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Bee All That You Can Bee: Honeybees on Ancient Coins

CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..

From the dawn of human society, the nature and origin of the bee have awakened the curiosity and interest of man. For thousands of years, honey was the only sweetening material known, and it is quite natural that in ancient times, the little busy creature who produced this sweet food should have been regarded with reverence and awe (Ransome, 19).

LONG BEFORE PEOPLE developed agriculture and lived in settled communities, honey gathered from the hives of wild bees was valued as a precious, almost magical commodity. The honeybee (Apis mellifera) is native to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, and domestication of the honeybee as a pollinator was vital for the growth of many fruit crops[1] in the region. It was so valued, for example, that the hieroglyph for “bee” (a profile drawing of the insect) came to be used as the symbol for the ruler of Lower Egypt.

Ephesus and the Cult of Artemis

Ephesos. Circa 550 BCE. EL Hemistater
Ephesos. Circa 550 BCE. EL Hemistater (13mm, 6.86 g). Bee / Two parallel narrow rectangular incuses (struck from a single punch). Triton X, lot 289;. Good VF. Extremely rare, one of only two published. From the collection of Dr. Lawrence A. Adams

Images of the bee as a symbol appear very early in the development of ancient Greek coinage. In particular, the prosperous city of Ephesus in Ionia (on the Aegean coast of Turkey) adopted the bee as its civic emblem. Ephesus was the location of a famous temple of the goddess Artemis[2] (one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.) The high priest of the temple was known as the “king bee” (living in a fiercely patriarchal society, Greeks believed the queen bee was male) and the priestesses were called melissae (honeybees). There are nearly a thousand different known types of bee-and-stag coins from Ephesus, and unpublished new varieties appear frequently[3]. One of the earliest known examples, a rare electrum hemistater (6.86 grams) dated to c. 550 BCE brought $25,000 USD (against a $10,000 estimate!) in a 2015 auction[4].

Ephesos. Circa 550-500 BCE. AR Obol
Ephesos. Circa 550-500 BCE. AR Obol (0.63 g). Bee / Incuse square punch. Cf. Karwiese series III, 6 (hemiobol)

Bees have two pairs of wings, but conventional ancient representations of the bee, as viewed from above, typically only show one pair. A little archaic[5] silver obol of Ephesus, c. 550-500 BCE, is a remarkable exception, showing all four wings[6].

Ephesos. Circa 480-450 BCE. AR Drachm
Ephesos. Circa 480-450 BCE. AR Drachm (3.46 gm). Bee with curved, outlined wings; curls to either side / Quadripartite incuse square. Karwiese Series VI, 2A, 32; Head Period II, pl. 1, 11; BMC Ionia pg. 48, 7ff; Rosen 571.

Early in the classical era (c. 480-450 BCE), bees on silver drachms of Ephesus were drawn with curved wings and curly antennae, giving the insect a rather whimsical appearance[7].

Ephesos. Silver Tetradrachm (15.10 g), ca. 350-340 BCE. Kallikrates
Ephesos. Silver Tetradrachm (15.10 g), ca. 350-340 BCE. Kallikrates, magistrate. E-Φ, bee. rev. Forepart of stag right, head turned to look back; in left field, palm tree; in right field, magistrate’s name: KAΛΛIKPATH[Σ]. Kinns obv. die O125; SNG Copenhagen -. Well struck and well centered. Excellent metal and delicately toned. Nearly Extremely Fine. Estimated Value $750

By the fourth century BCE, Ephesian die-cutters, growing in skill and confidence, were engraving far more “realistic” bees: note the stinger, the jointed legs and the accurately segmented abdomen of the insect on a tetradrachm dated c. 350 – 340 BCE[8]. Popular with collectors, these classic coins are inscribed with the abbreviated name of the city (E-Φ) on the obverse, and alongside the stag on the reverse the name of a current “magistrate” (civic official or mint director?) is spelled out.

In 356 BCE, the crazed arsonist Herostratos destroyed the Temple of Artemis, and over the following centuries, it was repeatedly rebuilt and demolished. Caught up in the complex politics of the Hellenistic era, the city stubbornly continued to issue civic coinage bearing the bee and stag down to about 133 BCE[9]. Coinage is conservative!

The bee disappears from Ephesian coinage after Ephesus becomes part of the Roman empire as the capital of the province of Asia. The image of the Emperor normally appears on the obverse of Roman provincial coins, so there was no place for the bee.

Other Towns and Cities

A number of other Greek cities adopted the bee as an image on their coins, perhaps because they had economic ties to Ephesus or hosted a local cult of Ephesian Artemis.

The side view of the bee (similar to the Egyptian hieroglyph) is extremely rare on ancient coins but it does appear on a tiny hemiobol (0.26 grams) from an uncertain Ionian mint[10], along with a turtle on the reverse.

Charon's Obol
“Charon’s Obol”. 5th-1st century BCE. AV 12mm (0.23 g). Bee / Incuse of obverse. VF.

Bees also sometimes appear as decorations on ancient “coin-like objects” or tokens, such as a thin gold disc of uncertain date that appeared in a 2007 US auction[11]. One theory is that such discs (“Charon’s obols”) were magical artifacts buried with the dead to pay Charon, the boatman who ferried souls to the afterlife.

In 202 BCE, Ephesus established an alliance with the Phoenician city of Arados (now Arwad, a small island off the Syrian coast south of Tartus). Arados later marked this event by adopting the bee and stag design for its coinage[12]. Coins of Arados can be distinguished by the name of city ARADION, inscribed in Greek on the reverse. This alliance evidently continued for decades.

The small town of Gentinos in the region of Troas (northwest Anatolia) used a bee and palm tree on its fourth century BCE local bronze[13]. Praisos, on the island of Crete, placed a bee with a rose on the reverse of a rare silver hemidrachm circa the fourth to third centuries BCE[14]. Another Cretan town, Elyros, depicted a bee with an unusually detailed representation of the veins on the wings on its silver drachm coin, c. 300 – 270 BCE[15]. The obscure town of Iulis on the Aegean island of Keos placed a bee on the reverse of its third century BCE bronze coinage[16].

THRACE, Deultum
THRACE, Deultum. Tranquillina. Augusta, AD 241-244. Æ (19mm, 3.25 g, 7h). Draped bust left, wearing stephane / Beehive set on base; base decorated with pentastyle temple façade, pellet in pediment. Draganov, Deultum, – (Obv. 150/R- [unlisted rev. die]); Jurukova 427; Varbanov 2959. Good VF, black-green patina.
The beehive, often used as a symbol of industriousness and harmonious social organization in the modern world, is surprisingly rare on ancient coins. The city of Deultum in Thrace (now Burgas on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria) placed a beehive on the reverse of scarce local bronze coins issued during the chaotic mid-third century. Examples that have appeared in recent auction include Maximinus I[17] (235-238 CE) and Tranquillina[18] (wife of Gordian III, 241-244).


Mormon Gold, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1849-1860. 5 Dollars
Mormon Gold, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1849-1860. 5 Dollars 1860. Fr. 59. / Of the highest rarity.

We cannot end this article without mentioning a famous and very rare “modern” coin that depicts a beehive. Struck by Mormon authorities at Salt Lake City in 1860 using gold mined in Colorado, fewer than 100 examples of this $5 Mormon gold piece are known. A well-worn example sold for over $36,000 in a recent European auction[19]. The design of a beehive among flowers surmounted by an eagle appears on the current state flag of Utah.

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[1] Some entomologists and beekeepers argue that the bee is a wild animal that has never actually been “domesticated”, but bees are willing to share their environment and products with humans.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Artemis

[3] http://www.wildwinds.com/coins/greece/ionia/ephesos/i.html

[4] CNG Auction 100, 7 October 2015, Lot 79.

[5] Greek coins issued before C. 500 BCE are classified as “archaic”. After 500 BCE, they are “Classical”. After the death of Alexander in 323 BCE they are “Hellenistic”.

[6] CNG Sale 79, 17 September 2008, Lot 329. Realized $350 USD.

[7] CNG Sale 61, 25 September 2002, Lot 681. Realized $425 USD (estimate $300).

[8] New York Sale XLII, 9 January 2018, Lot 184. Realized $3,800 USD (estimate $750).

[9] CNG Sale 61, 25 September 2002, Lot 688. Realized $300 USD (estimate $200).

[10] CNG Electronic Auction 142, 28 June 2006, Lot 45. Realized $175 USD.

[11] CNG Sale 75, 23 May 2007, Lot 376. Realized $555 USD.

[12] CNG Sale 79, 17 September 2008, Lot 430. Realized $1,700 USD (estimate $750).

[13] CNG Sale 79, 17 September 2008, Lot 317. Realized $350 USD (estimate 200).

[14] Stack’s, 18 August 2009, Lot 4123. Realized $375 USD.

[15] Gerhard Hirsch Auction 275, 22 September 2011, Lot 3646. Realized $1,212 USD.

[16] CNG Sale 60, 22 May 2002, Lot 586. Realized $1,300 USD (estimate $400).

[17] CNG Electronic Auction 381, 24 August 2016, Lot 295. Realized $130 USD.

[18] CNG Sale 88, 14 September 2011, Lot 741. Realized $300 USD.

[19] Sincona Auction 50, 23 October 2018, Lot 1231. Realized $36,170 USD.


Hatjina, F., G. Mavrofridis and R. Jones. Beekeeping in the Mediterranean from Antiquity to the Present. Nea Moudania, Greece (2017)

Head, Barclay V. On the Chronological Sequence of the Coins of Ephesus. London (1880)

Kraay, Colin. Archaic and Classical Greek Coins. New York (1976)

Kinns, Philip. “The Attic Weight Drachms of Ephesos: A Preliminary Study in the Light of Recent Hoards”, Numismatic Chronicle 159 (1999)

Ransome, Hilda. The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore. New York (1937, reprint 2004)

Raedicker-Henderson, E. A Short History of the Honey Bee. Portland, OR (2009)

Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Volume 2: Asia and Africa. London (1975)

Seltman, Charles. Greek Coins (2nd edition). London (1955)

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Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz
Mike Markowitz is a member of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York, and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.

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