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Sphakia Survey: The Internet Edition

The Transmission of Beekeeping Round the Ancient Mediterranean

Eva Crane

The honey bee in all this region is Apis mellifera, which builds a nest of parallel wax combs in a cavity. During prehistory people obtained honey and beeswax from the wild nests, and the use of honey or wax does not itself show that hive beekeeping was done. This probably started when the number of available nest sites became insufficient to supply the honey or wax for the human population. In the Mediterranean region, the hives were placed horizontally, but were made of various materials: from plants (hollowed logs, or cylinders for instance of woven wicker), r in dry areas from earth materials (fired clay or unfired Nile mud). The earliest known evidence of hives in different areas is:

from c. 2400 B.C. in Egypt: excavated paintings and engravings;
from c 400 B.C. in southern Greece: excavated hives;
from c 250 B.C. in Spain: excavated hives;
after 146 B.C., when Carthage was taken, descriptions by Roman authors.

In each of these areas, hives similar to those known from Antiquity can be found in use today.

Various considerations suggest that there were two main routes of transmission of beekeeping knowledge and practice.

  • Route 1. Along N Africa and thence to Spain and Rome (also from Carthage to western Sicily).
  • Route 2. North along the Levant as far as Asia Minor, but not Greece (also to Cyprus).
  • Route 3. To Crete, to Aegean islands, to the south-eastern part of the Greek mainland (and also from Greece to the Upper Indus basin).

Beekeeping practice was most advanced in Egypt. Along the eastern transmission route there were losses, but also gains. Along the western route important knowledge was lost, and in my opinion beekeeping in ancient Rome was less advanced than that in either ancient Egypt or ancient Greece.

Woodside House,
Woodside Hill,
Gerrards Cross,
Bucks SL9 9TB.

This is an abstract from "Bee-keeping in the Graeco-Roman World", a conference organised by Simon Price and Lucia Nixon at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, on 7 November 2000.



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