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Protinus aerii mellis caelestia dona exsequar or about Virgil’s bee-keeping

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Illustration of catching a swarm from The Georgics of Virgil, an English translation of the poem by John Dryden from 1697
Illustration of catching a swarm from The Georgics of Virgil, an English translation of the poem by John Dryden from 1697

The Georgics (lat. Georgica) of Virgil are not only the perfect work of poetry, but also an invaluable source of information about the ancient people’ state of knowledge in the field of agriculture, astronomy, zooculture, horticulture, and … beekeeping. The entire fourth book (of four) is devoted to air-born  honey.

So what did the average Roman beekeeper know about his trade about 30 years before Christ was born? Firstly, the hives (made of wicker or hollow trunk) were sealed with special grease and placed near running water, and the surrounding area was planted with honey plants: viburnum, violets, and thyme. The Romans believed that bees collect honey straight from flowers, and even that they are born in flowers (From leaves and honied herbs, the mothers, each, gather their offspring in their mouths).

Further on, Virgil presents an interesting solution to the problem of the swarm’s disease: he recommends gathering the sarcoma on the meadow, boiling its roots in wine and placing them in baskets in front of the hive. The poet advices putting honey (saturated with the aromas of roses, thyme and savory) into the bee house, using a straw. Equally strange may seem the ancient belief that, by way of a special ritual – the so-called bugonia1, one can bring a new swarm to life from a dead ox.

It is worth noting that the Romans knew the behavior of bees very well: apathy after the loss of the king (just like that! The queen bee was a male for Virgil’s contemporaries, which is why the word rex occurs in the Georgics), the division of roles in the family, signs of disease. They harvest honey twice a year: at the end of April, when Taygete the Pleiad uplifts, and in November.

Finally, it should be emphasized that although modern knowledge about the life of bees has gone light years ahead, beekeeping still uses some of the techniques already described in the work of the poet from Mantua, incl. smoking a hive and cliping the queen’s wings. Let’s care today for these small, useful insects, so gorgeously presented by the Roman master of poetry.

Author: Aleksander Krasowski
Footnotes
  1. Stanisław Stabryła, Wergiliusz. Świat poetycki, Wrocław 1987
Sources

Quote in the title: Of air-born honey, gift of heaven, I now
Take up the tale.

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