The First Middle Eastern Bee-Keepers
By Eva Crane & Ronan James Head
The so-called “European” honeybee (apis mellifera) is found in the Near East
from central Iran, across the Zagros and Taurus mountains into Anatolia and the
Levant and into Egypt (but not in Iraq or the Arabian desert).
Fig. 1 Breathing or blowing smoke into a hive. Nassere's temple, Abu-Garob, Dynasty V.
The earliest evidence for hive beekeeping (apiculture) comes from the Old
Kingdom of ancient Egypt. In the Old Kingdom (5th dynasty – 25th/24th centuries
BC) a stone bas relief from the sun-temple of Niuserre Any at Abu Gurob shows a
scene of the gathering, filtering and packing of honey, demonstrating that
from a very early period, beekeeping was already well established in Egypt.
Peasant beekeepers today in Egypt use much the same technology as shown on such
tomb-paintings. The typical pipe hive is about a meter long. They are stacked
together, imitating logs. The ends are sealed, with small holes allowing the
bees to escape. The hives are typically made of mud or clay.
Fig. 2 Bank of 400 cylindrical hives of unbaked mud near Assyat, Middle Egypt, 1980.
Ancient Egypt was rich with bee imagery: the tears of Re were believed to become bees; the pyramid texts state that Nut can appear as a bee; the temple of Neith at Sais was called “the house of the bee.” Most famously, the symbol of the bee was used in royal titilature from the very foundation of the Egyptian state. By the 1st dynasty the king was known as nsw bty , “He of the Reed and the Bee,” the bee being the heraldic symbol of the Red Land (Lower Egypt). This title was on two occasions (for “superstitious reasons”) written as instead with the red dšrt crown of Lower Egypt replacing bty.
There are no textual references to beekeeping in ancient Syria-Palestine prior to the late Hellenistic period. The Hebrew word for honey, debaš, like Akkadian dišpu, can refer to both bee honey and any number of sweet substances. Thus Canaan may have been the “land of milk and fruit syrup.” Explicit biblical mentions of bee honey refer to wild honey (e.g. Deut 32:13). It must be noted, however, that our understanding of ancient Levantine apiculture is changing: until recently it was believed that no conclusive archaeological evidences for beekeeping in the Levant had been found, but this has changed in light of the excavations at Tel Rehov in Israel where an apiary dating to the 10th/9th centuries was recently discovered.
Regarding ancient Turkey, Hoffner states that, “the land of the Hittites was a bee-keeping country since the earliest times of recorded history.” The bee features in the oldest Hittite myths, those of the vanishing god Telepinu. In the Hittite Old Kingdom (c.1650-1430) we can read references to apiculture in the laws:
[If] anyone steals  or 3 beehives, formerly the offender would have been exposed to a bee-sting. But now he shall pay 6 shekels of silver…
I am not aware of references to beekeeping in ancient Iran before the Sassanid period, but peasant beekeeping is widespread in Iran today. Eva Crane notes that Iran has a greater variety of traditional hives than any other area.
Evidence for apiculture in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) is scarce. In a culture that has produced literally hundreds of thousands of extant cuneiform tablets, detailing every conceivable aspect of life, including agriculture, their silence on the topic of beekeeping is striking. (One notable problem surrounds the Mesopotamian word for “honey.” Akkadian dišpu (Sumerian làl) refers either to date syrup (Arabic dibs) or honey and it is difficult to know which one is intended in a given passage.) The bee does not feature prominently in Mesopotamian texts, and not at all in art. Most of the Akkadian words for “bee” appear only in lexical texts (i.e. not in everyday usage) and there is no technical vocabulary associated with beekeeping.
The first recorded mention of beekeeping in the cuneiform record comes from the stele of Šamaš-reš-uzur, a regional governor on the Syrian Euphrates in the middle of the 8th century BC, who claimed to have brought down bees from the mountains (presumably the Taurus, an area with a rich beekeeping tradition), and had been the first to do so:
I, Šamaš-reš-uzur, the governor of the land of Suhu and Mari, I brought bees (habubitu)—that collect honey and which from the time of my fathers and forefathers no-one had seen nor brought to the land of Suhu—down from the mountains of the Habha-people and settled them in the gardens of the town of Algabbaribani. They collect honey and wax. I am proficient in the “cooking” of the honey and wax and so can the gardeners.
Such stelae are prone to bombast, but given the absence of beekeeping in the cuneiform record, we should perhaps take Šamaš-reš-uzur at his word. That bee-products might have been an expensive import in Babylonia is suggested by the cost of honey. In the Ur III period (22nd century BC) 1 shekel of silver bought only 2 pounds of làl (“honey”). In contrast, the same amount of silver could have bought 300 litres of dates. In Mesopotamia the scarcity of bees is simple to explain: most of the Iraqi plain is simply too hot with a flowering season too short to sustain apiculture (without modern technology). Only in the mountainous north are native honeybees found.
The melting out of the honey and wax may have referred to separation of wax and honey by heating, or to extraction of wax from comb residue after most of the honey had been removed by straining. The transport of bees and placing them in gardens implies the use of hives, and the comment that bees had not previously been seen in Suhu suggests that wild colonies did not survive there; on the other hand colonies cared for in suitably placed hives might well do so, and produce honey. It also seems to imply that hives were used by the people of Habha in the mountains; these were in south-eastern Armenia or north-Western Kurdistan (Neufeld, 1978), and this area, south of the point where modern Iraq, Iran and Turkey meet, has a rich beekeeping tradition today (Section 21.4).
Section 20.6, which refers to the beekeeper ‘calling queens’ in a late Egyptian period, also quotes a reference (700s BC): ‘the Lord will whistle for ……the bee from Assyria.’
In Sumer in Mesopotamia. Honey was used in medicine and as an offering before 200 BC (Sections 47:41, 54:32), and bee-wax was used for lost-wax casting of metals (Section 49.42). Babylonians used honey in medicine and rituals (Leibovici, 1968), and ritual users were referred to in the time of Hammurabi, around 1500 BC (Deerr, 1949). Perhaps the honey and wax came from the mountains to the north. Herodotus (485-425 BC) reported that palm trees in Babylonia ‘yield fruit from which the people make bread, wine and honey’ (I.193), but this ‘honey’ was probably made from pressed dates.
Some ancient cultures attached a great deal of significance to bees and bee-products. We have seen the high price of honey in Mesopotamia. Its value across the Near East was in its use as a sweetener, in brewing beer, and as an ingredient in magico-medicinal recipes. Wax was used for writing boards and in the lost-wax method of sculpture. In Egypt, honey was also used for funerary offerings, temple rituals, and as rations for important officials. From the Middle Kingdom an important state official was called the “Overseer of the Beekeepers.”
1 Bas relief from the sun-temple of Niuserre Any (from Brewer and Redford 1993:
2 Other scenes: wall-painting from tomb of Rekhmara (Thebes, 18th dynasty, 15th century BC) and Pebes (Thebes, 25th dynasty, 7th century BC). See Crane 1999: 163-166. Crane (1999: 171) believes that Egyptian apiculture was initiated in the bee-rich delta during the Predynastic period.
3 See figure 4, appendix.
4 Brewer and Redford 1993: 125.
5 1. Kopt. 8, 11; 2. Urk. iv. 150, 12. See Gardiner 1957: 504 (S3).
6 Gardiner 1957: 504.
7 One also notes the bee antenna on the dšrt sign. A further connection between dšrt and bees and bee-products are the different grades of honey in ancient Egypt, one of which was called dšrt—“red” honey. See Brewer and Redford 1993: 127 and passim.
8 There is no clear evidence for apiculture from the Late Bronze Age archive at Ugarit in Syria, but it is interesting to note in passing that the word for “honey” is nbt which, in other Semitic languages means “bee.” See del Olmo Lete and Sanmartín 2003: 618-9 s.v. “nbt.”
9 John the Baptist’s famous honey was probably not from bees, and was certainly not cultivated in any case. See Kelhoffer 2005.
10 Tel Rehov excavations press release, September 2nd, 2007: “Hebrew University excavations reveal first Biblical period beehives in ‘Land of Milk and Honey’” (http://www.rehov.org/bee.htm). This validates Neufeld’s assertion (1978) that the Levant was home to pre-Hellenistic apiculture.
11 Hoffner 1974: 123.
12 Version 2 ¶5 [Translation: Hoffner 1990: 18]: “Hannahanna sent a bee: You go search for [my son] Telepinu. When you find [him], sting his hands and feet and make him stand up. Then take wax and wipe him off. Then purify him and make him holy again. Then conduct him back here to me.”
13 Hittite Laws 92 (Hoffner 1995).
14 Crane 1983: 52.
15 See Volk 1999: 280.
16 E.g. ?? XIV 325/332 (Landsberger 1962).
17 Cavigneaux and Ismail 1990: 321-456; Col. IV 13 – Col. V 3.
18 Volk 1999: 284, suggesting we are dealing here with bee honey and not date syrup.
19 Volk 1999: 290.
20 Mesopotamian medical texts show that honey was used in medicinal treatments for the eyes, ears, and mouth, as an anti-inflammatory, and internally when mixed with a drink. See Chicago Assyrian Dictionary D, “dišpu,” 161-162.
21 In the lost-wax method, a sculpture is made from wax and encased in clay. Molten metal is poured into the clay and the wax runs out; when the clay is broken, a metal sculpture remains.
22 Brewer and Redford 1993: 127.