Insect of the Week: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt

Adapted from pages 58-59 of The Lives of Bees:

The earliest known evidence of hive beekeeping is the stone bas-relief carving shown in Figure 3.3 (below), which dates to 2400 bce, or nearly 4,500 years ago, when honey and dates were the chief sweetening materials in Egyptian cookery and beekeeping was an important Egyptian industry. This sculpture is now displayed in the Neues Museum in Berlin, but it was originally part of the pharaoh Nyuserre’s temple to the sun god Re at Abū Jirāb, a site about 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Cairo. On the left side of the panel, we see a beekeeper kneeling by a stack of nine horizontal hives, whose tapered shape suggests they were made of fired pottery. The three hieroglyphs above this beekeeper are the letters for the Egyptian word nft (to create a draft), so evidently the man is using the time- honored method of using smoke—the smoker (missing) is between him and the hives—to pacify bees and drive them off their honeycombs. In the center and on the right, we see other men handling honey in a production line that ends with one individual, perhaps an official, affixing a seal on a vessel to safeguard its precious contents.

Oldest evidence of beekeeping, from the sun temple of the pharaoh Nyuserre, which was constructed nearly 4,500 years ago. On the far left, a kneeling man puffs smoke toward a stack of nine horizontal hives. In the middle, two standing men pour honey from smaller pots into larger vessels, the taller vessel being steadied by a kneeling man. On the right, a kneeling man ties a seal on a container filled with honey; on a shelf above him are two similar containers that also have been sealed shut.

Further direct evidence of hive beekeeping in antiquity was discovered in 2007 by archaeologists who found 30 intact hives, along with the remains of another 100–200 hives, while excavating the ruins of the Iron Age city of Tel Rehov, located in the Jordan Valley in northern Israel. Radio carbon dating of spilled grain found near the hives indicates that this apiary dates to 970–840 bce, hence to nearly 3,000 years ago. Each hive is an unfired clay cylinder whose length (ca. 80 centimeters/32 inches), outside diameter (ca. 40 centimeters/16 inches), and entrance opening (diameter 3–4 centimeters/1.3–1.6 inches) matches those of the traditional hives used in the Middle East today. What is perhaps most remarkable about this find is that these ancient cylindrical hives, the oldest yet found, are stacked horizontally and parallel—like logs in a woodpile—to form three rows about 1 meter (ca. 3 feet) apart, each one three tiers high. This shows that this nearly 3,000- year- old apiary was organized in the same way as those of traditional beekeepers in the Middle East today.

The Lives of Bees: The Untold Story of the Honey Bee in the Wild
By Tom Seeley

Humans have kept honey bees in hives for millennia, yet only in recent decades have biologists begun to investigate how these industrious insects live in the wild. The Lives of Bees is Thomas Seeley’s captivating story of what scientists are learning about the behavior, social life, and survival strategies of honey bees living outside the beekeeper’s hive—and how wild honey bees may hold the key to reversing the alarming die-off of the planet’s managed honey bee populations.

Seeley, a world authority on honey bees, sheds light on why wild honey bees are still thriving while those living in managed colonies are in crisis. Drawing on the latest science as well as insights from his own pioneering fieldwork, he describes in extraordinary detail how honey bees live in nature and shows how this differs significantly from their lives under the management of beekeepers. Seeley presents an entirely new approach to beekeeping—Darwinian Beekeeping—which enables honey bees to use the toolkit of survival skills their species has acquired over the past thirty million years, and to evolve solutions to the new challenges they face today. He shows beekeepers how to use the principles of natural selection to guide their practices, and he offers a new vision of how beekeeping can better align with the natural habits of honey bees.

Engagingly written and deeply personal, The Lives of Bees reveals how we can become better custodians of honey bees and make use of their resources in ways that enrich their lives as well as our own.

This post is part of a series, explore additional posts here<< Insect of the Week: Inside the Honey Bee NestInsect of the Week: Bees in the Forest >>