PALMER: Professor Kritsky, your book is called, The Tears of Re. Can you read the inscription that gives it that title?
KRITSKY: Certainly, the title is inspired by a papyrus that was written around 300 BCE, and it tells the story of the god Re and the origin of bees and reads:
“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.”
PALMER: So, tell me what the ancient Egyptians believed about bees?
PALMER: The 26th dynasty...when about was that?
KRITSKY: That was approximately around 600 BCE.
PALMER: Now, they believed that the bees came from Re, but how important were they in Egyptian society?
PALMER: Well, we know, of course, that honey is a very powerful antiseptic now. I presume they didn't know of that value of it, but you say it was used as a medicine. Do we know how?
KRITSKY: Yes, it was. In fact, they would use honey for cuts and for burns. But of the 900 some odd prescriptions I found in some of 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 it also, as you pointed out, had antibacterial properties, which also probably included medicinal value to the concoctions.
KRITSKY: That's correct. Indeed it was very expensive commodity in ancient Egypt and usually only the higher classes and parts of the Royal Court, for example, would have enjoyed honey.
PALMER: How do we know it was expensive?
KRITSKY: Well, we know that on a number of the papyri that talk about the rations given to workers.
We know that people who, for example, work directly with the Pharaoh would receive an allotment of honey daily, but the laborers did not.
PALMER: Is there any way of having an objective sort of like money value of it? Do we have any clue about that?
PALMER: In your book you have some wonderful pictures of cave paintings and papyri that show honey. It was also used as a kind of tribute from the various provinces to the Pharaoh?
KRITSKY: Definitely. In the tomb of Rekmire, you'll find a whole series of paintings that show tribute being paid in the form of honey.
PALMER: So how much can we read about what the hieroglyphs tell us about bees?
PALMER: Describe for me what the ancient Egyptian hives were like because they are quite different from the kind of hives we have today.
KRITSKY: Oh, they certainly were quite amazing. They were these horizontal tube hives. They were made out of mud that was dried into large cylinder and then stacked on top of each other, very similar in the construction of the hives we still see used in Azerbaijan and Iran, for example.
PALMER: Do we have any real understanding of exactly how they practiced beekeeping? Can you say to me if I were an Egyptian beekeeper what would I be doing on a daily basis or on a monthly basis?
KRITSKY: Well, we don't have any real evidence of how they actually kept their bees, but there are some practices that we can discern from the temple and tomb paintings. We know, of course, they used horizontal hives, but in one of the hives, the oldest one from 2450 BCE, we actually see the beekeeper holding something to his face and it's right up against the opening of the hive. The hieroglyph above it means “to weaken” or “to slacken” or “to emit a sound”, and that's been interpreted as smoking bees - which is a way of quieting bees - or may be calling bees. One of things the traditional Egyptian beekeepers practiced, they would call the queen, make a little sound and the queen would respond. That would tell them if there was a queen ready to emerge or what was the status inside the hive. If that was the case then their beekeeping was much more sophisticated than we can appreciate.
PALMER: Now, you say they not only used the honey, they also made use of the wax. Tell me a bit more about how they used the wax.
KRITSKY: We know that wax was used in cosmetics, for example, they wore wigs and they would keep the curls of the wigs in place by using beeswax. We have evidence of beeswax being found in a very thin layer on some mummies, so it was used as a preservative that way but it wasn't going to be prevalent enough for the broader context. But beeswax was also important as a wonderful magical substance. Beeswax when it burns, it burns with a very bright light. It also doesn't leave any ash. Moreover, if you put beeswax in the hot Egyptian sun, it will start to change, it'll get a little molten like, a little liquidy. And so all these tied in with their solar theology would've been important to the Egyptians, and so they had a number of ways that you could take beeswax carvings, for example, if you wanted to ward off evil by taking a hippopotamus for example and carving it into an beeswax and igniting it and burning it away, that would be one kind of magic that would help form a protective spell, for example.
KRITSKY: Oh, I really do. There's something...if anybody out there has not kept bees or if they have kept bees they'll know what this like. Of course, western beekeeping, we're wearing the veil, the protective gear, and it sort of limits your peripheral vision. You've got your smoker going, and when you open up that hive and you smell the sweet smell of the honey and the honeycomb, and if when you're really at one with your bees you don't use gloves anymore. It's almost like a tai chi. You're carefully moving the frames around, so the bees don't get alarmed and don't sting you and so on. To me it's a very ancient occupation because it goes back to ancient Egypt obviously, but there's something that's kinship with us, humans and bees, that I find very alluring.
PALMER: Now so as far as we know, they didn't have some of the problems that beekeepers have today, and I know that you are actually working on bees and some of the problems in your current research. Can you tell me a little about that?
KRITSKY: Yes the recent papers have shown that close to if not all the foundation that's being manufactured now has fungicides already present in that wax and this may be a contributing factor to some of the bee health problems because the bees aren't getting the same nutrition they normally get if indeed natural yeasts are not present. And that's what we're trying to find out with our research. We're trying to see do these that yeast we're finding in the flowers, that we find in the pollen balls, how long are they still surviving in the honeycomb as the pollen is converted to bee bread.
PALMER: Wow, that's really interesting. I didn't know about the fungicides on the foundation.
KRITSKY: And it's not just fungicides. There's insecticides on some of the wax as well, so there are a number of laboratories around the states and in Europe that are looking at this question because it's rather critical because bees are important for life.
CURWOOD: That’s Gene Kritsky, Entomologist, Chair of the Biology Department at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati and author of The Tears of Re. He spoke with Living on Earth’s Helen Palmer. And by the way, we asked what his current research on pesticides and fungicides in wax had discovered, and he told us “it’s still too soon.”
- The Tears of Re from Oxford University Press
- Video: Kritsky on Advanced ancient Egyptian beekeeping techniques
- Video: Kritsky on Medicinal uses of ancient Egyptian beekeeping
- Video: Kritsky on the economic value of beekeeping
- About entomologist Gene Kritsky
- Prehistoric farmers were first beekeepers
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CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation and brought to you from the campus of the University of Massachusetts Boston, in association with its School for the Environment, developing the next generation of environmental leaders. Our crew includes Naomi Arenberg, Bobby Bascomb, Emmett Fitzgerald, Lauren Hinkel, Helen Palmer, Adelaide Chen, Jenni Doering, John Duff, and Jennifer Marquis. Tom Tiger engineered our show, with help from Jake Rego, and Noel Flatt. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can find us anytime at LOE.org - and like us, please, on our Facebook page - it’s PRI’s Living on Earth. And we tweet from @LivingOnEarth. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.
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