The Bible refers to ancient Israel as the “land flowing with milk and honey,” so it’s fitting that one of its towns milked honey for all it was worth. Scientists have unearthed the remains of a large-scale beekeeping operation at a nearly 3,000-year-old Israeli site, which dates to the time of biblical accounts of King David and King Solomon.
Excavations in northern Israel at a huge earthen mound called Tel Rehov revealed the Iron Age settlement. From 2005 to 2007, workers at Tel Rehov uncovered the oldest known remnants of human-made beehives, excavation director Amihai Mazar and colleagues report in the September Antiquity. No evidence of beekeeping has emerged at any other archaeological sites in the Middle East or surrounding regions.
“The discovery of an industrial apiary at Tel Rehov constitutes a unique and extraordinary discovery that revolutionizes our knowledge of this economic endeavor, particularly in ancient Israel,” says Mazar, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Many scholars assume that ancient Israelis made honey from fruits such as figs and dates. Nowhere does the Bible mention beekeeping as a way to produce honey, according to Mazar.
The earliest known depiction of beekeeping appears on a carving from an Egyptian temple that dates to 4,500 years ago. It shows men collecting honeycombs from cylindrical containers, pouring honey into jars and possibly separating honey from beeswax. Beehives portrayed in ancient Egyptian art resemble those found at Tel Rehov, as well as hives used today by traditional Mediterranean and Middle Eastern groups, says entomologist Gene Kritsky of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati.
“Tel Rehov is so important because it contains a full apiary, demonstrating that this was a large-scale operation,” Kritsky says.
Mazar’s team has so far uncovered 25 cylindrical containers for bees in a structure that is centrally located in the ancient city at Tel Rehov. High brick walls surrounded the apiary. Beehives sat in three parallel rows, each containing at least three tiers. Each beehive measured 80 centimeters long and about 40 centimeters wide.
In the best-preserved beehives, one end contains a small hole for bees to enter and exit. A removable lid with a handle covers the other end.
Chemical analyses of two Tel Rehov beehives revealed degraded beeswax residue in the containers’ unfired clay walls. The researchers are now examining pollen remains and bee bodies found in charred honeycombs from inside the hives.
A violent fire in ancient times caused walls surrounding the hives to collapse and destroy many of the bee containers. Radiocarbon measures of burned grain from the apiary floor and nearby structures provided an age estimate for the finds.
Mazar estimates that the ancient apiary contained at least 75 and perhaps as many as 200 beehives. A clay platform of the same width as a nearby row of hives probably served as a foundation for some of the hives. The facility held more than 1 million bees and had a potential annual yield of 500 kilograms of honey and 70 kilograms of beeswax, Mazar says.
Writings and paintings from ancient Egypt suggest beehives possessed considerable value at the time. Honey was used as a sweetener, a salve for wounds and a ritual substance. Beeswax also had various uses, including being molded into casts for bronze objects.
Only a strong central authority could have established and maintained a large apiary in the center of town, Mazar notes.
The apiary apparently hosted ceremonies intended to spur honey production and ensure the operation’s success. Ritual finds near the hives include a four-horned clay altar that features carved figures of two female goddesses flanking an incised tree.