Constantine W. Lau is a biologist specializing in honey bee communication. His 2012 paper “Ancient Chinese Apiculture” details the long relationship between bees and humans throughout Chinese history.
Lau cites Eva Crane’s The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting to note that there are four species of honeybee native to China.
Lau suggests that some of the earliest mentions of bees in the Chinese historical record may occur on oracle bones dating to the Shang Dynasty:
In general, bees and wasps are called Feng [蜂] in Chinese, and honey bees are called Mi-feng [蜜蜂]. The earliest written record of bees is the Chinese character Feng in ancient inscriptions on animal bones dating back 3000 years (Zhou Yau 1990).
Later in the Zhou Dynasty (around 300 BCE), the Chinese character Mi, meaning honey, was recorded in the Book of [Rites], Li Ji, as a dietary recommendation (1993).
Another character found on an oracle bone inscription may have a connection to bees as well:
[One form of the character for “Autumn”] had fire below the insect, which possibly meant the bee (hive) was being smoked and handled.
The earliest record of smoking a bee hive can be dated back to Song (960-1279) and the technique has been employed by the Chinese tribe of Dai for driving off hornets and the collection of larva from the nest since ancient times (Wild China, BBC 2008).
The first description of bee hives portrayed them as a frightful monster:
[The] bee hive was first described in Shan Hai Jing [a highly mythological bestiary compiled during the early Han Dynasty].
It was a creature that looked like a human with two heads called Jiao-chong [that] lived in the Grain-Citadel Mountain. It was the leader of the stinging insects.
According to the description, it was possibly two big colonies of Apis dorsata hanging on a tree branch similar to those [pictured below].
Of course, there are some fairly monstrous members of Order Hymenoptera that live in East Asia:
[One ancient Chinese] document mentioned that the hive of the biggest Feng (no name offered) was as big as a wheel lid and [that] its deadly venom could kill a cow.
By matching the description with the list of native species in China, we can deduce that the bee is in fact a hornet, and its nest, along with the nests of wasps, was commonly known as the “bee nest” which [is] used in […] traditional Chinese medicine (Materia Medica).
The first records of beeswax candles being used in ceremony and of a professional beekeeper both date to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE):
Beeswax was harvested and made into candles (Mi-zhu) and given in offerings to the first Han Emperor (206-195 BCE). Soon after, there is the first record of a professional beekeeper. His name was Jiang-qi (158 CE-167 CE) [and he] had more than 300 servants working in his bee and pig farm (Zhou Yau 1980)
By the end of [the] Tang Dynasty (9th century CE), honey harvesting had become a very common business practice in China. The honey harvest had even become [a] nationally recorded event in the Ming Dynasty (1368 CE-1644 CE). It took place in the sixth month of the Chinese calendar (approximately July).
Today is the eleventh day of the sixth lunar month.
Finally, a note about the painting by Qi Baishi at the top of this post. In Chinese paintings, the bee often symbolizes “industriousness and thrift” (Cultural China, “Chinese Symbols and Art Motifs“).