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[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #28: Bee

September 16, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here.



A bee on a yellow flower
Honey bee. Image by Andreas Trepte. CC BY-SA 2.5

There are around 250 species of bee in Britain, the vast majority of which are solitary species. Social bee colonies vary in size between honey bee colonies of over 60, 000 insects, to bumble bee colonies of 20-150. 

Economically, honey bees (Apis mellifera Linnaeus) are an important species. As a food, honey is rich in vitamins, minerals and energy. Beeswax is an important material, with many uses, including candle making, as sealing wax, for waterproofing, for casting through the lost-wax method, and more recently as a pharmaceutical. Initially, honeycomb would have been harvested from wild colonies – it is not known when the first managed hives were used.

Beeswax is also produced by bumble bees, and this has occasionally been exploited.

Honey bees are sometimes found at archaeological sites, for example from Anglo-Scandinavian levels at 16-22 Coppergate, York, and an early record is known from Bronze Age deposits at Runnymede Bridge. 

Beeswax was detected on arrowheads associated with the burial of a butchered aurochs at Holloway Lane, Harmondsworth, in association with animal fats – presumably these had been combined to manufacture a mastic to haft the arrow. Beeswax can also be mixed with other substances to change the qualities of adhesives, and evidence from Fossellone Cave and in Latium, Italy, shows that Neanderthals were mixing beeswax into pine or conifer resin to improve the quality for hafting lithic flakes to wooden handles between 55 and 45 thousand years ago. A wax ball was recovered at the 16-22 Coppergate site mentioned above. Sealing wax, which was a mixture of beeswax and resin, has been found in late 2nd century deposits at Tanner Row in York.

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