The description of Canaan as a “land flowing with milk and honey” of itself indicates that bees were very numerous in that land from early times. (Ex. 3:8) The warm climate and abundance of flowers continues to make it a land suitable for a large bee population, and beekeeping is very popular there in modern times.
On the basis of a relief in the “Temple of the Sun,” beekeeping among the Egyptians is believed to date from before the time of Abraham. The first definite evidence, however, for the domestication of bees in Palestine comes in the time of the Jewish Mishna (committed to writing about the second century C.E.), at which time it was quite common. The Biblical references in the main quite evidently relate to wild honeybees. The honey eaten by Jonathan during one military campaign was found in the woods, the bees’ nest likely being in a hollow tree. (1 Sam. 14:25-27) Wild honeybees of the Jordan valley provided John the Baptist with a large proportion of his food. (Matt. 3:4) Bees nest not only in trees but also in other hollow cavities, such as clefts of rocks and walls.—Deut. 32:13; Ps. 81:16.
The account at Judges 14:5-9 has caused some question. Samson, having slain a lion, returned to find “a swarm of bees in the lion’s corpse, and honey.” The strong aversion of most bees to dead bodies and carrion is well known. It should be noted, however, that the account states that Samson returned “after a while” or, literally in the Hebrew, “after days,” a phrase that can refer to a period of even a year. (Compare 1 Samuel 1:3 [The expression “from year to year” in the Hebrew is literally “from days to days.”]; compare Nehemiah 13:6.) The time elapsed would allow for the scavenger birds or animals and also insects to have consumed much of the flesh and for the burning rays of the sun to dessicate the remainder. That a fair amount of time had passed is also evident from the fact that the swarm of bees not only had formed their nest within the lion’s corpse but also had collected a quantity of honey.
The ferocity of attack by a disturbed hive of bees is used to describe the way in which the Amorites chased the Israelite forces out of their mountainous domain. (Deut. 1:44) The psalmist similarly describes enemy nations as surrounding him “like bees,” held off only by his exercise of faith in Jehovah’s name. (Ps. 118:10-12) Research by Cornell University has demonstrated that bee venom is proportionately as toxic as that of a cobra, and, although the sting of an individual bee injects only a relatively small portion of venom into the victim, the attack of a swarm of several hundred bees can be fatal to a human. A large colony of bees may have as many as 60,000 members.
The prophet Isaiah graphically foretold the invasion of the Promised Land by the armies of Egypt and Assyria, likening their troops to swarms of flies and bees for which Jehovah God “whistles’ so that they come in and settle on the torrent valleys and the clefts of the crags. (Isa. 7:18, 19) Most commentators do not consider the ‘whistling’ to denote an actual practice among those keeping bees but simply as indicating that Jehovah attracts the attention of the aggressive nations to the land of his covenant people. The fact that not only figurative “bees” but also “flies” are called would likewise imply that no literal mode of calling bees is involved.
Of the more than 10,000 varieties of bees known, the kind most common to the Promised Land today is a dark bee called Apis mellifica syriaca. A beehive commonly constructed by native people in this region has been that of a wicker cylinder plastered with mud or cow dung; large water jars have also been used.
The meaning of the Hebrew name for these insects is understood by some lexicographers to derive from a root meaning “to speak,” perhaps as indicating the humming noise made by bees. Others suggest the root meaning to be “to arrange, or, to follow,” possibly relating to the high degree of organization evident within bee colonies.