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The oldest apiary in the world: unraveling the secrets of ancient beekeeping

An ancient beehive from Tel Rehov on display at the Israel Museum

The practice of beekeeping, or apiculture, has captivated human civilizations for millennia, serving as a vital source of sustenance and cultural significance. However, tracing the origins of this age-old tradition has long been a subject of fascination and scholarly inquiry. Recent archaeological discoveries have shed light on what is believed to be the oldest apiary, or bee yard, ever unearthed, providing invaluable insights into the intricate world of ancient beekeeping.

The Tel Rehov apiary: a remarkable find

The oldest apiary
Apiary at Tel Rehov, the eastern row of hives. Source: The Beth-Shean Valley Archaeological Project, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In the heart of northern Israel, in the Jordan Valley, lies the ancient city of Tel Rehov, a site that has yielded remarkable archaeological treasures. In 2007, excavations led by Prof. Amihai Mazar uncovered an ancient apiary dating back to the Iron Age, around 900-600 BC, during the reign of the biblical kings David and Solomon. This extraordinary find has been hailed as one of the oldest apiaries ever uncovered in the ancient Near East.

A total of 30 hives have been found that have survived to this day, but it is thought that the apiary had between 100 and 200 hives. The apiary’s remnants include an array of cylindrical clay hives, carefully crafted to mimic the natural habitats of bees within hollow tree trunks or caves.

On one side, there was a small opening for bees to pass through. On the other side, the hive was covered with a lid so that the beekeeper could freely extract the honeycomb. This ingenious design shows the profound understanding of bee behaviour possessed by the ancient beekeepers of the region.  In addition, various beekeeping artifacts have been recovered, shedding light on the intricate practices and tools employed in this ancient craft.

Apiculture in ancient Israel: economic and cultural significance

The discovery of the Tel Rehov apiary has profound implications for our understanding of the economic and cultural practices of ancient Israelite society during the Iron Age. Biblical texts and other ancient sources have long highlighted the importance of beekeeping and honey production in the region, and this archaeological evidence provides tangible proof of their significance.

Thus the Bible mentions several times that Israel is the land where “Milk and Honey” flow. Before the discovery of the apiary, it was thought that this meant the general concept of the abundance of this land. Now we can say that it meant literally large quantities of honey that was produced in commercial amounts. An apiary of this size was thought to have a production capacity of 500kg of honey per year.

Honey, a valuable commodity in ancient times, was not only a sought-after food source but also played a vital role in religious rituals and medicinal practices. The presence of such an extensive apiary suggests that honey production was a thriving industry, meeting the high demand for this precious substance.

In addition to honey, the apiary produced beeswax, which was in great demand.  The wax was the material used to make the mould, which was covered with clay. After the wax was melted and molten metal was poured into the resulting void. The cast product was subsequently produced and refined. According to experts, the apiary could produce 70kg of beeswax per year.

Thus, the advanced level of apiculture practiced at Tel Rehov speaks volumes about the sophisticated knowledge and techniques employed by the ancient beekeepers. Their ability to successfully manage and maintain a large-scale apiary reflects a deep understanding of bee behaviour, hive management, and the intricacies of honey production.

Reconstruction of an ancient apiary in Tel Rehov
Ancient apiary Tel Rehov drawing: Amihai Mazar of Hebrew University.

Unraveling ancient beekeeping practices

The study of the Tel Rehov apiary has provided archaeologists and historians with a unique opportunity to unravel the mysteries of ancient beekeeping practices. Through careful analysis of the clay hives, researchers have gained insights into the construction methods, materials, and design considerations employed by the ancient beekeepers.

The cylindrical shape of clay hives was apparently similar to the hives we see in depictions in Ancient Egypt. This form of cylindrical hive was for a long time common in beekeeping in Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome. Even medieval beekeeping in Europe used similar horizontal hives.

Interestingly, the ancient apiary was located in the centre of a densely populated built-up area, which did not prevent the production of such a large apiary.

In addition to the hives themselves, cult objects were also found at the apiary. Among them is a four-horned altar decorated with figures of naked fertility goddesses and a skilfully painted chalice. This may be evidence of deviant cultic practices of the ancient Israelites associated with the production of honey and beeswax.

Tel Rehov: Four-horned altar decorated with figures of naked fertility goddesses and a skilfully painted chalice
Four-horned altar decorated with figures of naked fertility goddesses and a skilfully painted chalice. Source: Oren Rozen, Wikimedia Commons.

The discovery of the oldest apiary in the world at Tel Rehov, Israel, has opened a captivating window into the fascinating world of ancient beekeeping. This remarkable find not only provides tangible evidence of the economic and cultural significance of apiculture in ancient Israelite society but also offers invaluable insights into the sophisticated knowledge and practices employed by the ancient beekeepers.

As researchers continue to unravel the secrets hidden within this archaeological treasure trove, our understanding of the intricate relationship between humans and bees throughout history deepens. The Tel Rehov apiary stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of beekeeping, reminding us of the ingenuity and resilience of ancient civilizations in harnessing the bounties of nature for sustenance and cultural enrichment.

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