Ancient Chinese Apiculture
Constantine W. Lau
The previous version of this article was published in Bee World (IBRA) in Dec 2012, and it was
modified for clarity and shared here. Founded in 1949, the International Bee Research Association
(IBRA) is a not for profit organisation. Its major publications include, Journal of Apicultural Research,
Bee World and Journal of ApiProduct and ApiMedical Science.
Apiculture has a long history in China. The Eastern civilization has been depended on
agriculture for several thousand years. Along the belt of Yellow River and the
Yangtze River, farmers grew crops and reared animals. One of the animals they found
nutritionally and medically valuable was the honey bees. In the practice of collecting
bee products such as honey and broods from the wild hives, farmers started to
understand more about the bee behavior and able to domesticate some honey bee
species like Apis cerana for industrial purposes in later era.
In general, bees and wasps are called Feng in Chinese, and honey bees are called
Mi-feng. The earliest possible written record of bees was the Chinese character Feng
meaning bee[s] crafted in ancient oracle-bone inscriptions on animal bones dated back
to 3000 years ago. Later in the Zhou Dynasty (around 300 BCE), the Chinese
character “mi”, meaning honey, was recorded in the Book of Manner, Li Ji, as a
dietary recommendation. Bee hive was first described in Shan Hai Jin (A Chinese
Bestiary) around the same time period. It was a “creature” looked like a human with
two heads called Jiao-chong living in the Grain-Citadel Mountain, and he was the
leader of the stinging insects. According to the description, it was possibly two big
hives of Apis dorsata hanging on a tree branch similar to Photo 1. There were pieces
of bee related subjects found in several ancient documents, but none of them was yet
specifically focused on apiculture.
Several hundred years later, the technology of beekeeping advanced and developed
into business-size apicultural industry. In terms of beekeeping skills, people knew
special techniques that used honey to attract wild swarms into a wooden artificial hive.
In terms of the bee industry, beewax was harvested and made into candles (Mi-zhu)
offerings to the first Han Emperor (206 BCE – 195 BCE). Soon after it, there was the
first record of a professional beekeeper. His name was Jiang-qi (158 CE – 167 CE)
who had more than 300 servants working in his bee and pig farm. By the end of Tang
Dynasty (9th century CE), honey harvest has become a very common business
practiced in China, and the honey harvest activity has even become a national event in
the 6th month of the Chinese calendar (around July). In the Ming Dynasty (1368 CE –
1644 CE), beekeepers were already applying beekeeping techniques that were very
similar to the modern skills. For example, they knew that it was “better” to align the
colonies facing the same direction (likely to avoid extreme gust wind and intrusion of
neighboring bees), regularly clean up pests like spiders, wasps and ants, care for the
weak post-swarmed colony cautiously. With these knowledge and technologies, each
keeper in the Ming, on average, was able to manage 25 colonies in one.
Until the Qing Dynasty, there was, finally, the first book of apiculture, Feng Ya Xiao
Ji (Record of Bee Palace) written by Hao Yi-xing (1755 CE – 1823 CE). The book
had 12 chapters about honey beekeeping, namely Loyal Relationships, Government
(of the colony), Reproductive Swarming, Making Honey, Foraging among Flowers,
Cutting out Honey (from the hive), Yin Yan Attributes (of the photophilic behavior),
Knows the Sky (about fortune telling), Knows the Habitat (about geomancy and
fortune telling), Stinging, Offspring, Exodus of the Drones and three other chapters of
bees and wasps.
Poetic literatures about honey and bees were not rare in China. The earliest one was
recorded in the Song of Poetry (before 200 BCE), under the Hymns of Zhou there was
the poem of Self-Warning composed by the King of Zhou who reminded himself to
avoid threats from dangerous objects, the stinging bees (which likely represented the
warlords of his country. One of the most famous poems of honey bee was created by
Guo Puin in Jin Dynasty (265 CE – 420 CE). It briefly recorded the daily activities of
bees gathering nectar in the wilderness, the processing of nectar into honey, the queen
ruling other bees, and the swarming scenario in which the bees covered the sun.
Besides the bees, poets were also aware of the bee hive. Yang Wan-lin from the Song
Dynasty (960 CE – 1279 CE) even recorded the taste of worker bodies and lava in a
The history of Chinese apiculture is long and deep. Although China does not have the
earliest record of beekeeping like the rock paintings in Africa, it has a detail collection
of written records showing how well human-being has been domesticating honey bees
for the bee products. There were about a thousand individual Chinese writers able to
describe a worker, queen and queen cell in the long history of beekeeping in China.
Existing copies of their writings hid the ancient intelligence of Chinese apiculture has
to be discovered for better understanding of the development of honey beekeeping.
This subject has been treated in the Chinese literature, but relatively little known in
the Western scientific world. Our goal is to make this valuable information more
broadly available to non-Chinese readers.
There are 9 well-classified species of honey bees, and four of them are native in China.
Today, besides honey-hunting on the little honeybee Apis florea and the giant
honeybee Apis dorsata, honey is also harvested from beekeeping of Apis mellifera
(introduced) and Apis cerana (native). Ancient Chinese claimed that there were
thousands species of “bees”. Actually, it meant there were many species of bees and
warps, and the two animals were generally called Feng in ancient China. The ancient
word Feng was found crafted as ancient oracle scripts on tortoise ventral shells and
animal bones (Photo 2). There were several similar characters represents autumn
looked like a bee (Photo 3 and 4). One of the forms of this character had fire below
the insect drawing, which also possibly meant the bee (hive) was being smoked and
handled (Photo 5). The earliest written record of smoking bee hives was from Song
(960 CE – 1279 CE), and the techniques have been employed by the Chinese tribe of
Dai for driving out hornets and collecting the lava from the hive since the ancient.
The ancient Chinese character of bee, Feng, is composed of two parts: the upper part
determines the pronunciation and it means a sharp edge (of the stinger), and the lower
part is the category of “bugs” where the bees belong (Table 1). Honey bees species
like A. cerana, A. dorsata and A. florea that produce a large quantity of collectable
honey are called Mi-feng, literally meaning honey bee(s). Wasps and hornets were
generalized into a few types such as Huang-feng (yellow bees), Da Huang-feng (big
yellow bees), Hu-feng (bees that build a mud bottle), Mu-feng (bees that live inside
wood logs), Cao-feng (bees that live in grasses), Ma-feng (horse bee), and so on.
Since the bees and wasps were not clearly defined, it was difficult to identify the
species described in the old documents. Even so, we were still able to confirm a few
of these species using the inductive clues from different literatures. For example, one
of the documents mentioned that the hive of the biggest Feng (no name offered) was
as big as a wheel lid, and it was deadly venomous that could kill a cow with its venom
(Feng-du). By matching the description with the list of native species in China, we
can deduce that the bee is a hornet species, and its hive, along with the hives of wasps,
was commonly known as the “bee nest” which have been served as common
traditional Chinese medicine.
2. Behavior of honey bees
Eusocial organism like honey bees behave in a collective manner, and sociobiologists
treated they as a superorganism instead of a group of individuals. Chinese culture is
based upon a holistic worldview, but they did not have an idea of a colony or a
superorganism in the ancient times. In fact, the hive and the colony were not clearly
distinguished in Chinese literature, where the Chinese character of a bee hive,
Feng-fang, is sometimes misinterpreted as a colony. Even though Chinese naturalists
had not come up with the idea of superorganism, they at least recognized some of the
group behaviors of honey bee and understood that honey bees were social animals.
The sociology of the honey bees was beautifully described in several literatures. For
example, a colony of honey bees living in a hive was thought to be a royal family
living in a palace, in which, there was a king (bee queen) managing the servants to
carry out different tasks. This palace was called Feng-ya meaning Bee Palace (or
Government). General intra-specific interactions like aggression and swarming were
also found in these documents. Beekeepers found that bees performed group attack
once a person was stung more than three times. This phenomenon is now well
explained in science showing that the stinging behavior of bees was an induced
reaction to the alarm pheromones. Once the bees receive a degree of this chemical
signal, they will attack potential offenders around them, and the Chinese realized that
three stings on a target would trigger massive attacks. However, the group attacks had
not received as much attention as the reproductive swarming had. Documentation of
honey beekeeping always had a chapter about the reproductive swarming because it
was directly affecting the strength of the existing colony that also leads to the business
expansion of an apiary. The issues of bee reproduction will be discussed in the
following section on Queens and Swarms.
Modern discovery of labor division was first observed by Hao Yi-xing around 1819
CE, showing that bees in the same colony performed different tasks. He pointed out
that foragers were different individuals than those made honey in the hive or vice
versa, and they were specified in doing a single job only.
Worker bees were generalized as Mi-feng (honey bees) in Chinese language. There
were a lot of documents described the foraging behavior of workers likely because the
most general encounter of a honey bee was in the foraging field. Besides the general
behavior of collecting nectar and pollen, Su Che (1039 CE – 1112 CE) recorded the
water collecting behavior of honey bees in his poem. On top of that, Hao Yi-xing
further found bees collecting salt from the ocean and claimed that honey bees used
salt to make honey.
Li Shi-zhen (1518 CE – 1593 CE), the author of the first comprehensive encyclopedia
of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Compendium of Materia Medica, not only pointed
out that bees used their antenna as nose to smell the flowers, he also believed that bees
used feces (Song Ying-xing [Ming Dynasty] interpreted this as urine) to make honey,
even in the English translation of Li Shi-zhen’s book (honey) bees were also
interpreted and mistaken for collecting urine to make honey. This was likely a
misunderstanding of the bee and wasp behavior. On one hand, wasps did visit and
collect sewage. In several visits to the rural villages in China, I saw wasps circulating
around human feces in a shallow and semi-open toilet. It was probably the reason why
Li claimed that Feng collected feces, and this general term should be representing
wasps in his passage. It was also possible that Li was referring to the case of honey
bees collecting sewage at the same time because they were also known for collecting
minerals from the ponds and even human sweat. Thus, both cases are empirically
supported, and this observation is similar to what Hao Yi-xing has found Feng
collecting substances from the open-sewer.
Queens and Swarms
A bee colony naturally has only one king, Feng-wang (only one KING, not two). In a
traditionally male dominated culture like China, the honey bee queen and workers
have been assumed as males since the earliest bee documents. Simply the queen bee
was called the King because Chinese associated the highly structured honey bee
colony with the Palace of the Chinese emperor while this kind of non-scientific
association was common in traditional Chinese culture. Until very recent times, the
queen was finally clarified as a female in the Qing Dynasty (~1760 CE) by Zhang
Zong-fa. Like workers, the queens had a stinger, but they were thought to be not
having one because they rarely stung beekeepers.
Detail behavioral and physiological observation on the queens and swarms was also
made as early as the 10th century. Documents showed that the queen of a strong
colony left the hive between the 7th and 8th month of the Chinese calendar (around
August and September) who brought a large number of workers with her. Some
workers served as scouts finding a new hive before moving out, and 4 (likely meaning
“some”) workers physically supporting the queen in the air, but we suspect this event
could be a record of mating swarm because it was edited right after the section of
mating in the literature. The swarm of bees was known being calm and would not
sting if it was carrying the queen, which somehow made the servants (worker bees) to
behave well. The information indicated that Chinese farmers understood that the
queen had an ability to control and calm the workers, and this controlling ability was
derived from what we have discovered one thousand years later about the queen
pheromones in the modern times. In addition, the color of the mated queen was also
known to change from yellow to a darker color once mated.
Chinese has been carrying an old wrong idea of the queen being a male and the drone
being a female for a long time. They used to call drones, Feng-fu, the “bee woman”,
and mistaken them as the bigger hive workers which collected nectar from foragers
and process it into honey. The misunderstanding of the drone behavior was likely a
derivative of the traditional Chinese gender role of women (the drones) staying home
(the hive) and did the housework (processing the honey). Even so, the Chinese
correctly claimed that drones did not have venom (which implied that they were
stingless), and Hao Yi-xing (Qing Dynasty) also found that the poor drones being
kicked out from the hive in the (food-scared) winter.
Tables and Photos
Table 1. Chinese characters of general bee keeping and their meanings.
Chinese Characters Pronunciations Direct Translations Meanings (Singular)
蠭 (ancient) /
蜂 (modern) Feng Bee
Bee or wasp species /
(sometimes) any insect
with a stinger
蜜 Mi Honey Honey
蜜蜂 Mi-feng Honey bee Honey bee
蜜燭 Mi-zhu Honey Candle Beewax candle
蜂王 Feng-wang Bee King Queen
蜂婦 Feng-fu Bee Woman Drone
蜂子 Feng-zi Bee Child Brood
蜂蛹 Feng-yong Bee Pupae Pupae
蜂房 / 蜂衙 Feng-fang /
Bee House /
Bee Palace Hive
鋒屍 Feng-shi Bee Corpse
The (full) freshly dried
body of bees or warps
蜂針 Feng-zhen Bee Needle Stinger of bees or wasps
蜂毒 Feng-du Bee Venom
The venom that was
ejected from the stinger
Table 2. Years of the Chinese Dynasties.
Dynasties of China Dynasties in English Period*
上古 Prehistory time Before 1600 BCE
商 Shang 1600 BCE – 1100 BCE
周 Zhou 1100 BCE – 771 BCE
春秋 Spring and Autumn Period 770 BCE – 476 BCE
戰國 Warlord Period 475 BCE – 221 BCE
漢 Han 206 BCE – 220 CE
晉 Jin 260 CE – 420 CE
唐 Tang 618 CE – 907 CE
宋 Song 960 CE – 1279 CE
元 Yuen 1279 CE – 1368 CE
明 Ming 1368 CE – 1644 CE
清 Qing 1644 CE – 1911 CE
現代 Modern time 1911 CE and after
*BCE = Before the Common Era; CE = Common Era.
Photo 1. Multiple hives of Apis dorsata on a tree.
Photo 2. Drawing of a typical oracle bone with scripts about bees and the emperor.
Photo 3. An oracle bone with scripts about geography and autumn. Lower left: the
character of autumn, which also looks like a bee (5.3x5.3 cm; 1147 BCE – 1102
Photo 4. An oracle bone with scripts about weather and autumn. Lower left: the
character of autumn, which also looks like a bee (2.3x2.5 cm; 1250 BCE – 1192
Photo 5. A series of oracle scripts characters suggested to be Feng (note the stinger).
First right: An ancient oracle script of “autumn” shows an insect character locates on
the character of fire. It represents burning the locusts in the autumn, but the insect also
looks like a bee when comparing with the rest of the characters of Feng.
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Photo 1. Multiple hives of Apis dorsata on a tree. Noblevmy at ml.wikipedia
Photo 2. Drawing of an oracle bone. (Redraw; Chou, 1980.)
Photo 3. An oracle bone. Bei tu 1388. National Library of China.
Photo 4. An oracle bone. Bei tu 1246. National Library of China.
Photo 5. A series of oracle script characters suggested to be Feng. (Redraw; Yu, 1996
and Chou, 1980).