Bees in Antiquity Part One: The Near East

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A cave in southern Spain carries a simple image depicted on a wall. At first glance it might seem difficult to work out what is occurring, but then it clicks. The picture is of a figure collecting honey and given the bees swarming around, he or she is certainly earning it. The image dates to approximately 8,0000 BCE and the cave (the Arana or Spider cave) is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The figure from the cave art

It’s certainly a first and points to what must have been an obvious practice, honey gatherers making use of a highly valuable foodstuff. Turn the clocks forward a four and a half millennia or so and switch to the other side of the Mediterranean and we come across a very different image, also involving bees and people. This time the location is Egypt, more accurately the Sun Temple of Niuserre, which dates to around 2,500 BCE. The image found here involving bees is remarkably different as what is in evidence is bee-keeping or apiculture and it’s the first image we have referring to it.

Honey being stored – (picture from here)

Temples and tombs are an excellent place to find evidence of a number of activities, an earlier Temple of the goddess Neith at Sais (dating to around 3,100 BCE) was also known as The House of the Bee. At a similar time the bee was used as a hieroglyph in representing the Kings of Lower Egypt. So even before our first depiction of apiculture the bee played a prominent role in Egyptian culture.

Egypt also had dedicated beekeeping officials, catchily named ‘Sealer of the Honey’ and ‘Overseer of Beekeepers’ and this wasn’t simply because the odd pharaoh or king had a sweet tooth. Honey played an important part in religious rites, mainly as an offering and even sacred animals were fed honey or honey cakes. It was even a prize of war, Thutmose III who reigned in the 15th century BCE extracted it as tribute from his lands in Palestine. The medical applications of honey didn’t go amiss, the Smith papyrus (circa 2600 BCE) mentions honey as an ingredient for a wound salve. At the other end of the spectrum a papyrus dating from 1825 BCE required honey to be used in a contraceptive concoction, another ingredient was crocodile dung.

With honey being used in a medical, religious and culinary setting the idea of the officials with the odd job titles starts to make sense. As with anything Egyptian the Nile played its part as the irrigation from it offered a range of verdant locations which hives could be transported to and rotated amongst. The beekeepers were spoilt for choice.

Before going any further it’s worth considering another image (below), this time dating to the end of the 15th century BCE  and from the Tomb of Rekhmire.

Two figures are featured; the one standing is blowing smoke from a bowl whilst the one below collects honeycombs. The very essence of apiculture is demonstrated quite beautifully. The hives are large cylinders, stacked horizontally on top of each other and with a removable end (allowing one of the pair to remove the honey).

The Lands of Milk and Honey?

One of the many rivals to Egypt were the Hittites, who had their capital in the centre of modern day Turkey but whose borders ran south into the Levant.  The Hittites weren’t unfamiliar to apiculture and we’ll see that their love of it touched on later cultures.

The Hittites-  just don’t joke about bees (image source here)

The important thing to understand about the Hittites was that they were serious about honey and bees. Really serious. Hittite oaths involved honeycomb and clay tablets found at Boghaz-kevi which dated to 1300 BCE revealed a number of laws. Among these were fines for stealing hives, bees or even damaging hives. The laws themselves referred to earlier laws concerning these illegal practices. Not only did they codify their love of apiculture legally they also displayed it in their language, the Hittite word for honey mil-it and the word for sweet milittu are similar enough to suggest one may have been formed from the other.

As with the nature of any empire the Hittite Kingdom started to unravel and by the 10th century BC the lands to the south and along the coast were left to whoever picked up the mantle of kingship. Beekeeping is absent from any mention in the Bible and the word ‘honey’ is never used within this context  – indeed when honey is found it’s the wild variety. Given that the cultures to the north and the south had been keen beekeepers it seemed odd that the lands of the Old Testament should be bereft of beekeeping as we know there was some understanding of apiculture in these lands, after all how else could Thutmose have exacted his tribute?

An excavation in the Jordan Valley at Tel Rehov revealed a developed understanding and application of apiculture. The remains of hives (similar to the cylinder designs) dated to the 10th century BC, roughly the time of King David. The apiary was located in a built up area of the settlement, a surprise given the nature of the local subspecies of bee which is quite aggressive. One suggestion was that these hives were prized and located where they were to avoid the sort of foul play the earlier Hittite laws mention might befall a colony. A chance discovery within the remains gave a very different possibility.

Stuck inside a fragment of one of the hives were parts of an insect, more precisely parts of a bee. These were examined and the results confirmed it wasn’t one of the local sub-species, it was a sub-species native to Anatolia (modern day Turkey). This was no accident; the ‘Anatolian’ bee was far less aggressive and had a higher honey yield. Suddenly the notion of keeping a number of hives in a residential area seems less of a problem. The fact the hives were situated where they may also reveal a more practical element, it wasn’t just protecting the honey and the hives from damage or theft the beekeepers could also manage the colony better. In particular preventing any cross-breeding with the local, more undesirable bee, suggests a sophisticated approach and application of apiculture.

The hives from Tel-Rehov, the arrow points to the bee entrance (image source here)

In a wider context this paints quite an extraordinary picture, in the midst of a less than stable political environment there was a sound apicultural industry. Not only that but it was possible to source and move bee colonies (not easy!) across borders. It’s unlikely that this was the only occurrence of this – there may well have been a trade route or resource which saw bee subspecies transported and sold.

A much later inscription points to apiculture as something a ruler could quite happily boast about. In the 8th century BCE the governor of the lands of Mari and Suhu (located in Mesopotamia) called Shamash-res-usur boasted on provincial monuments that he had introduced beekeeping to the area. Honey was known and used in the area, the earliest prescription is found on a Sumerian clay tablet listing honey as an ingredient (dating to 2,100 BCE) and the later Assyrians used it for eye and stomach disorders.

As such rather than the bee specifically Shamash most likely introduced a more structured form of apiculture there. As we’ve seen elsewhere a sophisticated practice of this required stability in a political, economic and commercial sense. The boasting on the monuments can be seen as carrying an underlying message – here’s Shamesh, a chap who has managed to bring peace and prosperity to the area. Apiculture can be seen as an indicator of a state or region and in the lands of Mari and Suhu this was certainly worth boasting about. As per an earlier piece, these lands were often caught in the crossfire of expanding neighbours (it didn’t help if you couldn’t choose decent footwear either – read the piece and you’ll understand).

From a simple image in Spain to selective breeding in the Jordan Valley, the concept of apiculture had, pun intended, truly blossomed. The Egyptians had started the ball rolling with the bee as something more than a provider of honey and in the next section we’ll look at how Greece and Rome approached apiculture, focusing on as much the practical as the abstract.



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