Bees and Honey in Ancient India

By DR. K. K. Kshirsagar

Modern beekeeping technology was introduced in India only in the early 19th century. There is a vast scope for development of this industry which will be useful mainly as an agro industry. It has a great potential for employment
Though modern beekeeping appears to be a non-traditional industry it seems to have roots in the Vedic period. The traditional honey hunting methods adopted by the rural and forest dwellers indicate the linkage. In order to understand the heritage, Scientists and Sanskrit scholars must undertake thorough investigations on the subject. This communication aims at initiation of such collaborative and scientific exploration of Indian heritage.
Key words: Honey, Honey bees, Beekeeping, Aśvins, Upaniṣads, Ṛgveda, Bhimbetka Rock paintings.

References to honey and honey bees occur in ancient Indian literature like Rigveda and Upanishads, which probably date back to 1200 B.C. Mention of bees and honey has been profusely made in these scriptures to explain the philosophy of life by giving several analogies (Dave 1954,1955). Mention of honey as the only sweetening agent, then known to mankind , has occurred at various places. In Rigveda alone, which is the oldest scripture in the world, the “Madhu” , meaning honey, has been used for 300 times (Mullick, 1944) . Mullick has cited several quotations in support of his statement, a few which are as follows:

Bees and Honey-1

1)   | (Madhvā saṁpṛktāḥ sāragheṇa dhenavaḥ |)
Meaning, “Drinks containing milk have been saturated with bee honey” (Rigveda 8.4.8)

Bees and Honey-2

2) |(Imehi te Brahmakṛtaḥ sute sa cā madhau na makṣa āsate|)
Meaning, “Here are thy invokers (worshipers) together waiting with offering for thee like bees
sitting together on honey” (Rigveda 7.32.2)

Bees and Honey-3

3)|(Āśvinā sāragheṇa mā madhunāṅktaṁ śubhaspatī | Yathā varcasvatī vācamāvadāni janāṅ anu |)

Meaning ,“Asvins Granter of good , annoint me with bee honey ,so that I may address glorious words to the people . “(Atharva 9.1.10)
In another allegory which is often repeated in Upanishads to explain abstract conepts in Indian philosophy, incidentally reflects considerable information about bees and a few very broad features of their social organization, Viz. recognition of regal caste among honey bees (Deodikar, 1961). Relative importance of various senses of cognizance for sustenance of one’s life has been repeatedly discussed in some of the Upanishads like Chāndogya and Bṛhadārṇyaka as also in (Prāṇponiṣad 2-1-12). This passage from Prāṇopaniṣad leads us to following tentative inferences: (1) The ancient Indians had gathered some information about general social organization among bees and particularly about (2) the presence of a regal caste, (3) Domination of a hive by a single individual belonging to this regal caste, (4) behavior of bees during swarming or desertion and (5) such swarms being led by single member of this regal caste, Which they wrongly called a ‘King-bee’.
Not only the Vedic scriptures but the ancient literature on medicine like ‘Nighaṇṭu’ and ‘Bhāva Prakaśa’ aslo described the honey bee and the honey produced by it.

Archaeological evidences
Rapid advances in Indian archaeology during the last 25 years have made it possible to reconstruct the sequence of the various stages of evolution of human life on Indian sub- continent. The most spectacular discoveries are the rock painting in caves and shelters in Central India (Wakankar and Brooks 1976). From the absence of technically more advance culture and use of stone tools or weapons, Wakankar and Brooks inferred that cave paintings were drawn by non-Aryan ancestors of present-day tribal people of this region.
Gordon (1960) has earlier attempted dating of the rock paintings found in Mahadeo Hills in Central India depicting honey collection from the nest of wild bees. He felt that very earliest of these paintings could not be older than 700 B.C.E.
There of the several paintings in the rock shelter No.III (Painting no.III-F-35b) discovered by Mathpal (1978) in Bhimbetka (20 km south of Bhopal) show the hunting of rock bee colonies for honey collection. According to Mathpal these paintings belong to the Mesolithic or earlier period dating between 15000-11000 B.C.E Among the activities of the Stone Age people of this period, hunting for honey and its collection had been common. This discovery shows that the Mesolithic paintings in India are contemporary, if not earlier, to similar paintings in Europe. The paintings show crudely drawn semicircular combs sometimes surrounded or covered by bees.

Ancient Indian Literature
Two extreme views on bee-keeping in historic and pre-historic India exist. One of these while accepting that the Vedic Indians had some knowledge of bees and honey, considers that he was hardly more than a hunter . According to the other view exemplified by Dave (1954) the Vedic Aryans settling in the densely forests of Himalayan Valleys, literally flowing with milk and honey ,not only knew the social life and the life-history of honeybees, but also practiced a fairly developed form of bee-culture. There been occasional references to the startingly advance knowledge that the Vedic Aryans possessed and exhibited in different fields of the then common human pursuits, including industry (Bapat 1965) and medicine (Joshi and Godbole 1970). Bedi (1949) in his comprehensive treatment on “Honey” gave an account of the use of honey in ancient India as the only sweetening agent and as a medicine. Bedi’s account gave also
an indication that the Vedic Aryans, differentiated honey collected by squeezing combs of wild bee colonies along with their eggs and larvae from that collected only honey-combs. By further inference there was an indication to the practice of bee culture as distinct from bee hunting for food collection. However, Bedi could not make a detailed analysis of the various facts provided in the Vedic literature and was silent on the actual method of beekeeping.
On a series of articles on beekeeping in Ancient India, Dave (1954 a,b,c,d: 1955 a,b,c,d,e,f ) provided, for the first time , an exhaustive analysis of the Ṛgvedic literature with a view to discover the hidden meaning of various words, characteristically used in the Vedic hymns. Apparently these hymns were sung in praise of a variety of Gods propitiating them and seeking health, vigor and prosperity. Being a beekeeper himself, as also an erudite scholar in the Vedic Sanskrit Dave’s research into this aspect could bring out many interesting facts about bees and bee-keeping in India in the Vedic period. The various facts about bees and bee-culture discovered from the ancient Indian texts by Dave can be summarized as follows:

Ancient Facts

1) Honey combs consist of hexagonal cells in series. Ripe honey is sealed.
2) There are two common bees which produce honey. The giant honeybees building their hive suspended on branches of trees, have one large comb measuring about 90 cm across. The common honeybee builds its hive in hollow mounds of white –ants or in hollows of trees. Its hive contains seven combs.
3) The bees have stings at the tip of the abdomen. They have a powerful sense of smell, memory and direction.
4) Each hive is ruled by a “bee-king” who does not tolerate a rival within the hive. The bee-
king is reared upon a special food. After the emergence from his cell the bee-king undertakes mating height, after which he settles down in the hive with his bee-wives
5) The bee colony issues out successive swarms to start new colonies. Only the first three of these were named.
6) The common Indian honeybee was reared in hives made of reeds and grasses .This was the first step hive. Log and pot hives were also used. They were either hung in a horizontal position or kept in walls likewise. Log hives were also used on X-type or four- legged stands.
7) For capturing a swarm, honey sections of comb were cut and placed in the man-made hives, during spring, colonies settled in such hives.
8) Only four combs of honey were taken out during honey harvest, the rest being left for
the colony.
9) A swarm would first be sprinkled with water and then hived.
10) Bee colonies were taken to farms for good crops and for honey production.
11) Strong and populous colonies were divided and the nuclei given new bee-king. Failing colony was revived by giving a new bee-king.
12) Smoke was used to pacify the bees, to take out the honey-combs and to introduce new bee-king in a daughter colony.

Each of the above point was discussed in detail, giving evidences and references to various ancient Indian texts.
Dating the Ṛgvedic period has been a subject of controversy. Discussing this subject,
Gaidhani and Rahurkar (1955) record that, many scholars now agree on 4500-2500 B.C.E., as the Ṛgvedic period. In the last of his articles on the subject Dave (1955) tried to determine the date of invention of bee-hive and bee culture by Vedic Aryans. He suggested 2700-2600 B.C.E. as this date .According to him the credit for invention of an artificial bee hive and of bee culture goes to the three Ṛbhu brothers.

The Ṛbhus prepared the first hive with reeds and straw. They secured honey section from a natural colony. These were fixed in the hive. The contrivance was then put in a shady place near a water course .In the ensuing spring, a swarm settled in it. The Ṛbhus tended this hive for one year and when it was full of honey they removed only four combs. They Vedic sages heartily welcomed the invention, since they could now get assured of continuous supply of honey for their sacrificial rites.
The colony of the Indian honeybee was referred to in the Vedic literature as the “Frail Cow”, and its combs as “skin of vegetable origin”. Thus in the above story of invention of our artificial hive, the skin of a frail cow was used. This story has its counterpart in Greek mythology where a swarm of bees came from inside a dead-bul.
The discovery of bee culture and honey production by the Vedic Aryans reduced their dependence on the local tribal people for their honey supply. The Aryans kept their newly acquired knowledge as a closely guarded secret and severe punishment was prescribed for those passed this knowledge on to the local primitive tribes .In fact when one of the Vedic saints, Dadhyaṅga taught the knowledge of honey to Aśvins against the instruction of Indra, his head was cut off. Dadhyaṅga however, got his head replaced by the Aśvins, who were also expert surgeons (Griffith 1963).
The origin and evolution of the Aśvins, youngest members of Vedic deities were closely associated with the invention of bee culture and it practice, after understanding the behavior of the hive bees.
In the following few centuries more detailed observations on bee behavior, on plants
that provide food to the bees and more particularly, on the characteristics of honeys produced by different honeybees as also their medicinal properties were made. The acknowledged authorities on medicine in those days, Carak and Suṣruta, elaborated on this in their Ayurvedic treatise on medicine and surgery.
Four species of honeybees were identified .The color, nest building and honey characteristic of each of the honeybees were described as follows:
1) The small and black bee (Trigona): It visit small and poisonous flowers and produce honey which is heat-producing and cause acidity. The honey has many medicinal properties.
2) The yellow bee (Apis florea ): with black and white stripes on the abdomen. The honey from this species is cooling in effect and was considered good for colds and coughs. Medicinally florea honey is effective against tuberculosis and asthama.It is also good for eye diseases.
3) The common yellow and black bee (Apis cerana): Its honey is oily in color, and was considered best among all other honey types. This honey was recommended
for asthma, cough, tuberculosis, jaundice, piles and gas troubles. (4) The humming big bee (rocks bees): with honey similar in properties to that of the common bee.
Eight types of honeys were known, some honeys were observed to crystalize and to change their taste after granulation. On heating, honey was observed to lose its aromatic components and to become toxic for human consumption. Properties of freshly collected honeys as well as those stored for one year or more were described (Bedi 1949).

Post-Vedic Era
Recent archaeological excavations (Anonymons 1980) indicate that one of the epics, Ramayana, is about 4000 years old. There are elaborate descriptions of the bee gardens (Madhuvana) apiary keepers and bee plants in Ramayana (Bapat 1965) Honey production was almost industrialized in this period.
In the subsequent centuries, bee-culture seems to have lost its initial charm and interest to the Aryans, and we find its direct reference in literary works discontinued, Thus in the Upaniṣads, Mahābhārata and Jātaka Kathās bees and honey were referred only indirectly.
Use of log hives, pot hives and wall hives seems to be traditional in different parts of India. These have been continued even today .Movable frame hives were introduced in India during 1880’s. It was in the 20th century that modern bee keeping was initiated with movable frame hive suited to Apis cerana.

1. Anonymous,Press report; Kesari,11February 1980
2. G.V.Bapat , A reference to intoxicating honey in Ramayana .Indian Bee J. 27, 1965 : Pp.29- 34.
3. R.Bedi, Honey (in Hindi ), 1949 . Himalaya Herbal Insititte , Gurukul Kangdi, Hardwar 1949,
4. K.N. Dave, Beekeeping in Ancient India” Indian Bee J.16,1954.Pp :92-95; 149-161;169- 191;196-205.
5. K.N. Dave, Beekeeping in Ancient India” Indian Bee J.17:1955. p.11-25;49-63; 87-93; 115- 125; 169-176; 189-200 and 202.
6. G.B.Deodikar, Recognition of regal caste among honeybees in ancient Indian literature “ Indian Bee J.23,1961,Pp:60-61.
7. R.N.Gaidhani and V.G.Rahurkar, The cultural history of Ancient India (in Marathi) continental .Pub; Pune, 1955.
8. G.H.Gordan, The prehistoric background of Indian culture, 1970, Tripathi, Bombay.
9. R.T.H. Griffith, The Hymns of the Ṛgveda, Chowkhamba Sanskrit series, 1963. Varansi – 1.
10. .G.Joshi, and N.N.Godbole : The composition and medical properties of honey as described in Ayurveda. Indian bee J,32,1970 p: 77-78.
11. . Mathpal, Prehistoric rock painting of Bhimbetka, Central India, 1978. Ph.D. theses, Department of Archaeology, Pune University.
12. .S. Wakankar and R.R. Brooks,: Stone age painting in India D. B. Taraporevala Son,s