Did bees invent bread?

By Andy Welch

Did humans copy the idea of baking bread from honeybees?

Humans have been making bread for at least 20,000 years, and this date is based on the age of barley grains found embedded in grinding stones. Apparently, bread was one of the fundamental building blocks of modern civilisation, as bread allowed societies to accumulate and store ‘wealth’ for the first time.

However, the process of adding yeast to make bread didn’t happen until much later, possibly around 1,000 BC. The fermentation process improves the taste as well as the nutritional value of bread.

So what has this got to do with bees?

Bees collect nectar to make honey, but as honey is mainly sugar, it only provides carbohydrates, so bees also collect pollen to provide protein. Worker bees have evolved pollen baskets on their legs, which they use to collect pollen and transport it back to the hive.

But in its raw form, pollen is hard to digest and doesn’t last very long, so bees came up with a genius solution involving enzyme-induced fermentation. This process converts the raw pollen into ‘bee bread’ or Perga, which is easier to digest and can also be stored for long periods without it going off. This is important as bees don’t hibernate, so they need a large store of food in order to survive the winter when no other food is available.


So it turns out a bee’s diet combines bread and honey. And given bees have been around for about 120 million years, they probably came up with the idea of fermenting bread a long time before we did.

But did we copy the idea from the bees or happen to come up with a similar idea?

The Egyptians are often credited as one of the first civilisations to bake bread using fermentation. The Egyptians were also well known for their knowledge of bees and beekeeping.

If a mouse enters a beehive trying to steal honey, the bees will typically sting it to death, but they are then faced with a decaying corpse in their living room. As they can’t move the body, their solution is to ‘mummify’ the body in a protective coating of a substance called propolis, which provides a natural antibacterial coating to prevent the spread of disease.

And this is thought to have inspired the Egyptians to mummify bodies after death, so if the Egyptians copied the idea of mummification from bees, maybe they also copied the idea of baking bread.


Andy Welch is a data and analytics specialist, who provides technology and data science support to The World Bee Project. This includes helping to manage the World Hive Network data sets as well as providing analytics support for The World Bee Project's global research projects