The Bible didn’t dub it “a land flowing with milk and honey” for nothing. Not only are the oldest known beehives in the world in what is now Israel, but bee-keepers of the time selected the best bees for the job.
Ancient Egyptian paintings depict bee-keeping, but hives were not found in the Middle East until 2005 when Amihai Mazar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem excavated 30 clay cylinders identical to the hives in the paintings, in the ancient town of Tel Rehov.
“Ancient Egyptian wall paintings depict bee-keepers, but a painting can be a dream,” says Mazar’s colleague Guy Bloch. “We have found the first real evidence for bee hives in the ancient Near East.” In its heyday, the researchers say, the apiary probably housed up to 200 hives and over 1 million bees. The hives are about 80 centimetres long and 40 cm in diameter. Each one has a hole on one side which would have served as a “bee flap” and a lid on the opposite side to give bee-keepers access to the honeycomb.
The remains of bees were found in two of the hives, but instead of being the Syrian bees, they hailed from what is now Turkey. Importing bees would have been a shrewd business decision: Turkish bees produce up to eight times as much honey as Syrian bees, and are less aggressive.
Turkish bees are used to cool, rainy conditions. “In order to get the bees to thrive in the warm, dry climate of northern Israel, these bee-keepers must have been highly skilled,” says Bloch.
In fact, “Jewish settlers in Israel in the 1900s may have unwittingly followed in the footsteps of the ancient bee-keepers of Tel Rehov,” says Bloch. When they arrived in Israel, they attempted to farm Syrian bees â€“ but failed and had to resort to importing the less aggressive Turkish strains.
The Bible refers to Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Because no evidence for bee-keeping had been found until now, “honey” was deemed to mean jam. “Our discovery suggests that this aspect of the Bible may need to be reinterpreted,” says Bloch.