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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.

What's That Bug? does not endorse extermination

9 Responses to Honey Bee on Ancient Coins

  1. Piet Vanmarsenille says:

    HI,

    sorry, my English in not so good, but I try.
    In the beginning of the coinage (from 550 – 350 before Christ) , you see on the Greek coins much attributes of the god or goddess of the city. For the city Ephesos is this the goddess Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the fertility. That is why you see on de coins of Ephesos a deer (hunt) and a honeybee (fertility). You can see that also on the statuettes of Artemis, you see Artemis, or with bow and arrow (+ a deer), or whit honeybees on her body like this picture .
    Why is the bee the symbol of fertility? To understand this you must go 1000 years earlier… About 1500 b.C. the Hittites were in Anatolia (the region of Ephesos). The Hittites had another world of gods than the Greeks. One of the gods was Telipinu a young God and the son of the king of the gods. Telipinu had a fight with the other gods and he has left the world of the gods. Telipinu was the god of the agriculture and the fertility and because he is not in the world of the gods, the flowers aren’t blooming and the Livestock cannot deliver their calves, so there is no food for the peoples, everybody is starving. The gods are searching everywhere for Telipinu, without result. Then the mother of Telipinu send the bees out to find her son. The bees finding Telipinu and bring him back to the world of the gods. And there is fertility again, the flowers are blooming again, there is fruit and the cattle can have their calves. That is why the bees are the symbol of fertillity by the Hitittes. The Greeks have copy this, they have only replace the god. Like many times in the past, when there are other peoples come in a region, they keep the same habitats of the religion, the only change the gods.

    • bugman says:

      What wonderful information you have provided on this old posting. Thanks for providing your knowledgeable explanation.

  2. Leon Robert says:

    Dear Piet,

    It has been a long time since we have corresponded. I am retired now from the Army (Brigadier General) and living in Amarillo, Texas. I would like to keep in touch with you.
    Best regards,
    Leon Robert

    • Piet Vanmarsenille says:

      Dear Leon,

      Happy to hear from you again. I hope you are all well. Yes it’s been a long time we have corresponded. I have still 3 years to go for my retirement 🙂 and already 2 grandchildren 🙂
      But the bees on coins still interest me very much. In summer beekeeping, in winter studying about bees on coins. A very interesting topic. I try, together with some “coin-friends”, to visit several Coin- Cabinets in Europe to learn more about the coins. And of course the internet is also a good place to learn about this.
      Best regards, Piet

  3. mtro odar says:

    Realy interesting.

    • Piet Vanmarsenille says:

      The story of Telepinu and Ephesos you can learn on this interesting film on youtube:
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZK1DYwbQT4&t=4s
      It is made for the German Television and some Professors from the Austrian Archeological Institute have help with the film, very interesting, but unfortunately it is in German. The Austrian Archeological Institute have already studying the City of Ephesos for more than 100 years. I think the first excavation was in 1895. So they have build and grand knowledge about Epesos.
      Piet

  4. Jhon McCarthy says:

    Piet,
    Your information about bees and the way that you associate Telepinu with Greek coinage and art is completely ill informed. Because in a single coin you see something that may have appeared elsewhere you cannot make the conclusion that someone copied someone else. I suggest to apply more regour of thought what we go to publicise some of our thoughts, even in easy fora like this one.
    Jhon McCarthy, Leeds West Yorkshire.
    Hestorian

  5. Piet says:

    Dear Jhon,
    I’m not a Historian, I wrote only what I’ve learned from the University of Vienna. This story is not found by me. But at the University of Vienna, you find many historians, who studying more than 100 years on the live of Ephesos.
    The national German TV channel ZDF made a documentary about Ephesos and the University of Vienna helped them to make this documentary. You can see the documentary also on Youtube at:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ww5XJc3LWE&t=3s
    It is in German, but at about minute 5 after starting you can see the story where I wrote about. It was wrong from me to not report where I’ve learned all of this. I apologize.
    Piet

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