From the ancient world to us, thanks to the honey bee

By Athayde Tonhasca

The Western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is deservedly celebrated as one of the most useful species to mankind. Besides giving us honey, wax, pollen and royal jelly, the honey bee is the world’s main crop pollinator and a significant pollinator of wild plants. But this bee has made a lesser known but historically important contribution to the culture and history of the Western world.

Bees from the genus Apis secrete liquid wax through specialised glands located in their abdominal segments. Once exposed to air, the wax hardens into flakes and falls off. Bees chew and mould the wax into honeycomb, the architecturally complex array of cells that store honey and pollen, and house the brood (eggs, larvae and pupae). 

Wax coming out of glands on the underside of the bee’s abdomen. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Beeswax is obtained by melting the honeycomb, straining it to remove impurities, and pressing the residue to extract any remaining wax. The purified material is then poured into moulds to solidify. Beeswax is a natural plastic, used since prehistory as a lubricant, as well as for polishing, waterproofing, metal casting and embalming. Beeswax candles were an agreeable alternative to the existing sources of artificial light: smoky, messy and stinky torches, oil-fuelled lamps and tallow candles, which were made from animal fats. The popularity of beeswax candles rose with the spread of Christianity then fell after the Reformation, when candlelight lost its importance in liturgical practices. But beeswax still is a profitable commodity for candle manufacture, as well as for the preservation of fresh fruit and in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. 

The softness and pliability of beeswax gave the ancients a candle moment (lightbulbs were not around): flat pieces of wood, stone or metal could be covered with a thin layer of wax and written on with a sharpened stick. The tablet prototype was born. 

The Greeks and Romans improved the concept by using a wooden frame shaped like a shallow tray, which was filled with a layer of beeswax. Frames were fastened together with wires or twine, so that tablets could be opened and shut like a book; the edges prevented the waxy surfaces from rubbing against each other. A stylus made from iron, bronze or bone was used scratch words in the wax. 

Reproductions of a Roman wax tablet and a stylus. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Tablets were portable and reusable writing surfaces; the beeswax could be warmed and the surface smoothed over. The stylus was flattened at one end so it could be used to scrape off any unwanted writing. For the Romans, a tabula rasa(scraped tablet) meant to start over, just as, centuries later, the slate and chalk used by school pupils gave us the term ‘a clean slate’. A good writer was said to have ‘a good stylus’. With time, ‘a stylus’ came to mean a distinctive characteristic of any kind, and so giving rise to our ‘style.’

Papyrus and vellum, the sturdy writing media of the time, were expensive and therefore out of reach of most literate people. Wax tablets were the affordable alternative, thus used widely for ephemeral communications such as letters, drafts, drawings and accounting ledgers. But permanent records such as wills and contracts were registered on wax as well. The earliest written documents recorded in Britain, dating from 50 to 80 AD, are Roman wooden tablets retrieved between 2010 and 2013 from a construction site in London (the Bloomberg Tablets).

A Greek man (~500 BC) and a Roman woman (~50 AC) with their wax tablets and styluses. © Wikipedia Creative Commons

Until the middle ages, virtually everyone who learned to write did so on a wax tablet. Livy, Ovid, Cicero, Martial and other classical authors mentioned tabulae ceratae (wax tablets) in their texts, so it is quite likely that much of their thinking was first drafted on beeswax. These writings were then copied over and over onto parchment and later on paper, so they survived over the centuries to inspire writers such as, by their own account, William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri and Bernard Shaw.    

So, if next summer you find yourself sitting in a garden with a book in your hands while listening to the bees buzzing around, spare a moment to contemplate the possible connections. You will have another reason to cherish the honey bee.