‘Land of Milk and HONEY’—An Ancient Apiary in Northern Israel
The world’s oldest known apiary (collection of beehives) was discovered in northern Israel in 2007, in excavations led by Prof. Amihai Mazar. The ancient city site Tel Rehov (located about 3 kilometers west of the Jordan River and south of the Sea of Galilee) is one of the largest Iron Age sites in Israel.
Approximately 30 hives dating to the 10th to ninth century b.c.e. (the period of the reigns of biblical kings David and Solomon) were uncovered in various states of preservation, with an estimated total of 100 to 200 hives making up the original apiary. The hives were made from unfired clay cylinders with a small hole for bees to enter and exit, and a lid for beekeepers to extract honeycomb. It is estimated that as much as half a ton of honey could be cultivated each year from the hives.
In a 2018 article titled “The Iron Age Apiary at Tel Rehov, Israel,” Professor Mazar explained how the find is unique for this time period. This find shows that a sophisticated form of beekeeping on an industrial level was established in Israel some 3,000 years ago. Inscriptions from as early as the Late Bronze Age (mid-to-late second millennium b.c.e.) discuss beekeeping and even the long-distance transporting of bees, but this discovery is the first physical evidence of skilled, dedicated beekeeping in the region.
The Bible discusses “bees” and “honey” in multiple verses, but never mentions beekeeping as a practice, and the only two occasions of bee honey mentioned are referencing wild bees (Judges 14:8-9; 1 Samuel 14:27). Exodus 3:8 details the promise of a land “flowing with milk and honey.” Scholars have long believed that “honey” was meant to refer to date honey or fruit secretion, or was just a general term for abundance. However, the Tel Rehov discovery could serve to justify a more literal interpretation.
Besides the discovery of the hives themselves, there are a few further interesting elements to this discovery.
Firstly, the hives were located among the urban population. This is unusual, as the breed of bees local to the area are known for swarming and producing little honey. Why keep low-producing, hostile bees among a bustling population?
You wouldn’t. And neither did the inhabitants of Rehov.
Multiple remains of bee wings, heads, legs and larvae allowed scientists to analyze the species and find that the bees were different than the local subspecies and all other known species, besides one called Anatoliaca, which is native to Turkey.
This means either the current local subspecies of bee went through rapid change in the last 3,000 years, or more likely, these ancient bees were imported by residents of Rehov. As Anatolian bees are more mild-tempered, have a low robbing tendency (meaning they are less likely to raid other bees’ hives), and produce three to eight times more honey, it makes sense for the ancient Israelites to have imported such a species for farming proximate to the general populace. Such bee-importing practices are attested to in Hittite, Egyptian and Assyrian inscriptions, which discuss the keeping and transporting of bees (but again, nothing directly from the time period in question).
Even modern beekeeping attempts in Israel have failed with the local bee species, so, in like manner, Italian and Anatolian bees were imported in the 20th century.
Beekeeping had to have been well developed for an apiary of this size to have existed in Israel. In addition, in order to keep a pure Anatolian line, they would have needed to re-queen their hives routinely or import new swarms. This is yet another testament to the sophistication required for such an industrial apiary practice, and subsequently, to how human influence on honeybee distribution must have been well established in early biblical times.
It is also interesting to compare this find to the biblical text: The references to honey from wild bees (Judges 14; 1 Samuel 14) predate the 10th century b.c.e. and, therefore, the establishment of this apiary. Perhaps it was only around this time—the 10th-century emergence of the Davidic and Solomonic kingdom, and its relating prosperity—that industrial beekeeping first became established.
Beekeeping is labor-intensive, yet Tel Rehov had a large and thriving apiary. Further, the location of hives within an urban area indicates that they were valuable and worth protecting.
Understanding what was occurring during the time of kings David and Solomon could help us understand the need, and desire, for beekeeping on an industrial scale.
Solomon wrote this about honey in Proverbs 24:13: “My son, eat thou honey, for it is good, And the honeycomb is sweet to thy taste.” He also warned against too much honey: “It is not good to eat much honey …” (Proverbs 25:27). This indicates that honey was obviously used as a food source during this time, to the point where one could consume too much of it.
But beyond consumption, honey and beeswax had multiple uses. During this period, of course, a massive construction project was undertaken: that of building the first temple.
Massive amounts of brass and bronze were needed for this structure, so much so that according to 1 Kings 7:47, “the weight of the brass could not be found out.”
Beeswax was actually a prime ingredient in the use of an ancient (now-lost) bronze-melting technique. This process involved molten metal being poured into a mold created from clay and wax. Wax was able to be adjusted by the artist, and wax tubes provided vents for both the casting and the release of air. When the mold was fired, the wax melted away as it was heated and drained from the tubes, leaving behind a final mold. Molten bronze was then poured through the feeders and tubes, which, once cooled, were removed, and final touches were made to the finished bronze cast.
In a 2010 pnas article, Mazar suggested that “perhaps copper from Feinan (east of the Dead Sea Basin) and the beeswax from Tel Rehov were used in metal casting in the Jordan valley, recalling the Biblical reference to bronze work that took place in the Jordan valley in relation to the construction of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.” 1 Kings 7:46 states: “In the plain of the Jordan did the king cast them, in the clay ground between Succoth and Zarethan.”
Later in Israel’s history, honey was a major export, as attested in the book of Ezekiel. Discussing the trade between Tyre, Judah and Israel, Ezekiel 27:17 says, “Judah, and the land of Israel, they were thy traffickers; they traded for thy merchandise wheat of Minnith, and balsam, and honey, and oil, and balm.”
Regardless of the specific uses of this particular apiary, it once again shows that early Israel was a sophisticated and advanced society. The discovery of possibly the oldest physical apiary in the world in northern Israel adds new depth of meaning to the biblical description of the “land of milk and honey” promised to the ancient Israelites.