“The god Re wept, and the tears from his eyes fell on the ground and turned into a bee. The bee made his honeycomb and busied himself with the flowers of every plant and so wax was made and also honey out of the tears of Re.”
What we can learn from the ancient Egyptian practice of beekeeping
This inscription from an ancient Egyptian papyrus inspired the title of a new book, The Tears of Re, a historical look at beekeeping in ancient Egyptian culture by Professor Gene Kritsky, an entomologist at Mount St Joseph’s University.
“Bees were considered sacred because they were a gift from Re,” Kritsky says. “They were made from his tears, and that gave bees a valuable aspect, not just because of what they contributed and brought to Egyptian society, but also because they were theologically important.”
‘Re’ is the name modern scholars now use for the sun god that was once called ‘Ra.’
The oldest honeybee hieroglyph goes back to just before 3000 BCE, Kritsky says. “It was a very ancient symbol in the Egyptian writings. But even in the Old Kingdom (2600-2160 BCE), beekeeping was an important activity organized by the state.”
Egyptians used honey as a sweetener in their cuisine and it was also used as a medicine.
“They would use honey for cuts and burns,” Kritsky says. “Of the 900 or so prescriptions I found in the various medical papyri, close to 500 of them included honey as one of the ingredients. … They used honey as a way of making the medicine taste a little sweeter, but honey also has antibacterial properties, which probably added medicinal value to the concoctions.”
Scholars also confirm honey’s centrality to Egyptian society by measuring its worth relative to other objects and commodities. Only the higher classes and parts of the royal court would have enjoyed honey, Kritsky says, which clearly tells us something. Honey was also used as a kind of tribute from the various provinces to the Pharaoh.
“A number of papyri talk about the rations given to workers,” Kritsky explains. “We know that people who, for example, worked directly with the Pharaoh would receive an allotment of honey daily, but the laborers did not.”
Ancient Egyptian bee hives were different from the kind of hives used by beekeepers today.
“They certainly were quite amazing,” Kritsky says. “They were horizontal tube hives made out of mud that was dried into large cylinders, which were stacked on top of each other — very similar to the construction of the hives we still see used in Azerbaijan and Iran, for example.”
Tomb paintings show beekeepers removing round honeycomb from the horizontal hives. The honeycomb was crushed and then placed into containers.
“So, of course, I had to do this,” Kritsky says. “I took honeycomb and I crushed it, and I put it in a container in the hot sun and the beeswax floated to the top and the honey stayed below the beeswax.”
Another relief shows beekeepers holding a vessel with a spout coming from the middle or towards the bottom, Kritsky says — much like a fat separator used for making gravy. “That may be one way they could have decanted a lot of the honey without getting a lot of the wax mixed in with it,” he explains.
In one of the oldest tomb paintings, from 2450 BCE, a beekeeper is holding something to his face, right up against the opening of the hive.
“The hieroglyph above it means “to weaken” or “to slacken” or “to emit a sound,” Kritsky says. “That’s been interpreted as smoking bees, which is a way of quieting bees, or maybe calling to the bees.”
In fact, scholars believe a traditional Egyptian beekeeper practice involved ‘calling’ the queen — making a sound to see if the queen bee would respond. “That would tell them if there was a queen ready to emerge or the status inside the hive,” Kritsky explains. “If that was the case, then their beekeeping was much more sophisticated than we can appreciate.”
Egyptians had various uses for beeswax, too. Beeswax was used in cosmetics, as well as in paintings, and even in some embalming practices.
Beeswax was also important as a “wonderful, magical substance,” Kritsky says. “Beeswax burns with a very bright light and doesn’t leave any ash. Moreover, if you put beeswax in the hot Egyptian sun, it will start to change. It will get a little molten, a little liquid-y. All of this tied in with their solar theology and would have been important to the Egyptians.”
As a beekeeper himself, Kritsky feels a strong kinship with these ancient Egyptian beekeepers. “It’s a very ancient occupation, because it goes back to ancient Egypt obviously,” he says, “but there’s a kinship between us — humans and bees — that I find very alluring.”