A Brief Survey of Ancient Near Eastern Beekeeping

A Brief Survey of
Ancient Near Eastern Beekeeping

Ronan James Head

And they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation,
is a honey bee; and thus they did carry with them swarms of bees. (Ether 2:3)

The figure of the honeybee has played a small but
interesting role in American history. For example, Tammy Horn, in Bees in
America: How the Honey Bee Shaped the Nation
,[1] describes how
the English colonization of the New World was analogized through the use of the
bee. New colonies were “hived off” to prosper in America, the new
“land of milk and honey.”[2] The industry of the bee—and its sought-after honey and wax—made it
a popular symbol of a righteous economy.[3] The skep hive
is well known in Masonic heraldry, a symbol also used by the Latter-day Saints
for the land of Deseret.[4] The hive on the seal of the state of Utah (and elsewhere) is a direct allusion
to a bee described in the Book of Mormon, and although the use of the bee as a
symbol of industry is not restricted to Mormonism, Deseret, the
particular name of the Mormon bee, is unique.[5]

The Book of Mormon narrates three migrations from the Old to
the New World. The first—that of the Jaredites—involved the migration
of a small band of people, led by the brother of Jared, from what the Book of
Mormon calls the “great tower.” The brother of Jared and his
companions are described as being well prepared for a long migration when they
left the tower. Ether 2:1–3 describes their provisions on their initial
journey: flocks, fowls, fish, bees, and seeds. Only the bees are described by
their original Jaredite name, deseret:

And it came to pass that Jared and his brother, and their
families, and also the friends of Jared and his brother and their families,
went down into the valley which was northward, (and the name of the valley was
Nimrod, being called after the mighty hunter) with their flocks which they had
gathered together, male and female, of every kind. And they did also lay snares
and catch fowls of the air; and they did also prepare a vessel, in which they
did carry with them the fish of the waters. And they did also carry with them
deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee; and thus they did carry with
them swarms of bees, and all manner of that which was upon the face of the
land, seeds of every kind.

Because the Old World Jaredites are portrayed as migratory
beekeepers of some prowess, and given the commitment of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter-day Saints to the historicity of the Jaredite account, it is
hoped that the following survey of Near Eastern[6] apiculture
will be of interest to students of the Book of Mormon.

Near Eastern Apiculture

Before humans directly husbanded bees, “honey
hunting” was the favored method for acquiring wild honey and is still
practiced in some parts of the world today. Intrepid hunters smoke bees out of
the hive and take the honeycombs. Evidence of honey hunting reaches back to the
Upper Paleolithic period (ca. 15,000 BC).

The so-called European honeybee (apis mellifera) is
found in the Near East from central Iran, across the Zagros and Taurus Mountains
into Anatolia and the Levant, and into Egypt (but not in Iraq or the Arabian
Desert). As will be seen, the evidence for hive beekeeping in the ancient Near
East is strong.[7]

The earliest evidence for hive beekeeping (apiculture) comes
from the Old Kingdom of Egypt (third millennium BC).[8] A stone bas-relief from the sun temple of Niuserre Any at Abu Gurob depicts the
gathering, filtering, and packing of honey, demonstrating that from a very
early period beekeeping was well established in Egypt. Peasant beekeepers in
Egypt today use much the same technology as that shown on ancient tomb
paintings in Thebes.[9] Typical pipe hives made of mud or clay are about a meter long and are stacked
together, imitating logs. The ends are sealed except for small holes that allow
the bees passage.

Ancient Egypt was rich
with bee imagery: the tears of Re were believed to become bees, the Pyramid
Texts state that Nut can appear as a bee, and the temple of Neith at Sais was
called “the house of the bee.” Most famously, the symbol of the bee
was used in royal titulature from the very foundation of the Egyptian state.[10] By the first dynasty (3100–2900 BC),
the king was known as nsw bty, “He of the Reed and the Bee,” the bee
being the heraldic symbol of the Red Land (Lower Egypt). For
“superstitious reasons” on two occasions, this title was written instead
with the red dšrt crown of Lower Egypt replacing bty.[11]

There are no textual references to beekeeping in ancient
Syria-Palestine prior to the late Hellenistic period.[12] The Hebrew
word for honey, debaš, like Akkadian dišpu, can refer
to both bee honey and any number of sweet substances. Thus Canaan may have been
the “land of milk and fruit syrup.”[13] Explicit
biblical mentions of bee honey refer to wild honey (e.g., Deuteronomy 32:13).
It must be noted, however, that our understanding of ancient Levantine apiculture
is changing: until recently it was believed that no conclusive archaeological
evidence for beekeeping in the Levant had been found, but this has changed in
light of the excavations at Tel Rehov in Israel, where an apiary dating to the
tenth or ninth century BC was
recently discovered.[14]

Regarding ancient Turkey, “the land of the Hittites was
a bee-keeping country . . . since the earliest times of recorded history.”[15] The bee features in the oldest Hittite myths, those of the vanishing god
Telepinu.[16] Laws of the Hittite Old Kingdom (ca. 1650–1430 BC) refer to apiculture. One example reads,

 [If] anyone
steals [2] or 3 bee hives, formerly the offender would have been exposed to
bee-sting. But now he shall pay 6 shekels of silver.[17]

I am not aware of references to beekeeping in ancient Iran
before the Sassanid period (AD 224–651), but peasant beekeeping is widespread in Iran today. Eva Crane
notes that Iran has a greater variety of traditional hives than any other area.[18]

Evidence for apiculture in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq) is
scarce. In a culture that has produced literally hundreds of thousands of extant
cuneiform tablets detailing every conceivable aspect of life, including
agriculture, the silence on beekeeping is striking. One notable problem
surrounds the Mesopotamian word for “honey.” Akkadian dišpu (Sumerian lîl)
refers either to date syrup (Arabic dibs) or honey, so it is
difficult to know which one is intended in a given passage.[19] The bee does
not feature prominently in Mesopotamian texts and not at all in art of the
region. Most of the Akkadian words for “bee” appear only in lexical
texts[20] (i.e., not in everyday usage), and there is no technical vocabulary associated
with beekeeping. The first recorded mention of beekeeping in the cuneiform
record comes from the stele of Šamaš-reš-uzur, a regional
governor on the Syrian Euphrates in the middle of the eighth century BC who claimed to have brought down
bees from the mountains (presumably the Taurus, an area with a rich beekeeping
tradition), and had been the first to do so:

I, Šamaš-reš-uzur, the governor of the land
of Suhu and Mari, I brought bees (habūbītu)—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. They
collect honey and wax. I am proficient in the “cooking” of the honey
and wax and so can the gardeners.[21]

Such stelae are prone to bombast, but given the absence of
beekeeping in the cuneiform record, we should perhaps take Šamaš-reš-uzur
at his word. That bee products might have been an expensive import in Babylonia
is suggested by the cost of honey. In the Ur III period (twenty-second century BC), one shekel of silver bought only
two pounds of lîl (“honey”). In contrast, the same amount of silver
could have bought three hundred liters of dates.[22] In
Mesopotamia the scarcity of bees is simple to explain: most of the Iraqi Plain
is simply too hot and with a flowering season too short to sustain apiculture
(without modern technology). Only in the mountainous north are native honeybees

Some ancient cultures attached a great deal of significance
to bees and bee products. We have seen the high price of honey in Mesopotamia.
Across the Near East its value was found in its use as a sweetener, in brewing
beer, and as an ingredient in magico-medicinal recipes.[24] Wax was used
for writing boards and in the lost-wax method of sculpture.[25] In Egypt
honey was also used for funerary offerings and temple rituals and as rations
for important officials. In the Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 BC) an important state official was
called the “Overseer of the Beekeepers.”[26]

Nomadic Beekeeping

Both the ancient world
and contemporary traditional apiculture elicit some evidence for nomadic
beekeeping, what the Germans call Wanderbienenzucht. Ancient hives (and modern Near Eastern peasant
hives) were most often shaped like pipes or logs (where bees naturally swarm)
and were made from pottery, wicker, mud, clay, and wood. All of these hives
would be portable on pack animals and boats. Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) describes the moving of
hives along the River Po:

When food for bees is lacking in the immediate neighbourhood,
the inhabitants put their hives in boats and take them by night five miles
upstream. The bees emerge at dawn, feed and return every day to the boats. They
change the position of the boats until they sink low in the water under the
weight and it is realised that the hives are full. Then the boats are brought
back and the honey harvested.[27]

Writing in 1740, a French traveler described migratory
beekeeping in Egypt: at the end of October (the end of the flowering season in
Upper Egypt), the hives were placed on boats and floated down the Nile. At
places where plants were still in flower, the boats were halted and the bees
allowed to forage.[28] Around 250 BC an Egyptian papyrus
records the petition of beekeepers from the Faiyum oasis begging for their
hives to be moved by donkey due to irrigation flooding.[29] Beekeepers
in modern Israel move their hives from the Galilee region to the Golan region
and back according to the season. An interesting reenactment of the Jaredite
bee exodus is found in the Mormon pioneer story. Two contemporary commercial
beekeepers in Idaho tell the story of a great-grandfather “who brought
bees to Utah, strapped to the back of a covered wagon, with Brigham

The value of bees in a nomadic journey would be high because
of the calorific value of a regular honey supply. Honey is also a useful
trading commodity. Libyan nomads, for example, traded honey and wax for sugar,
tea, rice, and cloth.[31] Migratory beekeeping was the means through which bee species were introduced to
new regions. For example, it is thought that beekeeping was introduced to Iran
from Pakistan via Baluchistan.[32]

Pre-Columbian American Beekeeping

The apis mellifera species was not found in the New World
until it was imported from about the seventeenth century AD onward.[33] The
indigenous American bee is the melipona (a stingless bee). It
produces only about one kilogram of honey per year (compared with apis
, which can produce fifty kilograms). Nevertheless,
pre-Columbian Americans did indeed have knowledge of beekeeping and made the
most of the melipona.[34] Cortés wrote to the king of Spain in 1519 about the extent of beekeeping among
the Indians of Cozumel (Mexico):

The only trade which the Indians have is in bee hives, and
our Procurators will bear to Your Highness specimens of the honey and the bee
hives that you may commend them to be examined.[35]

The earliest archaeological evidence for American apiculture
comes from the Late Preclassic Maya period (ca. 300 BC–AD 300).[36] Modern peasant apiculture in the Yucatán is reminiscent of Egyptian beekeeping:
hives (often hollowed-out logs) are stacked vertically on a rack. The lost-wax
technique was known in the New World,[37] and the
ancient Maya pantheon included a bee god called Ah Mucan Cab.[38]

A Final Note

Any study of the possible
material culture background of historical Book of Mormon peoples has to make
careful use of the interesting data provided by Ether 1–3, including the
suggestion that the Jaredites were migratory apiculturalists. This brief study
has demonstrated the widespread evidence for beekeeping, including migratory
beekeeping, in the ancient Near East. A further discussion of this evidence,
and the implications that may arise from it, will be the subject of future


[1]Tammy Horn, Bees
in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation
(Lexington: University
Press of Kentucky, 2005).

European honeybee was introduced to North America with the early English
colonists, but the period before 1850 represents a rather primitive time for
American apiculture. Foulbrood spores, and the German wax moth in particular,
devastated bee colonies in the early nineteenth century. Also, the lack of a
smoker made apiculture a cumbersome affair. In 1851 Lorenzo Langstroth invented
a hive with removable frames that made it easier to manage bee colonies and
protect them from intruders. Still, conditions before 1850 were favorable
enough for beekeeping that New York state was described as a “beekeeper’s
paradise.” Eva Crane, The World History of
Beekeeping and Honey Hunting
(London: Duckworth, 1999), 307. This was generally true of the United States
east of the Mississippi.

[3]Crane, World
History of Beekeeping
, 604–7.

[4]See J.
Michael Hunter, “The Mormon Hive: A Study of the Bee and Beehive Symbols
in Nineteenth-Century Mormon Culture” (master’s thesis, California State
University, Dominguez Hills, 2004).

beehive and the word deseret have been used variously throughout the history
of the Church. The territory settled by the Mormon pioneers was called the
State of Deseret. The emblem of the beehive is used in the seal of the State of
Utah and is a common decoration in Utah architecture, symbolizing
industriousness. Brigham Young’s house in Salt Lake City is called the Beehive
House. Early Sunday schools were part of the Deseret Sunday School Union. A
vital part of the Church Welfare Program carries the name Deseret
Industries.” Stephen Parker, “Deseret,” in Daniel H. Ludlow,
ed., Encyclopedia
of Mormonism
(New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:371.

[6]The setting
of the Jaredite homeland at the “great tower” is assumed by most
Latter-day Saints to mean the Tower of Babel mentioned in Genesis 11, a story
of obvious Near Eastern origin: “[The Brother of Jared:] A Book of Mormon
prophet. He and his brother founded the Jaredite nation when they led a colony
of people from the Tower of Babel to a promised land in the western
hemisphere.” Guide to the Scriptures, s.v. “Jared, Brother of,”
http://scriptures.lds.org/gsj/jrdbrthr (accessed 10 September 2008). For more
on the Jaredites and Deseret, see R. C. Webb [J. E. Homans], Joseph Smith as a Translator (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1936), 42–45; John L. Sorenson,
“Years of the Jaredites” (FARMS paper, 1969), available at
maxwellinstitute.byu.edu (accessed 23 September 2008); Hugh Nibley, The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS,
2005); Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS,
2000); Nibley, Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites;
There Were Jaredites
(Salt Lake
City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988); Paul Y. Hoskisson, “An Introduction
to the Relevance of and a Methodology for a Study of the Proper Names of the
Book of Mormon,” in By Study and Also By
Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley
, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and
FARMS, 1990), 2:126–35; Kevin L. Barney, “Robert C. Webb,” By Common Consent (18
October 2006), http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2006/10/robert-c-webb (accessed 17
September 2008); and Kevin L. Barney, “On the Etymology of Deseret,” BCC [By
Common Consent] Papers 1/2 (3 November 2006),
-2-barney (accessed 17 September 2008).

evidence for hive beekeeping in other early Eurasian civilizations (such as the
Indus Valley and China) is slight. See Crane, World History of Beekeeping, 163.

believes that Egyptian apiculture was initiated in the bee-rich Nile delta
during the Predynastic period. See Crane, World History of Beekeeping,

[9]See Crane, World
History of Beekeeping
, 163–66.

[10]Douglas J.
Brewer, Donald B. Redford, and Susan Redford, Domestic Plants and Animals: The Egyptian
(Warminster, Eng.: Aris and Phillips, 1993), 125.

Gardiner, Egyptian Grammar, Being an Introduction to
the Study of Hieroglyphs
, 3rd
rev. ed. (Oxford: Griffith Institute, 1957), 503–4. One also notes the
bee antenna on the dšrt sign. A further connection between dšrt and bees and bee products has to do with the different grades of honey in
ancient Egypt, one of which was called dšrt —”red” honey. See Brewer,
Redford, and Redford, Domestic Plants and
, 127 passim.

[12]There is no
clear evidence for apiculture from the Late Bronze Age archive at Ugarit in
Syria, but it is interesting to note in passing that the word for
“honey” is nbt, which in other Semitic languages means
“bee.” See Gregorio del Olmo Lete and Joaqu’n Sanmart’n, A Dictionary
of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition
(Leiden: Brill,
2003), 618–19, s.v. “nbt.”

[13]John the
Baptist’s famous honey was probably not from bees and was certainly not
cultivated in any case. See James A. Kelhoffer, “John the Baptist’s ‘Wild
Honey’ and ‘Honey’ in Antiquity,” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 45 (2005): 59–73.

[14]Tel Rehov
excavations press release, 2 September 2007: “Hebrew University excavations
reveal first Biblical period beehives in ‘Land of Milk and Honey'”
.rehov.org/bee.htm, accessed 10 September 10, 2008). This validates Edward
Neufeld’s assertion that the Levant was home to pre-Hellenistic apiculture.
“Apiculture in Ancient Palestine (Early and Middle Iron Age) within the
Framework of the Ancient Near East,” Ugarit-Forschungen 10 (1978):

[15]Harry A.
Hoffner Jr., Alimenta Hethaeorum; Food Production in Hittite Asia Minor (New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1974), 123.

sent a bee: You go search for [my son] Telipinu. When you find [him], sting his
hands and feet and make him stand up. Then take wax and wipe him off. Then
purify him and make him holy again. Then conduct him back here to me.”
Harry A. Hoffner Jr., trans., Hittite Myths, ed. Gary M.
Beckman (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 18.

Laws 92. Harry A. Hoffner Jr., “The Hittite Laws,” in Martha T. Roth, Law
Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor
, ed. Piotr Michalowski
(Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995), 211–47, quotation on p. 228.

Crane, The Archaeology of Beekeeping (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 51.

[19]See Konrad
Volk, “Imkerei im alten Mesopotamien?” in Horst Klengel and Johannes
Renger, eds., Landwirtschaft im Alten Orient (Berlin: Reimer, 1999),

[20]See, for
example, Benno Landsberger with Anne D. Kilmer, The Fauna of Ancient
part 2 (Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1962),

Cavigneaux and Bahija Khalil Ismail, “Die Statthalter von Suḫu
und Mari im 8. JH. v. Chr.,” Baghdader Mitteilungen 21 (1990):
400, specifically col. iv, line 13–col. v, line 3.

“Imkerei im alten Mesopotamien,” 284, suggesting we are dealing here
with bee honey and not date syrup.

“Imkerei im alten Mesopotamien,” 290.

medical texts indicate that honey was used in medicinal treatments for the
eyes, ears, and mouth; served as an anti-inflammatory; and was taken internally
when mixed with a drink. See The Assyrian Dictionary of the Oriental
Institute of the University of Chicago
, ed. Ignace J. Gelb et al.
(Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1959), 3:161–62, s.v. “dišpu.”

[25]In the
lost-wax method, a sculpture is made from wax and encased in clay. Molten metal
is poured into the clay and the wax runs out; when the clay is broken, a metal
sculpture remains.

Redford, and Redford, Domestic Plants and Animals, 127.


[28]See Crane, Archaeology
of Beekeeping
, 42.

[29]From Zenon
Papyri (P.Cair.Zen. IV 59368). See Crane, World History of Bee­keeping,
348; and Campbell C. Edgar, Zenon Papyri in the University of Michigan
(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1931).

[30]See Horn, Bees in America,

“Apiculture in Ancient Palestine,” 224–25. He also notes the
presence of nomadic beekeeping in West Africa.

[32]Crane, World
History of Beekeeping
, 354.

[33]Crane, Archaeology
of Beekeeping
, 33.

[34]Crane, World
History of Beekeeping
, 288–98.

[35]Charles F.
Calkins, “Beekeeping in Yucatán: A Study in Historical-Cultural
Zoogeography (PhD diss., University of Nebraska, 1974), as quoted in Crane, World
History of Beekeeping
, 292. Calkins cites the original translated
source as Hernán Cortés, Letters of Cortés: The Five Letters of Relation from Fernando
Cortes to the Emperor Charles V
, trans. and ed. Francis A.
MacNutt (New York: Putnam, 1908), 1:145.

[36]The Inca
and Aztec civilizations settled at altitudes too high for apiculture.

[37]Crane, Archaeology
of Beekeeping
, 246.

[38]Crane, World
History of Beekeeping
, 291.