Bee Keeping in the Time of the Pharoahs

The BeeHolder, January 2012

As most beekeepers are aware, honey found in the tombs of Egypt is apparent;y still fit for consumption. This is more a tribute to the bees' ability to preserve, rather than that of the ancient Egyptians. So the Egyptians clearly harvested honey in ancient times, but did they keep bees, and if so how? Pauline Norris, egyptologist, kindly agreed to shed some light on the subject at our meeting on November 24th.

Heiroglyphs with bee symbol (7th along).There are only four pictures of bees surviving from ancient Egypt, and none at all from the period 600BC to 1000 AD. Before 600 BC accurate dating is not possible, which makes the study of Egyptian beekeeping quite difficult.

Beekeepers smoking bees (tomb decoration).A sub-species of Apis Melifera has existed in the Nile valley and as far south as Sudan since ancient times. They are characterised as good housekeepers but poor producers. This is the strain of bee most likely kept by the Egyptian, who believed that bees and honey were created from the tears of the sun god, Ra. There name for bees translates as “the flies that build” and they also believed that bees come into being through bugonia (this was the belief that bees were spontaneously generated from a cow's carcass and that by putting a cows head under a tree, when the flesh had rotted off bees would emerge from the eye sockets. Actually these would probably have been a species of hover fly which the Egyptians mistook for bees. The belief was popular in the Mediterranean regions until eventually disproved in 1668.) This coming of life from the dead made bees a symbol of life.

Image of a bee. Note the elongated antennae.The climate and annual flooding of the Nile made the plains of Egypt very fertile and productive all year round. This allowed honey gathering right through the year. It is the decorations in the tombs of the well to do which provide the only records of bee keeping. The bees were kept in cylindrical pots, stacked to form a hive. Smoke was used as an aid to handling the bees. The entrance hole is at the front, and the back of the cylinder is removable allowing the bees to be smoked and the comb removed from the back, which meant that the brood was largely unaffected at the front of each cylinder. This would have made it a less destructive method of keeping bees than other techniques. The circular combs would be put in a cow's hide and trampled to separate the honey from the wax.

The honey produced from the kept bees was clear, but wild honey gathered in the desert was red in colour and preferred as a delicacy. Rameses II used to send parties out into the desert to look for honey protected by guards. The best honey was eaten or offered to the gods, whilst the rest was used in wine, cake making, bread, mead and even fed to crocodiles. They were aware of its antibacterial effect and use on wounds. Honey was used during mummification, as a glue and was famously found in the tomb of Tutankhamun.

The Egyptians made extensive use of beeswax, which they probably extracted using hot water techniques. It was bleached in the sun and used to bind paints, make masks, writing tablets, to wax hair, boat building, mummification, sacrificed to the gods and even used to make wax effigies in which to stick pins. From the quantities of wax sacrificed to the gods, they must have had a lot of hives.

Chris Leech