How Did Honey Evolve in our Diet?


Honey is probably one of the most ancient sweeteners used by humans. Additionally, it was probably consumed not only by us Homo sapiens sapiens but Neanderthals (Homo sapiens neanderthalensis). In fact, very likely honey played a role in the evolution of the human desire and taste for sweet food products. Honey has played an important role not only in food consumption but also in medicine and even embalming in burial. Its prevalence in the New and Old Worlds have also made it widespread in use even in early prehistoric periods.

Early Use

Figure 1. One of the earliest depictions of honey collection from a cave in Spain.

The earliest evidence for the use of honey comes from Spain (Figure 1), from about 8-9,0000 years ago. At about 5500 years ago, honey was found in burials in Georgia on ceramics, suggesting they were used as gifts in the afterlife. However, very likely the use of honey goes back to a much earlier period. Neanderthals probably used honey as a food they gathered and even our nearest relatives in the ape family are known to utilize honey. Scientists estimate that the evolution for sweet tastes developed in our ancestors at about 15 million years, long before even apes arose. It is postulated that honey could have been a key factor in the evolution or desire for sweet foods that we have now inherited genetically. The main reason is foods with fructose, where honey contains a lot of this monosaccharides, can be vital in periods when starvation is prevalent. It has high amounts of energy relative to the amount that one needs to consume to survive. In fact, the association of honey as a food for fending off starvation has come down to use in stories in the Bible (e.g., such as John the Baptist eating honey and locusts) and Buddha retreating in the wilderness, where he ate honey brought by a monkey.[1]

Use in Historical Periods

In the 3rd millennium BCE, both ancient Mesopotamia, in Sumer or modern southern Iraq, and Egypt show evidence of beekeeping having developed. Honey, at this point, was used as an offering for the worship of gods and for food consumption. Beeswax was also utilized for making lost wax products such as metals, candles, sealings, and even as dental filling. The importance of beeswax and honey, in fact, led to the development of beekeeping as an important profession already by the third millennium BCE. Beehives were kept in temples as well as by private beekeepers, who traded honey and beeswax. The Egyptians were known to make clay pots for hives, suggesting by the 3rd millennium BCE artificial hives were now made. The creation of hives also included mud and twigs placed together to replicate more natural-looking beehives. The Hittite law codes mention fines given to those who would steel from beehives, indicating the importance that beehives had to the economy not only for food but also for wax.[2]

Figure 2. Scene of beehive collection for extracting honey from the 16th century.

Egyptian sources also indicate the Levant as a land of honey. The Egyptian hero Sinuhe indicates that beehives were being kept in the Levant in the 3rd millennium BCE. This depiction of the Levant as a "land of honey" may have later influenced references to the region in the Bible as a "land of milk and honey." Both in the Egyptian and Biblical references to honey lands that can grow honey are referenced as prosperous. In war campaigns in the region by the Egyptians, they mention taking honey as tribute, indicating the importance of honey as a food product but also, in Egypt, as something used in the embalming process in burials. This is also true in other cultures that embalmed, such as in ancient Georgia. Honey was also sacrificed to the gods in death, where honey jars have been found in Egyptian tombs.[3]

In India, the Vedas mention honey as a spiritual product and reference its potential for healing. Marriage ceremonies were often symbolized with honey as a way to ward evil from the marriage. The term "madhu" was used for honey and likely influenced the much later Anglo-Saxon term "medu" for honey, which today has become the term mead, an alcoholic drink that uses honey. Chinese texts from the 1st millennium BCE record beekeeping as also an important activity in ancient China. In ancient Greece, bees were also vital for providing honey that was not only consumed to sweeten food but also used as offerings to the gods. In the New World, stingless honeybees were kept, where the Maya cultivated honey for use in alcoholic drinks (similar to mead) as well as food. In fact, bees for the Maya were treat as pets and kept around the house, likely because they did not sting, although they could still bite. We know from various ancient cultures, honey has been used to treat stomach ailments, ulcers, and various skin burns and wounds.[4]

In the Roman period, honey keeping was a mass industry that spread throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Pliny mentions beekeeping in various parts of the empire and artificial large slabs would be used to collect the honey made by bees, where the honey was then applied to a variety of food products, such as cakes, mostly as a sweetener.[5]

In the Medieval period and early modern period (Figure 2), honey continued to be cultivated for its healing and medicinal use as well as for sweetening food. Wax was just as important to Medieval Europe as honey collection, where candles were mostly made. This made beekeeping a very important profession that allowed beekeepers and owners to develop substantial wealth relative to other professions. Wax was also used for seals and sealing documents, particularly official documents relaying important church business or royal edicts.[6]

Modern Use

In the 19th and 20th century, artificial honey and new forms of beehives were created to make production more suitable for mass markets. While artificial hives have been known since the 3rd millennium BCE, modern frame beehives begin to develop in 1814. The idea was to make it easier to separate bees from the hives to more easily collect honey without killing bees or getting stung. Previously, smoke was used to drive bees away and then break artificial or natural hives, where the honey was then collected. Eventually in 1852, the Langstroth hive was invented, which has now become the modern way in which most natural honey is collected. This type of beehive developed from another form of frame developed by Johann Dzierzon. This innovation made us of the so-called "bee space," which was observed distance between each comb that was large enough to keep a comb from sticking together. Combs and bees were then separated within these units. Such an innovation has made beekeeping less destructive, as many other methods often destroyed not only the hive but killed many of the bees, often making the process of honey production unsustainable for beekeepers.[7]

The taste of honey can be refined based on the types of flowers bees use. Australia probably has some of the most unique honey in the world due to the continent having many types of flowers that are unique to it. Artificial honey has also become well established, which was already occurring in ancient periods where flour was often added to create a form of artificial honey. This has led to a variety of grades and quality standards being created today by different countries. In the United States, grades A-C are used to reflect the quality of honey products. Floral sources of honey are also used for classification, including how many different flowers bees used to create honey. After a period of decline in honey consumption in the mid 20th century, as sugar and artificial sweeteners increasingly replaced honey as a sweetener, honey has more recently reemerged as a product of greater interest and desire by consumers.[8] However, despite renewed consumer interest in honey, honeybees have begun to decline in various parts of the world, where the scientific community does not have one clear answer for this decline. Possible reasons include pesticides and other chemicals killing honeybees or diminishing the number of offspring that can be produced. While this decline threatens modern agriculture, it has also affected natural production of honey, where the price of honey has rapidly increased over the last decade.[9]


Honey is perhaps one of our oldest continuously used known food items that likely has its origin long before the rise of modern humans. The evolution of honey has even led to our development for sweet tastes that are today often satisfied by sugar or artificial sweeteners. Honey production was also nearly universal, even in the ancient world, where New and Old World varieties saw different method of cultivation, including development of artificial beehives. Honey keeping, relative to other food products, changed very little until about the mid 19th century, when artificial beehives developed into their more modern form that allowed the preservation of bees and easier harvesting of honey. Today, the rise of artificial honey has created greater standards of what constitutes as honey. After a period of decline when sugar replaced honey in many countries as a sweetener for products that were once sweetened by honey, such as cakes, more modern consumers are valuing honey for its perceived health and food value, leading to a reemergence of honey production worldwide. However, with the recent decline of the honeybee in many countries, this food item is now under renewed threat.


  1. For more on the earliest history of honey, see: Crane, E. (1999). The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting. New York: Routledge.
  2. For more on early historical texts referencing honey and beekeeping, see Crane (1999) and: Kritsky, G. (2015). The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  3. For more on the significance of honey to ancient Near Eastern societies, see: Dalby, A. (2003). Food in the ancient world, from A to Z. London ; New York: Routledge, pg. 179.
  4. For more on reference in various ancient societies to beekeeping and records of use for honey, see: de Ruig, Ann. 2012. The History of Man's Use of Honey.Bloomington, Indiana.
  5. For more on the industry of honey in the Roman period, see: Carne 2009: 208
  6. For more on Medieval production of honey, see: Adamson, M. W. (2004). Food in medieval times. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, pg. 27.
  7. For more on the development of artificial beehives and modern development of them, see: Showler, K. (2011). Essays in Beekeeping History. Warwickshire, England: BeeCraft.
  8. For more on the quality of honey, see: Thacker, Emily. 2014. The Honey Book. James Direct, Incorporated. Hartville, Ohio.
  9. For more on recent events surrounding the honeybee, see: Sammataro, D., & Yoder, J. (Eds.). (2012). Honey Bee Colony Health: Challenges and Sustainable Solutions. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.


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