commodities, mainly used as medicine. Young lads go climbing into the hills looking for the wild colonies. They often wearing sandals to climb really precarious rock faces, but they have the dexterity of mountain goats.

The earliest beekeepers kept colonies in Skeps –which look a bit like an upside down basket, that did not have the removable combs that are characteristic of modern hives. When it was time to harvest the honey, they would just exterminate the bees and cut the honeycomb out of the hive, and start the process again with another colony.

Skeps were traditionally made from what you could find and collect within a reasonable walking distance from your home. This might be straw, reed or grasses bound together by hazel, willow or bramble.

Fire has destroyed many of the old records concerning the history of skeps. The earliest records are written in Latin. Only people who could read them wrote them. It is likely that, in Britain, skep beekeeping was the first way that people tried to control bees as opposed to harvesting from wild colonies. The disadvantage at the time was that people had to pay taxes (in the form of honey) on the basis of the number of skeps they had.

Early skeps have been found with glass inserts as people have always been fascinated by what happens inside the bee colony.

Modern bee keeping

Here in Austria, where the traditional hives of the olden days were long hives, bee hives were and still are arranged in bee-houses to keep them warm and the snow off.

Yet the image most people have of a beehive is the widely used Langstroth beehive which is the standard beehive used in many parts of the world. It was invented in 1851 by the Reverend Lorenzo Langstroth a native of Philadelphia, discovered that if a space of 1 cm (3/8 inch) is left in the hive for the bees to move around in, the bees will neither build comb in the space nor cement it shut. This he called “bee space.” He applied his discovery to a newly designed frame that prevents the bees from attaching honeycomb to the inside of the hive box and thus the square frames that are so familiar with bee keeping came about.


The advantage of his design is that these frames can be moved with little trouble because they are designed so that the bees do not attach wax honeycomb between the frames or to the walls of the hive, and do not cement the frames to the side of the box using a resinous substance (propolis). This ability to move the frames allows the beekeeper to manage the bees in a way that had previously been impossible. Unfortunately this ease can lead to the bees to become over-managed and commercially farmed.

I personally love honey and have been interested in keeping bees probably since childhood. When our daughter Elektra was born in July 2007, I took time off work and found time for researching beekeeping. My partner Karen is a herbalist and makes many of her creams and ointments using bee-wax. She also makes a tincture from the propolis (a resinous mixture that honey bees collect from tree buds, sap flows, and other plants). It is used as a sealant for unwanted open spaces in the hive, and has amazing anti-microbial properties – one tiny amount on the end of your finger makes your mouth go numb; it really is incredibly powerful.

I would stay up reading, sometimes until three or four in the morning, ravenous for information on all the differing methods. My primary concern was keeping things as close to nature as possible and I feel uncomfortable using chemicals or insecticides on the bees.

The various chemicals used in beekeeping have, for the past decades, held at bay Varroa Destructor, a mite that attacks the bees, and other major pests, but chemical-resistance is building and evolution threatens to overtake the best that laboratory chemists have to offer. In fact, there is evidence that chemical treatments are making the problem worse. There are a few forums and books on Natural Beekeeping suggesting the use of more natural alternatives like Thymol from thyme, sugar dusting, oxalic acid (an organic compound) and even a book where the author has found that putting beehives on lay lines can help prevent disease.

I connected with local beekeepers all of whom were using the common Langstorf Hive, subscribed to a Bee magazine, and researched many internet sites.

It was when I found Phillip Chandler’s book, The Barefoot Beekeeper, I really felt I had found a method that resonated with my ethos. He inspired me to build a couple of top bar hives. These hives have a long history; the concept is believed to be several thousand years old. The earliest of these hives are believed to be baskets like the skeps but with sticks lain across the top as bars. Most modern top-bar hives are found in Africa. Owing to the low cost and ease of construction these are especially appropriate for use in non-industrialized and impoverished or low income locations, which is also a reason why a lot of hobby beekeepers use them. Phil Chandler’s design is modified for our cold winters and has extra space for insulation.

After completing my first top bar hive, during swarming season, I found a good site for the empty hives and dripped a few drops of Lemon Grass Essential oil onto the entrances –Lemon Grass works conveniently by mimicking the honey bees attractant pheromone.

Within a week the hives were inhabited. How exciting that the bees had moved in. I didn’t even own a bee suit or veil. Now one year on I have six top bar hives and my daughter Elektra who is 4 has been enjoying playing with the newly hatched Drones, the male bees, who are sting-less and fluffy. I would like to bring her up without a fear of bees, a fear which so many folks have.

The journey has been brilliant for all of our family. We have recently set up a Community Bee Project in our village and secured funding to build more hives.

The humble Bee has a lot to teach us. As organizers of the universe between earth and sky, bees symbolize all vital principles.


“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Albert Einstein


 See Greenpeace Article and help bees here: 




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