(Illustration by Elvis Swift)

Sweet honey in the rocks

The history of beekeeping stretches back centuries, the director of the Oriental Institute found when a hobby turned into a scholarly pursuit.

Archaeologist Gil Stein is director of the Oriental Institute and professor of archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. From 1992 through 1997, he led excavations at Hacinebi, a Mesopotamian colony in Turkey, part of the world’s first-known colonial system.

Stein is also a beekeeper. He and his wife have about a dozen hives, and their experience raising bees and collecting honey sparked his interest in the history of beekeeping, particularly in the ancient Near East. Stein spoke to the Magazine about the insects and their Old World story.—Lydia Gibson

My wife, Liz, is the one who really got me interested—she’s been a beekeeper for more than 10 years. She and I are both archaeologists, and for me it was a natural progression from intense curiosity about bees and beekeeping, and thinking how strange and wonderful this practice is, to wondering about its history. Beekeeping is pervasive in our culture and in cultures around the world. How old is it anyway? What’s the archaeology of it? How did people keep bees and think about honey in the ancient world? What did it mean to them?

So I started to investigate. As I talked to people—friends who are colleagues at the Oriental Institute, who are specialists in the textual record of ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt—I’d say, “Do you have any material about honey and bees and beekeeping?” And they’d say, “Yeah, we have material about honey everywhere.” I’d say, “Great! Can you steer me to articles that give an overview?” And they all said no. It’s just bits and pieces here and there.

Sometimes those are the most interesting problems: when something is so completely pervasive in our lives, we don’t even think about it; we don’t question it. Once you start looking, you realize that honey and bees and beekeeping are everywhere in the Old World—in ancient Europe and Eurasia and Africa and in the ancient Middle East. Honeybees are an Old World group of species.

Honey was considered an almost magical substance in the ancient Near East. People used it for everything: as a food and as a raw material to make alcoholic beverages like mead and honey wine. There was honey in the alcoholic beverages found in the tomb of King Midas, he of the fabled golden touch. And it’s the most common ingredient in ancient medicine in Mesopotamia and Egypt. It has antimicrobial and antibiotic properties; honey will kill Staphylococcus and E. coli. It will suck the moisture out of wounds. And it’s invaluable in treating burns. Ancient people also used honey as a universal sweetener, of course, because it’s one of the sweetest substances in nature. They even used it for mummification. When Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC, he was preserved in honey and placed in an enormous golden sarcophagus drawn by 64 mules.

There are representations of ancient Egyptians beekeeping—tomb paintings that show people managing beehives, using techniques that are recognizable today. Once you know the artistic conventions, you can easily see it. They’re applying smoke to pacify the bees and then drawing honey out of the hives. One of the clearest examples is from the Tomb of Rekhmire in ancient Thebes, which dates to the 15th century BC. That was almost three and a half thousand years ago. Beekeeping is really deep in culture.

You see honey in literature and religious texts as a common metaphor for love, for God’s love for his people, and for God’s law. Psalm 19 says that the Lord’s ordinances are “sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” In Exodus, God talks about delivering his people from Egypt and bringing them to “a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Then there’s the big question: how did beekeeping originate? The Egyptians seem to have taken it up, at an industrial scale, long before the Mesopotamians did. The earliest evidence we have of beekeeping in the Near East is from Egypt—those tomb paintings. They were also keeping bees very early on in Anatolia, which is now Turkey. Hittite laws dating to the 13th or 14th century BC contain severe punishments for thieves of bee swarms or beehives. Honey was commonly used in rituals there, and it was readily available and inexpensive; “honey bread” sold for the price of a single portion of lard or butter.

The first known mention of beekeeping in the Mesopotamian cuneiform record is centuries later. It comes from the stele of ama-re-uzur, a regional governor on the Syrian Euphrates in the middle of the eighth century BC, who claimed to have been the first among his people to capture and domesticate wild bees: “I, Samas-res-uzur, governor of the land of Suhu and Mari, I brought bees—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.”

So, did beekeeping develop independently in different parts of the ancient Near East, or did it spread from one place to another? That’s one thing I’m trying to find out. I think probably there were two independent centers of invention, in Egypt and Anatolia, because there’s no evidence of beekeeping in Israel for several centuries after those two places. But we don’t know for sure. The evidence is spotty and scattered around.

One thing we do know is that the shapes of beehives in the ancient Near East seems to be a common technology used all over: clay cylinders laid on their sides, with a lid at one end where you would reach in and get the honey, and a little hole at the other end where the bees would fly in and out. It makes sense; that shape mimics the hollow of a tree, where many wild bees build their hives. In modern-day Egypt you can still see some of these traditional cylindrical hives, stacked up in rows.

One of the first people to pull together the information we have about ancient beekeeping was Eva Crane. Her Archaeology of Beekeeping [Duckworth], a wonderful book, is essentially the standard work on the subject. Since it was published in 1983, we’ve gotten more information. Several years ago, Israeli archaeologists working at a site called Tel Rehov, in the Jordan River Valley, excavated the remains of an Iron Age beekeeping complex, a huge apiary. At one time, there were stacks and stacks of ceramic hives. They found about 100 hives, which could have housed as many as 1.5 million bees.

For archaeologists, a huge part of the work is simply knowing what you’re looking for. These ancient cylindrical beehives don’t look like the box hives that most of us are used to seeing today: the Langstroth hive, which was invented in the 19th century by an American. Many people would see the remains of these ancient cylindrical hives and think, “Oh, those are roof tiles,” because you see a curved shape. Or, “Those are drainpipes.” I’m certain that there are many, many ancient beehives out there misidentified as drainpipes. That’s why we’re so lucky to have these Egyptian tomb paintings. It’s undeniable proof.

I read a little bit about beekeeping almost every day. My wife and I have 11 or 12 hives, which is really small scale but still an amazing experience. Bees are such an alien species, so different from all the other domesticated animals that humans have been breeding and exploiting for millennia. We’re used to cattle and pigs and chickens and goats. But enormous colonies of insects? And this stuff they create, which we steal from them? Honey and pollen, beeswax and propolis, the resin-like substance that bees use to seal the hive and keep out pests and predators. It’s a very hard glue that also has incredible antibiotic properties to it, just like honey does.

And bees’ social intelligence is incredible. For bees, the unit is not the individual, but the collective. A beehive has 50,000 bees, and they communicate with each other using pheromones and with what’s called a “waggle dance”—used by the scout bees to tell the rest of the colony where a good source of nectar is located. The Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch won a Nobel Prize in 1973 for figuring out the waggle dance. Bees have a division of labor and a complex social hierarchy. Virgil describes it vividly in the Georgics: “Some supervise the gathering of food, and work in the fields to an agreed rule: some, walled in their homes, lay the first foundations of the comb, with drops of gum taken from narcissi, and sticky glue from tree-bark, then hang the clinging wax: others lead the mature young, their nation’s hope, others pack purest honey together, and swell the cells with liquid nectar: there are those whose lot is to guard the gates.”

The population of a hive is not constant through the year. It peaks at about 50,000 to 60,000 in the summer, during the honey flows, and then it drops off in October and November. During the winter, a solid basketball-sized clump of bees will cluster, huddled tightly together for warmth. And they’re all beating their wings constantly. Inside the hive, it can be 92 degrees in the dead of winter.

In keeping bees and doing this research, I’ve learned wonderful and surprising things. One of my favorites relates to the apiary at the eighth century BC site of Tel Rehov, whose excavation tells a very interesting economic story. The Jordan River Valley, where Tel Rehov is located, has a native honeybee: the Palestinian honeybee. But when entomologists looked under the scanning electron microscope at the bees they found in the residue inside the hives, those were Anatolian honeybees—a different subspecies. So the people in ancient Israel were importing honeybees all the way from Turkey, easily 1,000 kilometers away, bringing them across Syria and into the Jordan River Valley, and keeping hives of Anatolian honeybees. Because they’re gentler bees and they make more honey.

So that tells you something about how economically important these insects were. People were raising them on an industrial scale and importing colonies from across the region. You can just picture some caravan transporting these bees for weeks, all the way across Syria. How could they do that? How did they keep the bees alive? But they did. If you were on the road in the ancient Near East, you might come across a bee caravan.

That’s what my wife and I do too, in a way: we buy boxes of bees that get shipped to us from California. People were doing the same thing almost 3,000 years ago. That’s fascinating. And what I love is, when you ask the right question, archaeologists can actually find the answer. Not every time, but often. It’s amazing.—Gil Stein