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Bees Throughout the Ages: Bees in Ancient Egypt

Beekeeping activity in Egypt

The world’s oldest pictures of beekeepers at work are from the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt (circa 2422 BC). In Niuserre’s temple, beekeepers are depicted removing honey comb from hives as they blow smoke towards them.

The hive designs were very different from the modern hives in use today.  The basic design was a skep – an upturned basket.  The problem with these was that the hive, and therefore the colony, had to be destroyed in order to extract the honey.  So the system was only sustainable if the colony swarmed and then this was actually caught.

Protective clothing does not appear to be worn in the ancient images of apiarists.  They seem to rely solely on the smoke blown into hives to keep the bees calm.  It was known that strong smells could affect the bees as early as around 200 BC as the head of the library in Alexandria claimed that beekeepers had shaven heads when approaching hives due to their violent reaction to perfumed oil applied to hair!

Symbolic role of bees
This image shows the Sedge symbolising Upper Egypt and the Bee symbolising Lower Egypt.  © Kenneth J. Stein.
Lower Egypt was the main beekeeping centre as it had an abundance of flowering plants thriving on the irrigated land so it’s no surprise that the bee was chosen as a symbol for the country. To this day, it remains a mystery as to why the ancient Egyptian bee was represented with four legs, rather than three pairs, on this symbol and on hieroglyphs.
The importance of honey is clear even from the first dynasty in Egyptian history, where there is even official mention of the title of ‘Sealer of the Honey’ being given.  Honey was clearly valued not only from domesticated bees, but perhaps even more from wild honey as there is evidence that royal archers protected honey hunters who would search for wild bee colonies!
‘I appointed for thee archers and collectors of honey, bearing incense to deliver their yearly impost into thy august treasury.’  Papyrus Harris, donation to the temple of Re at Heliopolis, New Kingdom.
In Tutankhamun’s tomb, pots of sealed honey were found and incredibly were still edible more than 3000 years later.  Furthermore, the discovery of 300 golden bees in the tomb of Childeric in 1653 emphasises the importance of the humble bee in Ancient Egypt. So impressed was Napoleon with Childeric’s bees that they subsequently became the heraldic symbol of the French Empire. 
Drawings of golden bees found in the tomb of Childeric I.  Drawn by J. J. Chifflet in 1655.
We know little about how honey was harvested in this period.  However, there are some pictures from the tomb of Rekhmire (18thdynasty) which shows how the hive was accessed from the back (as it is today!), smoke was blown from behind causing the bees to escape from the front entrance.  It is thought that a second person then broke the mud seal on the hive and removed the combs.
The beekeeper produces smoke whilst the kneeling helper breaks the mud sealing at the back of the hive and removes the combs.  Picture from the tomb of Rekhmire (18th dynasty) photographed by Abd el Wahab, The apiculture in Egypt, 2008.
The extracted combs were then placed in cows skin within which they were crushed and the honey was let out through a small hole in the skin into containers.
Uses of honey and wax
Honey was used as a sweetener at a time when sugar was unknown.  It was very expensive so was enjoyed mainly by the affluent members of society.  In addition, it was given as an offering to the gods.  For example, Thutmose III offered four vessels of honey to Amen.
In food, honey was used in bread, cakes and added to wine.  It was also used in medicines and, even at that time, the wound-healing properties of honey were harnessed.
Wax was used widely in Egyptian life including for sealing things, as a binding agent for paints, in boat and ship building, as well as to harden wigs to strengthen plaits!  It was also used in the mummification process with small body orifices being plugged with wax.  To this day, we do not understand how the Egyptians produced the wax itself.  It’s thought that after the honey had been extracted the broken down combs were placed in water which was brought to the boil from which the wax was extracted.
Next time, we will look take a journey through Greek and Roman history discovering the Greek patron god of beekeeping Aristaeus and learning about the Roman view of beekeeping from writers such as Vergil.
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