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Ancient beekeeping and the Book of Mormon

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"And they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee; and thus they did carry with them swarms of bees, and all manner of that which was upon the face of the land, seeds of every kind." Ether 2:3

By Michael De Groote

Deseret News

Utah is filled with beehives — real and symbolic. But what about the ancient Near East? Were the Jaredites — who "did carry with them swarms of bees" — unusual? And what's with this "deseret" word?

Ronan James Head wrote about ancient apiculture or beekeeping in "The Farms Review."

Even though it may seem common to modern people — humans have not always kept bees. (The stings may have had something to do with it.) But honey is sweet, and before people kept bees, they hunted honey. The honey hunter smoked a hive and then stole the honeycombs. Head wrote that evidence of honey hunting goes back to 15,000 B.C.

So a reference to honey is not necessarily a reference to beekeeping. In fact, the Hebrew word for honey — which can be roughly spelled as debas — "can refer to both bee honey and any number of sweet substances," Head wrote. "Thus, Canaan may have been the 'land of milk and fruit syrup.'"

Even John the Baptist's honey "was probably not from bees and was certainly not cultivated in any case."

John the Baptist's locusts, unfortunately, were probably locusts.

When the Bible does mention bee honey, it is talking about wild honey, Head wrote (See Deuteronomy 32:13, and also 1 Nephi 17:5).

But what about the Jaredites? They had bees, didn't they?

Bee cultivation occurred at different times in the ancient Near East. Head wrote that the earliest archaeological evidence for hive beekeeping comes from Egypt about 3,000 B.C. "A stone bas-relief from the sun temple of Niuserre Any at Abu Gurob depicts the gathering, filtering and packing of honey, demonstrating that from a very early period beekeeping was well established in Egypt."

The beehives used were mud or clay imitations of logs — tubes a little more than three feet long.

Bee symbolism was so ingrained into Egyptian ideas that the king was known in the vowel-less Egyptian writing as nsw bty — "He of the Reed and the Bee." Head wrote that sometimes the title was written with dsrt replacing bty. Dsrt also was a certain grade of honey called "red" honey.

Feel free to add some vowels to dsrt if you wish.

Only in the last three or four years has evidence of ancient beekeeping around Israel been found. Head referred to a 2007 press release that described the discovery of evidence at Tel Rehov of beehive use dating to about 1,000 or 900 B.C.

Ancient Turkey even had laws about beekeeping — including this one from around 1,500 B.C: "If anyone steals two or three beehives, formerly the offender would have been exposed to bee-sting. But now he shall pay six shekels of silver."

Ancient Iraq and Iran have sparse evidence of beehive keeping (Head wrote it is just too hot there). Linguistic evidence is made difficult, Head wrote, because the Mesopotamian word for honey could mean honey or date syrup. The first mention of beekeeping is from 800 B.C. where a governor of the land of Suhu and Mari claimed to be the first person to bring them down from the mountains.

The ancient hives could be moved. "All of these hives would be portable on pack animals and boats," Head wrote.

There are accounts of hives being moved. Head cites Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), who described boat-based hives. A late account (1740) talked about how Egyptians moved their hives seasonally. Modern beekeepers in Israel also move their hives seasonally. Bees were even brought on the back of a covered wagon with the pioneers.

"The value of bees in a nomadic journey would be high because of the calorific value of a regular honey supply. Honey is also a useful trading commodity," Head wrote.

Although the Book of Mormon speaks of the Jaredites bringing swarms of bees — including "they did also carry with them deseret, which, by interpretation, is a honey bee," the record does not state whether they brought the swarms to the New World.

Head wrote that the Old World honeybee was not introduced to the Americas until the 1600s. But the indigenous (and stingless) American bee was cultivated by early Native Americans. These bees produced 50 times less honey than the Old World honeybee. The earliest evidence for American beekeeping, wrote Head, was from the Late Preclassic Maya period from about 300 B.C. to 300 A.D.

As more discoveries are made, further light may be shed on the Jaredite's migratory beekeeping described in the Book of Mormon and the role of honey in scripture. That would be sweet.

This article is based upon "A Brief Survey of Ancient Near Eastern Beekeeping," by Ronan James Head, in "The Farms Review," Vol. 20 No. 1, 2008, pages 57-66.

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com