Bees / Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt

Bees / Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt

The oldest pictures of bee-keepers in action are from the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt.In Niuserre’s sun temple bee-keepers are blowing smoke into hives as they are removing the honey-combs. After extracting the honey from the combs it was strained and poured into earthen jars which were then sealed. Honey treated in this manner could be kept years.

From the New Kingdom on, mentions of honey and depictions of its production become more frequent. Bee-keeping methods are conservative in this region, well adapted to local conditions, for instance the kind of hives shown in these ancient reliefs, apparently woven baskets covered with clay, are still seen in the Sudan today.

The main centre of bee-keeping was Lower Egypt with its extensive cultivated lands, where we have the earliest known use of the bee as a symbol. About 3500 B.C. or even earlier, when the two countries of Upper and Lower Egypt were united under one ruler, it was used as the hieroglyph to denote the king of Lower Egypt, that for the king of Upper Egypt was the reed.

One of Pharaoh’s titles was Bee King, and the gods also were associated with the bee. The sanctuary in which Osiris was worshiped was the Hwt bjt, the Mansion of the Bee.There were itinerant apiarists in the Faiyum in Ptolemaic times using donkeys to transport their hives and possibly also beekeepers living by the Nile who loaded their hives onto boats, shipped them upriver in early spring, and then followed the flowering of the plants northwards as they were reported to do in the 19th century C.E. The Egyptians had a steady honey supply from their domesticated bees, but they seem to have valued wild honey even more. Honey hunters, often protected by royal archers, would scour the wild wadis for bee colonies.

The bee is always drawn in profile and in the earliest times the number of legs depicted was usually three, but in later dynasties and in Ptolemaic times four legs were drawn, which is strange for an observant people like the early Egyptians; they might have shown all six, as their idea of perspective was somewhat faulty. 

Egypt is described in the Bible as a land, like Canaan, “flowing with milk and honey.“ It was probably the first land where agriculture and cattle-rearing were practised, and where there is pasture and fodder for cattle there will be plenty of food for bees. It is not known when the inhabitants began to keep the wild bees in hives, but already in pre-dynastic times they must have known a good deal about bee life, have observed the communal life of the bee-state, and the one large bee among the crowd, before they chose it to denote their king; and as the royal symbol means “ He who belongs to the bee,“ or perhaps, originally, the “ beekeeper,“ and there was as early as the first dynasty an official called the “ Sealer of the Honey,“ it seems probable that it was an industry before the union of the two kingdoms.

In 1900 a German expedition, excavating at Abusir, found a relief which shows the industry in such an advanced condition that it must have been practised for a very long period. The relief is described by Dr. Ludwig Armbruster in ‘ Archiv für Bienenkunde : Die Biene in Aegypten, jetzt und vor 5000 Jahren, pp 68 – 80 ( 1921 ). This relief belongs to a series representing the seasons found in the Temple of the Sun, built about 2600 B.C. by Ne-user-rê of the Fifth Dynasty. 

The hieroglyphs, which divide the relief into four groups, reading from left to right, have been translated as “ Blowing or smoking, filling, pressing, sealing of honey.“ On the extreme left a man is kneeling before the hives, taking out honey. He has something in his hand, possibly a block of dried cow dung, like those still used by Egyptian beekeepers of the present day for smoking the bees. The hives are nine in number, placed one above the other, and were probably pipes made of burnt clay, tapering slightly towards the end, very similar to the hives made of pipes of clay or Nile mud which are used in Egypt to-day. 

The same type of hive has thus persisted for over four thousand five hundred years. Until lately it was not known if the ancient Egyptians practised what the Germans call ‘ Wanderbienenzucht, ‘ that is, moving the hives to different districts in order to take advantage of the ealier or later flowering plants, as our beekeepers take the hives to the heather when the ordinary honey flow is over. However, in 1914-1915 a number of papyri were found which belonged to Zenon, a Greek official who lived at Philadelphia in the Fayum, about the middle of the third century before Christ.One of these documents is a “ 

Petition from the Beekeepers,“ which runs :
To Zenon greeting from the Beekeepers of the Arsinoite nome. You wrote about the donkeys, that they were to come to Philadelphia and work ten days. But it is now eighteen days that they have been working and the hives have been kept in the fields, and it is time to bring them home and we have no donkeys to carry them back. 

Now it is no small impost that we pay the king. Unless the donkeys are sent at once, the result will be that the hives will be ruined and the impost lost. Already the peasants are warning us, saying, “ We are going to release the water and burn the brushwood, so unless you remove them you will lose them.“ We beg you then, if it please you, to send us our donkeys, in order that we may remove them. And after removing them we will come back with the donkeys when you need them. May you prosper !

In 1740 a French traveller, De Maillet, wrote that the people of Lower Egypt, recognizing that all plants flowered earlier in Upper Egypt than with them, sent their hives at the end of October up the Nile. When they arrived at their destination, they were numbered and placed in pyramidal form on rafts, specially built for this purpose. The bees were released and collected honey from the fields near by. When the flowers there were over, the rafts were moved a few miles farther down. Thus they passed through the whole of Egypt, arriving at Cairo at the beginning of February, where the produce of the expedition was sold.