The native Egyptian honeybee (Apis mellifera), the smaller and more aggressive cousin of the European honeybee, was probably exploited by the Egyptians at least as early as the Neolithic period. Honey was known to the Egyptians as bἰt; bees were called ʒfἰ n bἰt, “honey flies” (usually shortened to bἰt). By the first dynasty, the king was known as nsw bἰty, “He of the Reed and Bee,” one of the most important components of the royal titulary, thereby associating the monarch with the heraldic emblems of Upper and Lower Egypt, respectively.
Only five scenes depicting apiculture are known from pharaonic Egypt. The earliest is from the fifth dynasty sun temple of Newoserre Any at Abu Ghurob (a fragment of a similar scene is known from the pyramid causeway of Unas at Saqqara). The scene illustrates the procedures of organized gathering, filtering, and packing honey. The eighteenth dynasty tomb of the vizier Rekhmira at Thebes (tomb 100) depicts a man harvesting honeycomb from hives while a second holds a smoke pot to the mouths of the hives (smoke induces bees to fill their stomachs with honey and become less aggressive); elsewhere in the scene, workers pack pots with honey after having extracted it from the combs. Tomb 73, also of the eighteenth dynasty, is badly damaged, but is shows two bee-workers smoking stacked hives. Two Saite period tombs at Asasif—those of Pebes (tomb 279) and ʿAnkh-her (tomb 414)—have almost identical scenes portraying a man before stacked hives, while in the register above a worker pours extracted honey into a jar (almost lost in tomb 414); these Saite reliefs are probably copies of older apicultural scenes. Ancient Egyptian beehives, as all these scenes depict, were long ceramic tubes, sealed at either end with mud or wadding and stacked horizontally in walls; a similar technique is still employed in Egypt today.
Bees and honey were important in Egyptian religion. In one myth, the tears of Re are said to become bees, while the Pyramid Texts mention that Nut could appear as a bee. The temple of Neith at Sais was called the “House of the Bee.” Honey served as an offering to the gods, and that used by the cult of Min (where honey was particularly important) was provided both by professional beekeepers (ʒftyw) and by honey-hunters (bἰtyw) who collected it from wild hives. Certain texts mention “beekeepers of Amun.” Huge amounts of honey were offered by Ramesses III to the god Hapy. At Dendera, however, it was forbidden to eat honey. In the eighteenth dynasty, honey (both combs and jars) is often depicted being offered to private tomb-owners.
Besides its importance in religious rituals, honey was employed as a sweetener, utilized in baked goods, and used to prime beer and wine; it was apparently a component of some perfumes. Of the approximately nine hundred cures mentioned in medical papyri, about five hundred involve the use of honey (which has natural anti-bacterial properties).
Although honey was imported from Palestine, the majority was produced in Egyptian apiaries. A state-appointed “Overseer of Beekeepers of the Entire Land” is known from the Middle Kingdom, indicating widespread beekeeping. In the Ptolemaic period, large-scale apiaries—some consisting of at least five thousand hives—are known from the Faiyum; these were probably involved in migratory beekeeping, the hives being moved to fields in flower to take advantage of rich honey-flows.
- Brewer, Douglas J., Donald B. Redford, and Susan Redford. Domestic Plants and Animals: The Egyptian Origins. Warminster, 1994. See pp. 125–129 for the most current treatment of Egyptian apiculture in English, though the tomb of ʿAnkh-ḥer (Asasif tomb 414) is not mentioned.
- Crane, Eva E. The Archaeology of Beekeeping. London, 1983. Written by a historian of apiculture, chapter 2 (pp. 34–43) discusses the development of apiculture in ancient Egypt (and the survival of such techniques in modern Egypt).
- Kuény, Gustav. "Scènes apicoles dans l'ancienne Égypte." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 9 (1950):84–93. Although dated, this article is the one of the standard sources; Kuény deals with both ancient and modern apicultural practices in Egypt.
Troy Leiland Sagrillo