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Ancient representation of which insect?
November 18, 2009
Dear Bugman,
I am studying insects and the ancient economy and am wondering what identification you would assign the insect on these 4th and 3rd century BC coins. It has traditionally been called a “bee” and I would like to know, from an entomological perspective, 1) is this ID accurate and 2) how can one tell? Thanks!
Interdisciplinary friend
Ephesus, Turkey

Honey Bee on an Ancient Coin

Honey Bee on an Ancient Coin

Dear Interdisciplinary Friend,
WE covet those coins.  We agree that this is a Bee, more specifically a Honey Bee.  Most coins have the visage of a powerful and important person depicted.  In the United States, that honor is reserved for dead presidents, but in most places around the world, the current ruler has currency printed and coins minted that reflect who is in power.  With that said, getting a picture on a coin is a big deal.  Honey Bees have been domesticated for millennia, and bee culture or apiculture is one of the hallmarks the rise of civilization.  No other insect would be considered important enough to depict on a coin.  It might also be noted that the sale of honey might have been a significant factor in ancient economy, making the Honey Bee worthy of being on a coin.  Additionally, the anatomy is quite accurate, including the stinger.  Thanks for allowing us to deviate a bit from out typical identification requests.

Honey Bee on Ancient Coins

Honey Bee on Ancient Coins

As an aside, insects often appear on stamps.  In 1988, the U.S. issued a stamp with an image of a Honey Bee.  Our dear friend Lilia, when she saw it, exclaimed “why would they put a fly on a stamp?”  Her error was explained and she was satisfied that a Honey Bee was worthy of being on a stamp while a Fly was not.  The lowly fly was depicted on a British postage stamp, we believe, to commemorate viewing the fly through a microscope.

Honey Bee on an Ancient Coin

Honey Bee on an Ancient Coin

Dear Daniel,
Thank you for your prompt response.  As a student of numismatics, I’m so happy you understand the importance of having a picture on a coin!  Bugs on ancient coins are not as rare as you might think.  There are flies, beetles, and, of course, bees.  Jewelry also depicts cicadas and wasps.  The coins I’m working with are from Ephesus from the fourth through second centuries BC (so, 2,200-2,400 years old).  They represent some of the world’s first coins.  They are considered Lydian, after the kingdom in which they were minted.  I am aware of the importance of apiculture through the millennia (kings were represented by bees in Ancient Egypt), but in this particular valley, I have not found much evidence for it, at least not yet.  Can you tell me specifically what identifies this as a honey bee?  Its eyes?  Its wings?  I could use some entomological vocabulary and reference points.
Finally, these coins are not so rare as ancient coins go, but they’re pretty well-known and coveted for their beauty.  They can be purchased on the art market, but, as an archaeologist, I would advise against this as it promotes looting and results in the destruction of archaeological sites and the permanent loss of data.  Far better to befriend a curator and ask to see a museum’s collection.
Thanks again for your help!
Joanna

Hi Joanna,
First, we need to confess that we do not have any scientific credentials under our belts.  We are artists fascinated by insects, and we have no formal entomological training.  Second, the images on the coins are hardly anatomically correct.  Our response was based on the general morphology of the insect, and not specifics.  The veins in the wings are often used to identify insects, but again, your samples are not accurate renderings, but rather evidence artistic license on the part of the creator of the die.  The stinger is the biggest clue.  The other possibility would be a wasp, though our money is on a Honey Bee.  We would suggest that you post a comment to this posting directly, and then if any real experts provide any information, you will be directly contacted.

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