Bees of Palestine
If you prefer,
By Phillip J. Baldensperger,
Vice-president of the Apis Club
Born in Palestine, a beekeeper from early youth, and amongst the very first to introduce modern bee-hives into my native country, I may say that it was always my endeavour to talk or write nothing about the craft, for which I cannot firmly vouch. Most of my practical experience in my early life was acquired in the Orient; but a good part of my fifty years with the bees was acquired all around the Western Mediterranean, North and South. Every plant, at least of major importance, in Palestine, Syria, Egypt, the whole of North Africa, and the greater part of Southern France have been my close acquaintances, besides the various races of bees which live in the said countries.
I read in February number of this year’s The Bee World that Capt. H. O. Morgan contests some parts of what I had to say concerning bees and sale of honey in the East. Many of the readers of The Bee World can witness that I never advanced the least argument, unless strictly and patiently proved by study for years. I know also that men of much superior authority than mine, had difficulty to prove their theories or practical experiences. The great Dzierzon of parthenogenetical fame, was violently attacked, now and then, for his well-known and well established theories. So was Father Langstroth of moveable comb-hive fame. So in such company I must not be too much surprised if some of my special theories are contested.
However, should I be silent about the contested points it would be as we say in France « Qui ne dit rien, consent. » In my paper, read before the Apis Club in London, I stated that honey of bees was not known to early Hebrews, nor were bees.
Mr. Morgan accepts Mr. Gadsby’s description of “Canaan as a land flowing with milk and honey” as literally correct. Should the close observer and keen Biblical student, Mr. Gadsby, ever have come across a honey-comb somewhere at the base of a rock-cliff in Palestine, it would have been interesting to state the spot, as the case of Jonathan was in biblical days, near Michmash. Still in both cases there were certainly no streams of honey. Having passed a lifetime in Palestine — not in the big towns of Jerusalem and Jaffa, but in the fields amongst the rural population — the wildest of lives, on horseback and camping — very often with the sky for canopy as shelter — I can claim to know a good deal more than a .passing traveller, unacquainted with the language and intricate life of the people wandering up and down mostly in Southern Palestine, with bees on camel-back, with most thrilling adventures. I have had the privilege of being chosen as the best narrator of manners and customs (published by the Quarterly Statement of Palestine Exploration Tour in London) by the late Col. Claude Regnier Condor, R.E. Col. Condor, officer in command of the Survey Expedition, was at work during the years 1872 to 1877, having Lieut. Kitchener (later Lord Kitchener) as second in command. They established the Map of Palestine and Col. Condor wrote many books about nature, agriculture, archaeology, and discoveries in “Syrian Folk Lore”, “The Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem”, “Tent work in Palestine”, and some others. He said “the grapes of the Vale of Eshcol (near Hebron) mellowed by the autumn mists in full beauty” — and many such scenes — but never met with honey flowing from the rocks.
I must say also that from boyhood I was amongst the fervent Bible readers on Mount Zion, and still continue to be so, I admitted the “Land flowing with milk and honey” as Oriental mentality puts it, to be very nearly correct. This becomes very different when we look at it not poetically but practically and as a beekeeper; and I therefore studied every nook and crevice, every local name and I put myself « au pied du mur », and ask “could honey possibly flow in streams down the faces of rocks without calling forth the most tremendous robberies by bees ever heard of ?” Bees are met sometimes in crevices, but I never succeeded in Palestine to bring them forth. Some Fellahin have succeeded in blowing up some rocks by the aid of gun-powder to get a few pounds of honey, but that was all. Bees usually creep into cracks as hr as possible — where neither heat nor cold and where sunshine never penetrates — and establish their wonderful buildings in the deepest darkness. When the Sirocco blows in all its fury, rocks are never hot enough even to warm your hands above the common, to say nothing of melting combs of wax. In my wanderings outside of Palestine, hunting the Saharian bee, many a time south of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, I met swarms of bees, beyond my reach, in crevices and cracks, in a climate a good deal hotter than any Palestinian mountains, but never a comb had been found melted by the heat of the sun.
When Moses in East-Jordania sang prophetically in the ears of the Israelitish Assembly about the land promised to Israel, we read it according to English or Occidental translations as the case may be; but he did not speak in English or French but in old Hebrew and his expressions, as all those of the Old Testament, are of great importance, which given in European languages changes the sense of events and objects. Thus we read in Deuteronomy xxxii, verse 13, “He made him to suck honey out of the rock”, in Hebrew it reads “way en Kahon dabsh mi Sala” the correct translation would be “he satisfied you with grape-juice from the rock”. In Hebron one of the biggest grape-vine centres in Palestine, the grapes are still crushed in rock-cut presses and the workers occasionally take a draught of the grape-juice as it flows down. This could not be done if honey were flowing and consequently bee-hives in the vicinity. The fact is there were no bees there and the Hebrews had only one name for every stinging insect : — Dabura, used in the feminine, and Daburim in the plural. Hornets were usually meant in the passages translated into English as bees. The wisest of the children of the East, as we read of King Solomon, spoke about everything, from the cedar to the hyssop, and all animals. Now he mentions ants, serpents, conies, eagles, as wonderful beings. Had he known bees he would surely have spoken about these most wonderful of animals.
Later bees came to Palestine. Prophet Isaiah was the first authority — being of royal kin, probably travelled to Egypt and Assyria — to mention bees in the future as a calamity; for Hebrews feared the Daburim. “It shall come to pass in that day (which means the restitution of the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel), that the Lord shall hiss for the fly (Zebub) that is in the uttermost parts of the rivers of Egypt, and for the bee (Dabura) that is in the law of Ashur. And they shall come and rest all of them in the desolate valleys and in the holes in the rocks, and upon all thorns, and upon all bushes (ha-nahalim)”. Every practical beekeeper sees swarms of bees in the prophet’s description. Flies do not gather in swarms as bees — they settle on refuse. Bees, therefore, in my opinion, were introduced from Egypt and Assyria by returning Jews, in Ezra’s or Nehenmiah’s days, and as the two countries possess different kinds, the Egyptian bee (Apis mellifica fasciata Latr.) and the Syrian bee (Apis mellifica var. syriaca v. Buttel-Reepen), a new strain was formed (Apis mellifica var. terra-sancta, Baldenspeger) by the crossing of two strains of the greyish yellow bee.
When the Psalmist compares the nations to Daburim, Isaiah, cviii, 12, he means hornets — the English version says — “They compassed me about like bees, they are quenched as the fire of thorns; for in the name of the Lord will I destroy them”, he refers thus to Deuteronomy i, 44, “The Amorites came out against you, as bees do, and destroyed you in Seir”. The Hebrew calls them Daburîm. If they were bees, surely they would not act as the Psalmist said. Every beekeeper can see that.
Capt. Morgan contradicts “that grapes do not grow in Egypt”. Certainly there may be some vines here and there in Alexandria or Cairo, but Egypt is renowned for its 4½ million date palm trees, its vast cotton plantations — the riches of Egypt — plenty of onions and garlicks, many common vegetables, Banna (Hibiscus esculentus), garden-eggs (Solanum esculentum), melukhia (Corchorus olitorus), water-melons and the like. Egyptian fruit trees, excepting a few fig trees and oranges and lemons, are of very low grade. Egypt is in fact one elongated oasis, whilst the neighbouring Palestine (divided by the Sinaitic Desert) is the country of vines. As for neighbouring Greece (so my opponent calls it: it is far away to the North of the Mediterranean), the ancient as well as modern Greeks grew the best of grapes.
The Euphrates and Tigris Rivers are in the same latitude as all the Mediterranean vine-producing countries from the straits of Gibraltar to Cyprus, and have no comparison with the flat sandy valley of the Nile. All the North African countries — Egypt and parts of Tripoli excepted — have fine vineyards, as Spain, Italy, Greece, Asia Minor down to Palestine.
Notes of the Editor
[M. Baldensperger’s long experience with bees in the Near East entitles his opinion to the utmost respect. We feel, however, that there are still some points to be cleared up.
(1) How came it that, while we know (from their legislation and other evidence) that bees were common and beekeeping developed in the Hittite country, bees did not spread thence into Syria and Palestine?
(2) Different races of bees differ in their behaviour : but surely the Palestine bee is not so different from her relative of India as to make it an impossibility (in the matter of honey running down it) that a bee-inhabited rock should be much the same in both countries. The description in The Second Jungle Book (“Red Dog”) is surely not merely Mr. Kipling’s imagination, unbacked by fact? Combs may break from other causes than heat.
(3) Are the habits of bees and wasps in Palestine opposite to those of their English cousins? Our experience is, that while a really cross stock of bees will readily come out and attack innocent passers-by, exactly as the Amorites did, wasps never are guilty of aggression unless their nest has actually been disturbed.
(4) Was not the prophet’s fly from Egypt one of those exasperating gadflies that settle silently on their victims (or temporarily, on the neighbouring vegetation), and are at least as painful inflictions as any bee or wasp?
We cannot publish lengthy further correspondence on this matter, but shall be glad of any information from persons with special knowledge bearing on the above points.]
The Bee World,
12, March, 1931 pp 34-36.
Phillip J. Baldensperger,
Vice-president of the Apis Club