Egyptian beekeeping likely predates their first mention in texts from the First Dynasty (2691–2625 BCE). Beekeeping is depicted in Egyptian art and written about in hieroglyphics. Honey, wax, and the bees themselves were important parts of the Egyptian economy. The honey was used for sacrifices and sweetening the foods of the upper classes. Wax was used as a sealant for jars, a base for medicines, and as a glue. The bees were moved by donkey to avoid floods and to pollinate crops. Although some beekeepers in the Middle East and northeast Africa keep bees in similar hives today, I have been unable to find a study that explicitly attempts to recreate ancient Egyptian hives and bee management. I would like to undertake such a study and am looking for a modest grant to do so.
This study would recreate three versions of an Egyptian hive. Depictions show horizontal cylinder hives made of either clay or clay-covered basketry. One end of the hive is the entrance and the rear is sealed by a cap. The cylindrical hives are stacked upon one another. The beekeeper accesses the hive from the rear by opening the cap. As these are not modern hives and are analogous to skeps, which are not considered hygienic in modern beekeeping practices, the hives would have to be destroyed at the end of the study. As Egypt does not experience significant rainfall, the clay hives would be kept in a ventilated greenhouse: they would have full sun but no precipitation. The hives would be cylinders (1 ft in diameter x 3 ft long) approximately equivalent in size to 1.5 Langstroth deeps (2.36 vs. 2.26 cu ft). The bees will be monitored for a battery of illnesses throughout the year and healthy colonies will be relocated into modern Langstroth or top-bar hives at the end of the study. A special permit will be obtained from the state body charged with monitoring hives.
Bee behavior and production will be monitored at regular intervals: hive weight, behavioral observations, inspections of visible comb and bees, and virus and pest sampling. At the end of the season, a sample of hives will be dissected. All comb will be removed, honey extracted, and weights entered for each hive. Except for a few sample hives, which will be sterilized and kept for reference, all hives will be burned after disease-free colonies have been relocated.
Labor and analysis of this study will be volunteered, however funding will be sought for fixed costs for research, hive production, colony procurement, and testing. I would like to purchase the book The Tears of Re: Beekeeping in Ancient Egypt ($29.95). I will use my complementary account with Washington University in Saint Louis’s library to access other articles and book chapters related to ancient Egyptian beekeeping. Hives will be produced from reeds and grasses that should be available locally without cost and purchased clay, available at about $15/hive (a 1-ft-diameter hive at 3 ft long is ca. 9.5 sq ft of surface area, which would be covered by 25 lb of clay) (exact hive parameters may change slightly as more research is compiled). I propose nine hives: three fired clay (inner basketry would be burned out), three unfired clay over basketry, and three basketry without clay at a total cost of $125 (seven clay hives at $15 plus $20 for wood to fire three hives; the extra hive is in case one fails during firing). I practice OTS hive splitting, which will reduce the cost of procuring nine colonies. I can provide up to four colonies at a low cost ($75) and will seek to find additional low-cost splits from my local beekeepers association at the same rate for a total of $675 for nine colonies. In order to monitor disease loads, assays from each hive will be sent
to a laboratory for testing at a cost of [TBD] per sample, for a total of [TBD] in testing for the season to the USDA Agricultural Research Center’s bee disease diagnosis service for complementary testing (edited 17 Oct 16), and approximately $45 will be needed for shipping costs.
I am an archaeologist and beekeeper who researches ancient technology and its applicability in the modern world through the newly formed Low Technology Institute. This would be the first of a series of studies into ancient beekeeping practices. This type of research is known as experimental archaeology. It is analogous to the popular television show Mythbusters, but instead of testing Hollywood stunts and urban legends, experimental archaeologists test the performance of our best reconstructions of ancient technology. The institute will provide labor and space for this study. At the end of the study, any remaining healthy colonies will be kept for future research. The institute will use and distribute to its staff the products (honey and wax) not used for future research. All results will be made publicly available through the institute’s blog (including pictures and videos), podcast, publications, and presentations to beekeeping groups.
The study will gather data to answer research questions related to the efficiency of Egyptian hives.
What are the difficulties inherent in this hive design?
What are the benefits and drawbacks as compared to Langstroth and top-bar hives?
What are the material and construction costs (materials, labor, specialized knowledge, etc.) of building these hives?
What are the functional differences between fired clay tube, basketry-only tube, and clay-covered basketry tube hives?
How do the bees behave in Egyptian hives compared to Langstroth and top-bar hives, specifically brood and honey-storage patterning?
What is the rate of reproduction and/or swarming?
What types of observation are possible using Egyptian hives?
How difficult is it to split the hive, find the queen, monitor for pests, estimate the amount of honey or brood in the hive (if at all possible)?
How difficult is it to relocate hives?
When installing a colony, how well or poorly do the bees take to their new hive?
What is the average production of an Egyptian hive (when corrected for hive volume) in terms of honey and wax?
Is the Egyptian hive conducive to splitting or managing swarms?
Applicability to Modern Use
Can a colony overwinter in an Egyptian hive if given proper protection from elements?
Is there a way to adapt the Egyptian hive to modern pest-mangement practices?
What positive elements can be gleaned from Egyptian hives?
What negative elements should be avoided?