The strong relationship between humans and honeybees goes back farther than what had been thought — to prehistoric farmers almost 9,000 years ago, researchers claim.

People have long benefited from honeybees and the valuable products they provide, from honey to wax, and from their invaluable role in agriculture as pollinators.

Now, a new study of Neolithic pottery shards has found chemical evidence of beeswax, suggesting Stone Age farmers were collecting and using bounties provided by bees nearly 9,000 years in the past, close to the dawn of agriculture.

"It seems that the first farmers in every single area of Europe were exploiting beeswax from the beginning of farming," said Mélanie Roffet-Salque, a postdoctoral researcher in chemistry from the UK's University of Bristol, who was involved in the study.

The finding is evidence that Stone Age people may have used beeswax for cooking as well as eating honey, the researchers say.

It is difficult to determine how common and widespread the use of bees and their products has been, Roffet-Salque says.

"Honeybees have been quite invisible throughout the archaeological record because they're so tiny and disappear very quickly," she explained.

Evidence from the ancient pottery demonstrates clearly where honeybees existed in Europe during the Neolithic age and where humans were taking advantage of them, she claims.

It also shows where the bees were not found, since no pottery evidence of beeswax storage was found north of the 57th parallel, which includes parts of northern Scandinavia and all of Scotland.

That line likely was "the natural ecological limit for bees at the time," Roffet-Salque pointed out, and the fact that today they can be found north of it suggests bees have adapted to climatic changes during the past 10,000 years.

With honeybee numbers in drastic decline in recent years, knowledge of how climate change may affect their ranges could help in understanding the "major implications in some places for how agriculture is conducted," said Mark Winston, a professor of apiculture and social insects at Simon Fraser University, who was not involved in the published study.

The study "does demonstrate the close relationship that humans have had with honeybees for many thousands of years and suggests that the current crisis of honeybees is one that we should take very seriously, because it interferes with that close symbiotic relationship," he said.

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