Ancient Bees

This weekend, I smoked a whole bunch of pork with a few friends. As we set out the pork for our dinner feast, it was literally swarmed by what I called bees. Some friends corrected me (including one who keeps bees) and told me that they were wasps or yellow-jackets which is apparently another name for wasp. A pro-wasp or, perhaps more properly, pro-stinging insect lobby has tried to convince people that these insects, in fact, prey on other pests. I reject the clearly politicized attitudes of the pro-stinging insect lobby and regard humans and bees/wasps in a prolonged state of total war. 

In any event, I was happy enough to read about ancient bee keeping in J.E. Francis recent article in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology (31 (2012), 143-159) where she provides a brief overview of ancient authors’ knowledge of bee keeping and then considers the ceramic bee hives commonly found on survey project in Greece. The most common examples in my experience are open vessels of a medium coarse to coarse fabric with groves or combing on the interior (rather than on the exterior as is far more common). This distinctive surface treatment make these vessels stand out, although it is interesting to note that the characteristic interior combing does not appear to have been necessary for bees to build their nests and does not appear in more recent examples of ceramic hives.

Apparently, this tubular form of ceramic beehive is particularly common in ancient Greece and almost completely absent in Italy. In fact, in Italy some ancient authors complained that the ceramic hives got too warm inside for the bees to survive. The significant quantities of hive ceramic fragments found in Greece and the continued use of ceramic hives into the 19th century offers a significant challenge to this argument. Francis conducted an experiment with a damaged 19th century hive to add strength to the archaeological and ethnographic record. The interior of the hive reached only 38 degree C which was well within the temperature range suitable for bees.

The ancient authors who commented on apiculture practices in Italy (Varro, Columella, and Pliny) criticize the use of ceramic hives suggesting that they were not at all familiar with Greek practices where ceramic hives were used from at least the 5th c. BC. In Italy, apparently, wood hives were the norm. It is interesting to observe that these authors must have never encountered ceramic hives in the Greek countryside and this practice never made it from Greece to Italy. It reinforces the distinctly regional character of certain agricultural practices and demonstrates the urban focus of even those members of the literary classes who travelled outside of their home regions.

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