Did apiarists [beekeepers] exist within Jaredite or Nephite societies? Only a few scripture passages discuss bees or honey, but archaeological evidence supports both the presence of a stingless bee and cultivation of honey in the ancient Americas.
Honey and the Jaredites
The Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon directly connects honeybees with the earliest Book of Mormon people, the Jaredites. The Jaredites, at this time a small tribe of selected families, sojourned in the wilderness of the Old World towards an ocean taking flocks, fish, seeds and even swarms of bees:
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
Professional translator and geologist Jerry Grover renders the following Sumerian etymology for the Jaredite word, deseret:
· de – to carry
· sa – to sting
· eh – insect or bug
· re, ere, er – to go
· e – to leave
The final, ancient Sumerian form of the word would be to ‘…go carrying stinging insect.’ (see Grover p42-44). The Nephite interpretation of honey bee closely matches the Sumerian roots and the Sumerian roots closely match the Jaredite account of traveling with the insects.
Carrying swarms of bees adjacent to seeds for cultivation implies preparations for harvesting in the near future. Nomadic beekeeping in the ancient old world was not a foreign concept. Egyptian papyrus dating to 250BCE mention request for hives to be moved by donkey due to irrigation flooding (see Crane p348). Bees were valuable in nomadic journeys due to their caloric value and for trade (see Head).
The Jaredites eventually reach the ocean and stay along the shoreline for several years (see Ether 2:13-14). The Book of Ether does not mention the honeybee aboard any ships or again in the New World. Some scholars doubt the ability of the Jaredites to carry swarms of bees within the barges for a 344-day voyage. The scriptural text makes no claims one way or the other.
While not certain if bees traveled with the Jaredites to the New World, the people held apiary knowledge which could translate for native bee populations in the Americas. The nomadic presence of the honeybee, deseret, with the Jaredite journey in the Old World fits historically and linguistically as an accurate account of certain nomadic travel.
Honey and the Nephite Bountiful
In 1st Nephi, Lehi and his family arrive in a land they call Bountiful after an 8-year journey in a desert wilderness. They called the land Bountiful because of the bounty of fruit and wild honey. Scholars agree following Lehi’s trail takes you to the seashores of Southeastern Yemen or Southern Oman as Bountiful. This remarkable Oasis from the desert has both wild and domesticated honeybees and uniquely matches Nephi’s explicit description of the landscape (see Aston).
Learn more about Lehi and Nephi's Arabian Bountiful here.
Promised Land Bees
Scholars correctly notice that neither the Nephite or the Jaredite histories include direct accounts of honeybees in the New World (see Head). The Jaredites did explicitly mention honeybees while traveling to the shoreline, but that does not automatically place bees into the ships for their 344-day journey across the ocean. Lehi’s family interacted with honey and bees during their stay in Bountiful, but no direct statement of bees or honey are made within the Promised Land.
Nephite writers mention honey (see 1 Nephi 17:5; 2nd Nephi 17:22; and 2nd Nephi 26:25) but only quoting Biblical scriptures and having first hand, Old World knowledge. The Hebrew word is debash, which means sweet syrup and represents both honey from bees and syrup from trees (see MacDonald). In ancient Hebrew, the word for honey and maple syrup would be the same word.
The presence of honeybees or the lack of honeybees in the New World has no negative correlation to the history of the Book of Mormon. The authors in the text simply do not provide enough data to conclusively determine the presence and cultivation of bees for honey in the Promised Land. Still, within Mesoamerica, strong evidence for specialized cultivation of honey does exist which supports a maximal interpretation of honey in the Book of Mormon.
The indigenous American bee is the Melipona beechei, a stingless bee which calls Central America home. Honeybees common across the United States are a different, imported species and produce honey in rapid fashion. Comparatively, the stingless native bees produces approximately 1/50th the honey as a typical worker bee in a given year at a rate of approximately 1 kilogram per year. Lowland Mayan economies valued honey production throughout centuries and Spanish colonizers even accepted honey and wax as tribute payment (see Calkins).
At the Mayan archaeological site of Nakum, located in Northeastern Guatemala, excavations of a platform on Structure 99 yielded the earliest known evidence for apiary technology in all of Mesoamerica. Dating to the Protoclassic phase (ca. 100BC to 300AD), excavators uncovered two cylindrical ceramic artifacts: man-made beehives. Multiple ceramic figurines dating later from both Nakum and additional sites include hives and honeycomb cells (see Zralka).
Evidence of large-scale and intensive farming of stingless bees exist from the pre-Columbian era until modern times. The last 10 pages of a Maya pre-Columbian codex [book] details information on the cultivation of native bees. Named the Tro-Cortesianus Codex (page 103 below), it contains representations of bees and horizontal log hives. Many people even call this document Mesoamerica’s ‘Beekeeping Almanac’ (see Magleby).
Final Thoughts on Honey, Bees, and the Book of Mormon
The lower Yucatan Peninsula falls within several Mesoamerican Book of Mormon geographic models which identify the Usumacinta River as the River Sidon. While geologic reports currently support the Grijalva River as the stronger river candidate (see Grover, Jr.), either model would have Nephites and Lamanites familiar with honey and beekeeping directly or through trade. Recent discoveries from the archaeological site of Nakum positively correlate beekeeping during Book of Mormon times.
While no current New World apiary evidence dates to Jaredite times, the Jaredites only mention keeping bees during their journey in the Old World. Multiple Old World evidences exist supporting the Jaredite account of nomadic travel with swarms of bees. Also, for Lehi and Nephi, the location of Bountiful along the shores of the Arabian Peninsula provides ample evidences for wild and domesticated honeybees and fruit.
Beekeeping and the Book of Mormon go hand-in-hand at the correct times and places throughout the text. On every level, the first hand accounts from the scripture are highlighted and supported across the historical record in the correct times and places. Archaeological evidence further provokes correlations of Nephite and Lamanite cultivation or trade of honey within Mesoamerica.
ARTICLES FOR FURTHER STUDY (SOURCES):
Warren P. Aston. "The Arabian Bountiful Discovered? Evidence for Nephi’s Bountiful." Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7, no. 1 (1998): 4-11, 70.
Charles F. Calkins, "Beekeeping in Yucatán: A Study in Historical-Cultural Zoogeography (PhD diss., University of Nebraska, 1974), as quoted in Crane, World History of Beekeeping, 292. Calkins cites the original translated source as Hernán Cortés, Letters of Cortés: The Five Letters of Relation from Fernando Cortes to the Emperor Charles V, trans. and ed. Francis A. MacNutt (New York: Putnam, 1908), 1:145.
Crane, World History of Beekeeping, 348; and Campbell C. Edgar, Zenon Papyri in the University of Michigan Collection (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1931). From Zenon Papyri (P.Cair.Zen. IV 59368).
Grover, Jr., Jerry D.. " Chronological Identifiers Based on Sumerian Etymological Roots of Book of Mormon Terms and Names" In The Swords of Shule: Jaredite Land Northward Chronology, Geography, and Culture in Mesoamerica, 42-44. Provo, UT: Challex Scientific Publishing, 2018.
Grover, Jr., Jerry D.. "Evaluation of Other Book of Mormon Geographic Models." In Geology of the Book of Mormon, 211-220. Vineyard, UT: n.p., 2014.
Head, Ronan James (2008) "A Brief Survey of Ancient Near Eastern Beekeeping," Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 1989–2011: Vol. 20 : No. 1 , Article 6.
MacDonald, Nathan. What Did the Ancient Israelites Eat? Diet in Biblical Times. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2008. Pp 39-40.
Padilla, F., F. Puerta, J.M. Flores and M. Bustos, "Abejas, Apicultura y el Nuevo Mundo" (Bees, Apiculture and the New World)," Archivos de zootecnia, vol. 41, núm. 154 (extra), p. 565 (Departamento de Ciencias Morfológicas. Facultad de Veterinaria. Universidad de Córdoba. 14005 Córdoba. España.)
Zralka, Jaroslaw, Wieslaw Koszkul, Vinicio García and Bernard Hermes, 2014. "Excavations in Nakum Structure 99: New Data on Protoclassic Rituals and Precolumbian Maya Beekeeping" Estudios de Cultura Maya XLIV: 85-117, Meksyk.