Honeybee remains found in a 3,000-year-old apiary have given archaeologists a one-of-a-kind window into the beekeeping practices of the ancient world.
“Beekeeping is known only from a few Egyptian sources, from a few tombs and paintings. No actual hives have been found,” said Hebrew University of Jerusalem archaeologist Amihai Mazar.
The hives were uncovered in 2007 at an excavation in Tel Rehov, Israel, home to the flourishing Bronze and Iron Age city of Rehov. Mazar and his team found more than 100 hives, capable of housing an 1.5 million bees and producing half a ton of honey.
In a paper published June 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers analyzed bees preserved in honeycomb that was charred, but not completely burnt by fire that likely destroyed the rest of the apiary.
Unfortunately for would-be makers of ancient honey, heat damaged the bees’ DNA, making it impossible to revive their genes in modern bees. But the researchers were at least able to identify them as Apis mellifera anatoliaca, a subspecies found only in what is now Turkey. It’s possible that A. m. anatoliaca’s range has changed, but more likely that Rehov’s beekeepers traded for them.
Local bees are notoriously difficult to handle. During the 20th century, when beekeepers tried to establish a modern industry in Tel Rehov, they ended up importing A. m. anatoliaca — a literally sweet example of history repeating itself.