Ancient Egypt - Bee-keeping: Back to main index page
Ancient Egyptian bee-keeping:
Keeping the bees
   The hives
   Itineracy
   Beekepers' protective measures
Harvesting
Honey and its uses
Wax and its uses

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Bee-keeping

When the Sun weeps a second time, and lets fall water from his eyes, it is changed into working bees; they work in the flowers of each kind, and honey and wax are produced instead of water.
pSalt 825, first millennium BCE [29]
    The first official mention recognizing the importance of honey dates from the first dynasty, when the title of "Sealer of the Honey" is given [11]; the oldest pictures of bee-keepers in action are from the Old Kingdom: in Niuserre's sun temple bee-keepers are shown 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 become more frequent [8], but only four depictions of honey production and no actual hives have been found. [15]

Sedge and bees Sedge and bee, symbolizing respectively Upper and Lower Egypt
© Kenneth J. Stein [17]

    The main centre of bee-keeping was Lower Egypt with its extensive irrigated lands full of flowering plants, where the bee was chosen as a symbol for the country. Since earliest times one of the pharaohs' titles was Bee King,[32] and the gods also were associated with the bee. The sanctuary in which Osiris was worshipped, was the Hwt bjt [7], the Mansion of the Bee.

    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.

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 [28]

Keeping the bees

The hives

    In a 4th century BCE papyrus containing the Myth of the Eye of Re the hives are described as follows:
One does not build a royal palace for the honey bee. A hive of dung is better than a hive of stone [like a barn]...The house of the bee is effectively an arrangement of combs, a place suitable for storing honey...It is more pleasant for the bees beneath the honey combs.
Myth of the Eye of Re, Leiden Cat, I 384 [32]
    Bee-keeping methods are conservative in this region, well adapted to local conditions, for instance the kind of hives depicted in the reliefs of Rekhmire, apparently made of unbaked clay [20] or possibly woven baskets or mattings covered with mud, have been used in Egypt [18] to this day.[20]

Bee hives Tomb of Pabasa (25th dynasty)
Photo courtesy Kenneth Stein.[17]

    Cylindrical hives like the ones in the picture on the left from the tomb of Pabasa, dated to the 7th century BCE, were made of clay and stacked horizontally on top of each other [12] in rows up to eight high, a total of up to 500 hives, wall apiaries with the hives on the outside left empty at times as insulation against the heat. [16] Combs in horizontal hives are smaller but more numerous than those in upright ones. This makes honey being stored and bee larvae being raised in the same comb less likely,[22] making harvesting easier.
    The bees were possibly induced into building their combs across the hive, for easier removal of the honey and division of the colony at swarming time. Swarming had best be prevented as one might lose a large part of the bees. Crane suggests that short reed pipes may have been used to call the young queens still in their cells. listening for their reply, separating them from the rest of the swarm and installing them in a hive of their own.[32]

Itineracy

    When there were few blossoming flowers, the hives were probably kept close to home to prevent theft and moved close to the sources of nectar during the flowering season.Thus, in the year 256 BCE a beehive owner named Senchons wanted her donkey returned to her, so that she could move her hives into the pastures.[10] Sometimes the hives had to be transported to higher lying land, to prevent them from being destroyed in the annual Nile inundation, as the so-called bee-keepers' petition dating from the middle of the third century BCE shows:
To Zeno 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!
Bee-keepers' petition, Ptolemaic period [35]
    There may have been itinerant apiarists living by the Nile who loaded their hives onto boats, shipped them upriver in autumn or early spring, and then followed the flowering of the plants northwards, as they were reported to do in the 18th century CE [19], but there is no evidence for it.

Beekepers' protective measures

    Ancient Egyptian bees may well have been more agressive than the placid Italian bee, which has become the the dominant variety in modern times. Aristophanes of Byzantium, the head of the library at Alexandria around 200 BCE, claimed, that the beekeepers approached the hives with shaven heads, as the bees reacted very violently to the smell of perfumed oil applied to the hair.[14] Apiarists are never shown using protective gear and relied on smoke blown into the hives to keep the bees peaceful.

Harvesting

    Little is known about how the honey was harvested. According to the tomb depictions in TT279 the hives were opened from the back, smoke was blown into the hives and the bees escaped through the hive entrance in the front. Anything else about the process in ancient times is conjecture, based on how honey has traditionally been harvested in Egypt:

Removing honeycombs The standing bee-keeper produces smoke, while the one kneeling removes the combs from the back of the clay hive after breaking the mud sealing.
(Picture in the tomb of Rekhmire, 18th dynasty
After a photograph from Abd el Wahab, The apiculture in Egypt, 2008)

    Harvesting generally takes place twice a year, in spring and in late autumn. The combs are gathered in a cow skin, then they are crushed by treading on them and the honey let flow out through a small hole in the skin into containers. What was left in the skin was put into a bowl and the remaining honey washed out with a small amount of water, passed through a sieve made of blades of grass thus removing impurities.[20]
    The wax is rendered by heating, nowadays done in a water bath to prevent it from catching fire. Impurities floating on the surface of the liquid wax can be scooped off, then it is possibly strained and put into a bag press. It has been estimated that for every kilo of honey somwhat more than sixty grammes of wax can be won.[21]

Honey

    Temples kept bees in order to satisfy the desire of the gods for honey and for the production of medicines and ointments. But demand far outran local production. Honey, like many other luxury goods was imported from Djahi, Retenu [3] and possibly even further afield. Canaan, for instance, was called Land of Milk and Honey in the Hebrew tradition, and the probably fictitious Sinuhe waxed lyrical about the riches of Yaa, an unidentified Asiatic region:
It was a good land called Yaa. Figs were in it and grapes. It had more wine than water. Abundant was its honey, plentiful its oil. All kinds of fruit were on its trees. Barley was there and emmer, and no end of cattle of all kinds.
The Tale of Sinuhe, Middle Kingdom [30]

Pouring honey Apiarist pouring honey, possibly straining it
Tomb of Pabasa (25th dynasty)
Photo courtesy Kenneth Stein.[17]

    Honey was used for sweetening, as sugar was unknown in antiquity [9]. It was part of the diet of the well-to-do, one of one's - using the words of the courtier Ineni - necessities:
I was supplied from the table of the king with bread of oblations for the king, beer likewise, meat, fat-meat, vegetables, various fruit, honey, cakes, wine, oil. My necessities were apportioned in life and health, as his majesty himself said, for love of me.
Tomb of Ineni, reign of Thutmose II [31]
    Honey was too expensive for peasants and servants, yet underlings found opportunities to enjoy it as well, even if the consequence was that the back would have to pay for the pleasures of the belly. A scribe wrote to his master at Lahun a letter containing the following passage:
As concerns this hin (about half a litre) of honey which had been given for this here servant (i.e. the writer) - this servant discovered that this Asiatic had drunk it, giving this here servant (i.e. the writer) the answer which follows: "Behold, it was the sweetness which has seduced me to do it."
pUC 32124, Middle Kingdom [23]
    The gods - and their priesthood - had a sweet tooth too [13]. Thutmose III's divine offerings to Amen included 4 (pg-)vessels of honey[4]. According to Herodotus sacrificial animals were prepared as follows:
When they have flayed the bullock and made imprecation, they take out the whole of its lower entrails but leave in the body the upper entrails and the fat; and they sever from it the legs and the end of the loin and the shoulders and the neck: and this done, they fill the rest of the body of the animal with consecrated loaves and honey and raisins and figs and frankincense and myrrh and every other kind of spices, and having filled it with these they offer it, pouring over it great abundance of oil.
Herodotus, 5th century BCE[24]
    The various animal cults became ever more important during the first millennium BCE, and the sacred animals received better food, among it titbits made of honey, than most Egyptians themselves:
About the Apis in Memphis, the Mnevis in Heliopolis, the Ram in Mendes, the Crocodile in the Lake of Moeris, the Lion kept in Leontopolis and many other such animals much may be said, but the reporter will gain little credence with people who have not been eye-witnesses. These animals are kept in sacred enclosures, and many noble men feed them, offering them the most delicious food. They provide them constantly with a mash made of finest flour or wheat groats and milk, prepared with all kinds of honey pastries, with goose meat, at times boiled, at times roasted. They catch birds for the carnivorous animals which they offer to them in great amounts.
Diodorus Siculus, 1st century BCE [25]
    Strabo reported that honey was made into mead and fed to the sacred crocodile at Crocodilopolis in the Fayum:
Our host, one of the most honoured men in Arsinoe, showed us holy things and accompanied us to the lake taking with him a cake, roasted meat and a little bottle of honey mead left over from the meal. We found the animal lying on the shore. The priests approached it, two of them opened its mouth, the third one pushed the pastry and then the meat into it and then poured the honey mead into it. The animal jumped into the lake and swam to the opposite shore.
Strabo (c.64 BCE - 24 CE) [26]
    Claims have been made that honey was used in the mummification process. The evidence for such usage is scant and anecdotal, e.g. Abd el-Latif's unsupported tale published in Budge's book The Mummy about treasure hunters who found a sealed jar containing honey, and after eating part of it they discovered it also contained the body of a small child.[33]
    Honey was added to wine, various kinds of bread and cakes. Medicines and salves often contained honey as is attested in the Smith Papyrus and the Ebers Papyrus (§§ 3, 5, 13, 17, 20). The practice was to apply honey to open wounds—a reasonable treatment considering its antibacterial and fungicidal qualities.
    Being universally appreciated jars of honey made excellent presents. In the reign of Pepi II the priest Mekhu died in Nubia and his son Sebni set out to retrieve his father's body:
[Then I took] a troop of my estate, and 100 asses with me, bearing ointment, honey, clothing, oil, and [///] of every sack, in order to [make presents in] these countries [and I went out to] these countries of the Negroes. [6]
Inscriptions of Sebni, Old Kingdom [27]

Wax

    While there are scenes of honey production, it is unknown how the Egyptians rendered the wax. It has been suggested, that after crushing the combs and extracting the honey they used the "hot water technique", placing the broken down combs in a metal vessel filled with water and bringing the water to the boil, pouring the vessels contents into a sack and pressing it. [21]

Ramses XI, Maat, beeswax - Source: Jon Bodsworth Beeswax statuette of Ramses XI and Maat
After a photo by Jon Bodsworth

    In every day life wax was used for sealing things,[5] coating the inside of wine amphoras, making amulets,[41] which were at times gilded,[42] and, since Ptolemaic times, for covering writing tablets. [41] Beeswax found use in boat and ship building, as a binding agent for paints and in metal casting. Sometimes it served as a base for medicines. Mixed with pulverized stone it made an adhesive for connecting razor blades to their handles. Wigs were waxed[43] to give permanence to plaits. Although people must have known about the flammability of wax, it was not used for lighting in ancient times.

    In a religious or funerary context wax was used in mummification where small bodily orifices were plugged with it. From the Saite Period onwards votive bronze statuettes were cast in large numbers using the cire-perdue method.[38] In Roman times wax was mixed with pigments and used to paint the encaustic portraits, which came to replace the funerary masks. Corn mummies buried during the Osirian mysteries often had faces made of wax.[39] In the Third Intermediate Period, when canopic jars began to fall into disuse, figurines of the Sons of Horus made of wax were at times included in the packages of embalmed viscera returned into the mummy's body cavity.[40]
 
    Wax was an important material in magic, being easily molded into any desirable shape. In execration rituals figurines representing specific people or deities were made of wax, which could then easily be destroyed by force or by fire, thus magically destroying the being they represented:
This spell is to be recited over (an image of) Apophis drawn on a new sheet of papyrus in green ink, and (over a figure of) Apophis in red wax. See, his name is inscribed on it in green ink ... I have overthrown all the enemies of Pharaoh from all their seats in every place where they are. See, their names written on their breasts, having been made of wax, and also bound with bonds of black rope. Spit upon them! To be trampled with the left foot, to be fallen with the spear (and) knife; to be placed on the fire in the melting-furnace of the copper-smiths ... It is a burning in a fire of bryony. Its ashes are placed in a pot of urine, which is pressed firmly into a unique fire.
P. Bremner-Rhind, col. 23/6-10 and 26/2-6 = Faulkner, JEA23 (1937), 168 and 172 [36]
    The conspirators against Ramses III used wax as well in order to form images and employ these to cause damage
He began to make magic rolls for [hindering] and terrifying, and to make some gods of wax, and some people, for enfeebling the limbs of people; and gave them into the hand of Pebekkamen, whom Re made not to be chief of the chamber, and the other great criminals, saying: "Take them in;" and they took them in.
...
He began to make people of wax, inscribed, in order that they might be taken in by the inspector, Errem, [hindering] one troop and bewitching the others, that a few words might be taken in, and others brought out.
    Wax was not just used for destructive purposes. In the tale of Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah the magician needed to make a journey, he created a craft and its crew:
Naneferkaptah had [much] pure [wax brought] to him. He made a boat filled with its rowers and sailors. He recited a spell to them, he made them live, he gave them breath, he put them on the water.
Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah [37]

    Temples used considerable quantities of wax. Ramses III founded a festival in honour of Amen-Re called Usermare-Meriamon-L.P.H.-Making-Festive-Thebes-For-Amon with oblations of millions of loaves of bread, hundreds of thousands of jars of beer, tens of thousands of vessels of wine. One of the lesser items was wax: deben 3,100, about 300 kg.[34]
 
 
[  ] Photos courtesy of Dr. Kenneth J. Stein [17] and Jon Bodsworth
 
Bibliography:
Roger S. Bagnall, Raffaella Cribiore, Evie Ahtaridis, Women's letters from ancient Egypt, 300 BC-AD 800, University of Michigan Press, 2006
S. Birch (ed.), Records of the Past, Vol.6, 1876
J. H. Breasted, 1906, Ancient Records of Egypt, Chicago
Alan Houghton Brodrick, 1972 Animals in Archaeology, Praeger
Patricia Brothwell, 1998 Food in Antiquity: A Survey of the Diet of Early Peoples, Johns Hopkins University Press
Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, The Mummy: chapters on Egyptian funereal archaeology, University Press, 1894
Egypt Exploration Fund, The Journal of Egyptian archaeology Vol. 63, Egypt Exploration Fund, 1977
Eva Crane, 1999, The World History of Beekeeping and Honey Hunting, Taylor & Francis
Sigrid Hodel-Hoenes, 2000 Life and Death in Ancient Egypt: Scenes from Private Tombs in New Kingdom Thebes, Cornell University Press
Andrew B. Kidd, Berthold Schrimpf, "Bees and Bee-keeping" in R. Blench, Kevin C. MacDonald (eds.), The origins and development of African livestock: archaeology, genetics, linguistics and ethnography, Routledge, 2000
Panagiotis Kousoulis, "Nine Measures of Magic; Part 3: 'Overthrowing Apophis': Egyptian ritual in practice" in Ancient Egypt Magazine: Issue Nine - November/December 2001 [2]
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I, The University of California Press 1973
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, The University of California Press 1980
Paul T. Nicholson, Ian Shaw, 2000 Ancient Egyptian Materials and Technology, Cambridge University Press
Hilda M. Ransome, 1937, The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore, Courier Dover 2004
Ian Shaw, Paul Nicholson, The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press 1995
W. Vogel, "Bees and Beekeeping in Egypt" in George W. Johnson, Robert Hogg (eds.), Journal of Horticulture, Cottage Gardener and Country Gentlemen, Vol. XII, New Series, G. W. Johnson, London 1867

 
Footnotes:
[3] On his fifth campaign Thutmose III exacted from Djahi (a region in Canaan) i.a. 470 (mn-)jars of honey, and the tribute from Syria in the year 39 of his reign included among other things:
               honey 264 [+x jars]
J. H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt, Part Two, § 462 and § 518

[4] Breasted 1906, § 571
[5] In a letter Shed-em-duat(?) wrote Djehuti-mesu
They said to me: Concerning the containers (?) //// the wax of the mouth of the vessels.
After a transcription and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website:
Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Neuen Reiches und der Dritten Zwischenzeit => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Theben => Briefe des Deir el-Medina Corpus (Auswahl) => Briefwechsel des Djehuti-mesu => pBournemouth 17/1931 => Brief der Sched-em-duat(?) an Djehuti-mesu
[6] Honey was apparently rare in Nubia. The lists of tribute of Thutmose III which frequently mention honey from Asiatic countries, do not show that honey was contributed by Nubia or Kush.
[8] Brothwell 1998, pp.7f ff.
[9] Hodel-Hoenes, 2000, p.153
[10] Bagnall et al. 2006, p.103
[11] Ransome, 1937, p.26
[12] Brodrick, 1972, p.83
[13] And they were not overjoyed when they thought they had been cheated. A priest wrote to the mayor of Elephantine:
/////// ////khai of the temple of Harakhte sends greetings to [Montu-hor-////, mayor of] Elephantine: in life, prosperity, health, in the favour of Amen-Re, king of gods. Furthermore the following: I pray to Amen-Re and Harakhte as he rises and as he sets, to Harakhte and his ennead: may they grant you to be healthy and in the favour of Harakhte, your lord, who sees you.
Furthermore, I opened the
[A]aa.t-jars of honey which you have brought for the god, and when I wanted to take out 10 hin of honey for the god's sacrifice I found it completely filled with a bar of ointment. So I sealed it again and had it taken south. If it was somebody else who had given it to you, make him have a look at it. And behold, if you find (the) right one (i.e. a pot with honey) then have it brought to me. Then Re will let you be well.
After a transcription and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
I. Hafemann ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Mittleren Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Theben => pLouvre E 27151 => Brief eines [_]-chay an Montju-hor-[_]
[14] Crane 1999, p.167
[15] Nicholson & Shaw, 2000, pp.409f: The depictions are found in the tombs of Niuserre at Abu Gurob, of Rekhmire (TT100), of anonymous (TT73), and of Pabasa (TT279).
[16] Crane 1999, p.323
[18] Vogel, 1867, describes contemporary Egyptian beehives as four foot long cylinders made of compost of Nile mud and cow dung.
[19] Vogel 1867, did not find any evidence for this itinerant tradition in his time.
[20] Nicholson & Shaw, 2000, pp.410
[21] Nicholson & Shaw, 2000, pp.411
[22] Kidd & Schrimpf, pp.519f.
[23] After a transcription and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
I. Hafemann ed., Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe des Mittleren Reiches => Verwaltung/Alltag => Briefe aus Illahun => London pUC 32124 => Brief eines Dieners der Stiftung über Honig
[24] Herodotus Histories, Part II: Euterpe
[25] After a German translation by Julius Friedrich Wurm of Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, Chapter 84
[26] After a German translation by C.G.Groskurd of Strabo, Geography, 17th Book, 1st section: Egypt, § 38
[27] J. H. Breasted 1906, Part One, § 366
[28] Breasted 1906, Part Four, § 266
[29] S. Birch, Egyptian Magical Text, in S. Birch ed., Records of the Past, Vol.6, 1876
[30] Lichtheim 1973, p. 226
[31] Breasted 1906, Part Two, § 117
[32] Crane 1999, p.170
[33] Budge 1894, p.183
[34] Breasted 1906, Part Four, § 240
[35] Ransome 1937, p.27
[36] Kousoulis 2001, p.30
[37] Lichtheim 1980, p.130
[38] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.71. See also UC69847 on the Petrie Museum web site: Wax figurine of falcon for casting by lost wax method
[39] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.72
[40] Shaw & Nicholson 1995, p.191. See also UC55192i-viii on the Petrie Museum web site: Third Intermediate Period wax figures of the four Sons of Horus.
[41] On the Petrie Museum web site search for objects made of wax, such as UC59418: wax from Roman period writing tablet, UC52066: Ptolemaic or Roman period girdle of Isis amulet
[42] e.g. UC79323 on the Petrie Museum web site
[43] Egypt Exploration Fund 1977, p.69

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Offsite links(Opening a new window)
These are just suggestions for further study. I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these websites
 
Nine Measures of Magic[2] Nine Measures of Magic, Ancient Egypt Magazine, Issue Nine - November/December 2001
Tour of Egypt[17] Tour of Egypt by Kenneth J. Stein
Tumba de PabasaTumba de Pabasa (Pictures from the tomb of Pabasa, TT 279
La tombe de PabasaLa tombe de Pabasa
La tombe d'Anch'HorLa tombe d'Anch'Hor
Honey DressingsJournal of Woundcare, Vol.11, No.2, February 2002: "Honey Dressings" (pdf file)
 

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