Half a Bee, Philosophically*

*must, ipso facto, half not-bee.

Minoan bee-goddess Melissa/Mellona, Wikimedia Commons

If you have studied much Egyptian, Greek, or Roman literature, you’ve probably noticed that the ancient Mediterranean folks loved bees. Like, really loved bees. The earliest evidence of apiculture (bee-keeping) comes from ancient Egypt, circa 2500 BCE, where honey was produced at temples and the bee was the symbol of the king of Lower Egypt. Before humanity figured out how to ferment grape juice into wine, we drank fermented honey (mead); even after we figured out how to make wine, we flavored it with honey.

Once you start noticing it, you’ll see that bees show up everywhere in Greek and Roman literature. Bees are model citizens of communal living; a bee-like woman is the perfect wife; bees feed infant gods; bees are related to prophecy; bees miraculously spring from the carcasses of oxen. Also, they’re just adorable.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the times ancient writers discussed bees; this is just a highlight reel of my personal favorite ancient bee moments, in no particular order.

1. Hurts so Good: Achilles Tatius, Leucippe & Clitophon 2.7 (ca. 2nd c. CE)

I’m writing my dissertation on the Greek romance novels, so this one has to be first. After several pages of making eyes at each other, our protagonist couple finally steal some kisses. The hero Clitophon has just seen the heroine Leucippe reciting a charm over one of her servants who suffered a bee sting, so Clitophon pretends to have been stung on the lip. As Leucippe recites the charm over his “wound,” their lips touch, and after a few moments of this, Clitophon kisses Leucippe for real:

At this she started back, crying: “What are you doing? Are you saying a charm too?” “No,” said I, “I am kissing the charmer who has cured me of my pain.” As she did not misunderstand my words, and smiled, I plucked up my courage and went on: “Ah, my dearest, I am stung again, and worse: this time the wound has reached my heart and needs your charm to heal it. I think you must have a bee on your lips, so full of honey are you, and your kisses sting. I implore you to repeat your charm once more, and do not hurry over it and make the wound worse again.”

2. The Bee Woman: Semonides of Amorgos, On Women (7th c. BCE)

To say that I like this poem would be a lie. It’s a prime example of the kind of terrifying, blinding tirade of misogyny that gets women and femmes assaulted and killed to this day. But for what it is (an insight into Semonides’s pitiful dating life), it’s well crafted, and it gives us a sense of how early the woman-as-bee trope appeared in Greek literature. Semonides describes seven types of women, likening each one to a different animal (an ass, a weasel, a monkey, etc.). All of them are highly unfavorable descriptions, except the last one:

Another is from the bee. The one who gets her is lucky,
since on her alone blame does not settle.
Under her management his livelihood flourishes and increases,
and she grows old in love with a loving husband,
the mother of a handsome and distinguished family.
She stands out among all women
and a divine grace surrounds her.
She takes no pleasure in sitting among women
in places where they talk about sex.
Such women are the best and the most sensible
whom Zeus bestows as a favour on men.

Omphalos stone, Wikimedia commons

3. Nectar of the Gods: Callimachus, Hymn to Zeus (3rd c. BCE)

The ancient Greeks loved honey and the bees that produced it so much, they believed they were worthy to be part of baby Zeus’s raising on Mount Ida:

…and [the nymph] Adrasteia laid you
in a cradle of gold, and you sucked at the rich teat
of the she-goat Amaltheia, and ate the sweet honey-comb.
For suddenly on the hills of Ida, which men call Panacra,
the works of the Panacrian bee appeared.

4. Holy Psychadelic Conversion, Batman: Joseph & Aseneth 16 (2nd c. BCE – 2nd c. CE)

Though we can’t pin down exactly when this Jewish novella was written, we can say that it’s a fun read, just as all the Jewish apocryphal literature is. In some ways this novella is very similar to the secular Greek romances: Aseneth is the daughter of an Egyptian aristocrat; she’s so beautiful that young men across the country, including Pharaoh’s son, beg for her hand in marriage, but she loves her virgin life and scorns them all. But when Joseph (of technicolor dreamcoat fame) comes over for dinner, she falls for him instantly. She knows that Joseph will never consider marrying a non-Hebrew, so she prays all night to the god of Israel. The next day, she experiences a conversion vision involving an angel of god, a magic honeycomb, and psychadelic-colored bees:

And the man stretched his hand out and placed it on her head and said, “You are blessed, Aseneth, for the indescribable things of God have been revealed to you; and blessed too are those who give their allegiance to the Lord God in penitence, for they shall eat of this comb. The bees of the Paradise of Delight have made this honey, and the angels of God eat of it, and no one who eats of it shall ever die. And the man stretched his right hand out and broke off a piece of the comb and ate it; and he put a piece of it unto Aseneth’s mouth….And bees came up from the cells of the comb, and they were white as snow, and their wings were iridescent — purple and blue and gold; and they had golden diadems on their heads and sharp-pointed strings. And all the bees flew in circles round Aseneth, from her feet right up to her head; and yet more bees, as big as queens, settled on Aseneth’s lips.

Ephesus tetradrachm, Getty museum

5. Bees, they’re just like us!: Varro, De re rustica 3.16.4 (1st c. BCE)

This is a long one, but I promise it’s worth it. This is a didactic dialogue on agriculture: so, rich guys talking about how to run your farm. In this section, Appius Claudius (big brother to Clodia — remember her?) feels the need to prove that he does so know all about bees, despite the fact that in his youth, he was too poor to buy honey to sweeten his wine. Appius proceeds to tell you everything you ever wanted to know about bee society, how it’s not all that different from the Romans themselves, and how bees taught humans everything we know about being civilized:

“In the first place, bees are produced partly from bees, and partly from the rotted carcass of a bullock. And so Archelaus, in an epigram, says that they are ‘the roaming children of a dead cow’; and the same writer says: ‘While wasps spring from horses, bees come from calves.’ Bees are not of a solitary nature, as eagles are, but are like human beings….it is from these that men learn to toil, to build, to store up food.

… “In the first place, bees are produced partly from bees, and partly from the rotted carcass of a bullock. And so Archelaus, in an epigram, says that they are ‘the roaming children of a dead cow’; and the same writer says: ‘While wasps spring from horses, bees come from calves.’ Bees are not of a solitary nature, as eagles are, but are like human beings….it is from these that men learn to toil, to build, to store up food.

… “The bee is not in the least harmful, as it injures no man’s work by pulling it apart; yet it is not so cowardly as not to fight anyone who attempts to break up its own work; but still it is well aware of its own weakness. They are with good reason called ‘the winged attendants of the Muses,’ because if at any time they are scattered they are quickly brought into one place by the beating of cymbals or the clapping of hands; and as man has assigned to those divinities Helicon and Olympus, so nature has assigned to the bees the flowering untilled mountains. They follow their own king where he goes, assist him when weary, and if he is unable to fly they bear him upon their backs, in their eagerness to serve him. They are themselves not idle, and detest the lazy; and so they attack and drive out from them the drones, as these give no help and eat the honey, and even a few bees chase larger numbers of drones in spite of their cries. On the outside of the entrance to the hive they seal up the apertures through which the air comes between the combs with a substance which the Greeks call erithace. They all live as if in an army, sleeping and working regularly in turn, and send out as it were colonies, and their leaders give certain orders with the voice, as it were in imitation of the trumpet, as happens when they have signals of peace and war with one another.”

That whole bees-spontaneously-generating-from-a-dead-ox-carcass thing? Appius wasn’t just being a weirdo. The ancient Greeks and Romans did believe that this was how bees were born; it’s called bugonia, and it was just one more reason to love your ox.

6. Battle of the Bees: Virgil, Georgics 4.67-87, 219-221 (1st c. BCE)

You knew it was coming. This is one of the most famous and perhaps the most delightful discourse on bees in the whole of ancient literature. Virgil’s entire Fourth Georgic is a love song to bees: how they live, how they fight, how delicious their honey is, how to tell the noble bees from the lazy ones. And of course their leader is a king, not a queen, because patriarchy. After explaining where to get your bees from, how to set up the hives, and what to plant for the bees, Virgil describes how the bees will go into battle to decide which of two rival kings will reign supreme:

But, if haply for battle they have gone forth – for strife with terrible turmoil has often fallen on two kings; and straightway you may presage from afar the fury of the crowd, and how their hearts thrill with war; for the warlike ring of the hoarse clarion stirs the loiterers, and a sound is heard that is like broken trumpet blasts. Then, all afire, they flock together: their wings flash, they sharpen their stings with their beaks and make ready their arms. Round their king, and even by his royal tent, they swarm in throngs, and with loud cries challenge the foe. Therefore, when they have found a clear spring day and open field, they sally forth from the gates. There is a clash; in high air arises a din; they are mingled and massed in one great ball, then tumble headlong: no thicker is hail from the sky, not so dense is the rain of acorns from the shaken oak. In the midst of the ranks the chiefs themselves, with resplendent wings, have mighty souls beating in tiny breasts, ever steadfast not to yield, until the victor’s heavy hand has driven these or those to turn their backs in flight. These storms of passion, these savage conflicts, by the tossing of a little dust will be quelled and laid to rest.

He goes on to describe the utopian society in which bees live: each bee has a job which they fulfill eagerly; they don’t bother with marriage or sex, which would make them idle; they brave all elements in pursuit of sweet herbs; they gladly lay down their lives for the hive:

Let by such tokens and such instances, some have taught that the bees received a share of the divine intelligence, and a draught of heavenly ether…

7. Beware the Bees: Herodotus, Histories 5.10 (5th c. BCE)

One of Herodotus’s little throw-away asides we all know and love, and perhaps the only negative comment about bees that I’ve ever seen in ancient literature. In speculating why no one has settled on the far side of the river Ister (the Danube), he says:

But the Thracians say that all the land beyond the Ister is full of bees, and that by reason of these none can travel there. This is no credible tale, to my mind; for those creatures are ill able to bear cold; but it appears to me rather that it is by reason of the cold that the northern lands are not inhabited. Such, then, are the stories about this region.

not the bees

This pandemic has shown us what a world without pollution might be like, but we’ve been facing a world without bees for years. Bee conservation is literally a matter of life and death for humanity: their pollination is responsible for 1/3 of our global food supply. If bees ever started disappearing from the ancient world they way they’re disappearing from ours, you know those folks would have done all they could to keep the species going strong: bugoniae on every country estate, the Egyptian god Apis being brought to Rome in style. I can hear Cato now: apis conservanda est!

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