Israel is referred to repeatedly in the Bible — 17 times, in fact — as the "land of milk and honey," but until three years ago, archaeologists had discovered little firm evidence that beekeeping was ever practiced there. Many scholars, in fact, assumed "honey" referred to a nectar from dates or other fruits.
Then, three years ago, researchers found a 3,000-year-old apiary in the Iron Age city of Tel Rehov in the Jordan Valley, the oldest known commercial beekeeping facility in the world, suggesting that the word "honey" likely referred to the real thing. Now the same researchers have gotten an even bigger surprise: The bees that were kept in the hives were most likely from Turkey, hundreds of miles away.
"This is a very special discovery … because there is no evidence from before for bringing any kind of animals from such a distance, especially bees, which represent a quite complicated, sophisticated type of agriculture," said archaeologist Amihai Mazar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, lead author of a report published online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "This throws new light on the economy of the biblical period."
The findings "would imply an incredible amount of commodity trading of bees," said bee expert Gene Kritsky of the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, editor of American Entomologist. The importation of Italian bees to the United States in the 1860s "was thought to be a big deal then," he said, "but the Israelis may have been doing this as far back as the first millennium BC."
The lack of archaeological evidence about beekeeping is not surprising, Mazar said, because the hives were constructed of straw-based unbaked clay similar in appearance to hives used in the region today. Even in the arid desert of Israel, such unbaked clays do not survive for long.
Previously, the oldest known hives were made of wicker and dated from about AD 200 — although Egyptian wall paintings and reliefs dating to about 2500 BC illustrate the beekeeping process, Kritsky said.
The Tel Rehov hives were preserved as the result of an event that was unfortunate for the citizenry of the city but fortuitous for archaeologists, an intense fire that destroyed large parts of the city but that baked the clay hives.
The ancient hives were clay cylinders, nearly a yard long and half a yard in diameter, with a small hole at one end for bees to enter and exit and a lid at the other end — with a handle "like the gas cap on a car," Mazar said — for keepers to get at the comb. They were arrayed side by side and stacked three deep.
The Israelites prized honeybees for the honey they produced and for the wax of their combs, which was used in metallurgical casting. Mazar and his colleagues suspect that there may have been bronze-casting workshops near the apiary, but have yet to discover any.
Mazar estimated that there were 100 to 200 hives in the central part of the city, with 1.5 million to 2 million bees if all hives were in use. "That's quite strange for a city" because bees can be a nuisance, he said. "There must have been some central authority that forced the city to accept the apiaries."
Entomologists in Germany and Brazil who studied the bee remains found in the ancient hives established that the bees were not native to Israel, but were most closely related to Anatolian bees now common in Turkey. Such bees generally require a cooler, wetter climate than that of Israel, suggesting that they were imported rather than captured in the wild.
Another possibility, less likely, is that the native bees in Israel now are descendants of those ancient bees, which would have required significant evolution. "If they changed that much in 3,000 years, it may be evidence that we have been doing some significant damage" through inbreeding, Kritsky said.
Researchers are not sure what caused the fire that burned the apiary. But historical records indicate that the city was captured by an Egyptian pharaoh about 920 BC and its heavy industry destroyed. That time frame is close to the radiocarbon date for the bees, "so perhaps a raid by the Egyptian army caused this," Mazar said.
Much of the funding for the excavations at the site over the last 15 years has come from Pasadena-based author John Camp, who writes under the name John Sandford. Camp, a history buff who first met Mazar in 1996, has been participating in the digs nearly every summer.
"We've found a number of important things, but the beehives are probably one of the most immediately interesting," Camp said. "Beehives are eye-catching and fun and interesting."