22 June 2015

Marcus Terentius Varro - De re rustica.

According to CMC Green, Varro "began the project, he says, at the request of his young wife who wanted to know how to manage her new estate". The 'treatise' isn't written as a text book, it's written as a series of stories and conversations.

When I first read this translation I was quite surprised to see how little beekeeping has changed in over 2,000 years (since about 30 B.C.), and how much of the advice is still relevant to 21st century beekeeping. Okay, so we now know that colonies are not led, or ruled, by a 'King' and we know that bees don't spontaneously appear within corpses of bullocks, but the antibiotic properties of honey have only been rediscovered, and used in medicine, in the last few years and the properties of thyme have been invaluable in dealing with varroa. Maybe there's something else that we 21st century beekeepers can use, if we look hard enough.

If nothing else, I think it's interesting.

This translation is taken directly from this site. The site owner William P Thayer states that this translation is "in the public domain", and may therefore be copied. Published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1934.

All the numbering and links have been removed because blogspot doesn't do sub and superscripts, and leaving them in made the text more than awkward to read. The number of paragraphs have also been increased, to try to improve readability.


De re rustica
Chapter 16.3 -> 16.38; pp 501->521

Our well-versed Merula, as he has done in other cases, will tell you of the practice followed by bee-keepers. "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. Even if jackdaws in this respect are the same, still it is not the same case; for in one there is a fellowship in toil and in building which does not obtain in the other; in the one case there is reason and skill — it is from these that men learn to toil, to build, to store up food. They have three tasks: food, dwelling, toil; and the food is not the same as the wax, nor the honey, nor the dwelling.

Does not the chamber in the comb have six angles, the same number as the bee has feet? The geometricians prove that this hexagon inscribed in a circular figure encloses the greatest amount of space. They forage abroad, and within the hive they produce a substance which, because it is the sweetest of all, is acceptable to gods and men alike; for the comb comes to the altar and the honey is served at the beginning of the feast and for the second table.

Their commonwealth is like the states of men, for here are king, government, and fellowship. They seek only the pure; and hence no bee alights on a place which is befouled or one which has an evil odour, or even one which smells of sweet perfume. So one who approaches them smelling of perfume they sting, and do not, as flies do, lick him; and one never sees bees, as he does flies, on flesh or blood or fat — so truly do they alight only on objects which have a sweet savour.

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. But, my dear Merula, that our friend Axius may not waste away while hearing this essay on natural history, in which I have made no mention of gain, I hand over to you the torch in the race.

Whereupon Merula: "As to the gain I have this to say, which will perchance be enough for you, Axius, and I have as my authorities not only Seius, who has his apiaries let out for an annual rental of 5,000 pounds of honey, but also our friend Varro here. I have heard the latter tell the story that he had two soldiers under him in Spain, brothers named Veianius, from the district near Falerii.

They were well-off, because, though their father had left only a small villa and a bit of land certainly not larger than one iugerum, they had built an apiary entirely around the villa, and kept a garden; and all the rest of the land had been planted in thyme, snail-clover, and balm — a plant which some call honey-leaf, others bee-leaf, and some call bee-herb. These men never received less than 10,000 sesterces from their honey, on a conservative estimate, as they said they preferred to wait until they could bring in the buyer at the time they wanted rather than to rush into market at an unfavourable time."

"Tell me, then," said he, "where I ought to build an apiary and of what sort, so as to get a large profit."

"The following," said Merula, "is the proper method for building apiaries, which are variously called melitrophia and mellaria: first, they should be situated preferably near the villa, but where echoes do not resound (for this sound is thought to be a signal for flight in their case); where the air is temperate, not too hot in summer, and not without sun in winter; that it preferably face the winter sunrise, and have near by a place which has a good supply of food and clear water.

If there is no natural food, the owner should sow crops which are most attractive to bees. Such crops are: the rose, wild thyme, balm, poppy, bean, lentil, pea, clover, rush, alfalfa, and especially snail-clover, which is extremely wholesome for them when they are ailing. It begins flowering at the vernal equinox and continues until the second equinox. But while this is most beneficial to the health of bees, thyme is best suited to honey-making; and the reason that Sicilian honey bears off the palm is that good thyme is common there. For this reason some bruise thyme in a mortar and soak it in lukewarm water, and with this sprinkle all the plots planted for the bees.

So far as the situation is concerned, one should preferably be chosen close to the villa — and some people place the apiary actually in the portico of the villa, so that it may be better protected. Some build round hives of with[i]es for the bees to stay in, others of wood and bark, others of a hollow tree, others build of earthenware, and still others fashion them of fennel stalks, building them square, about three feet long and one foot deep, but making them narrower when there are not enough bees to fill them, so that they will not lose heart in a large empty space.

All such hives are called alvi, 'bellies,' because of the nourishment (alimonium), honey, which they contain; and it seems that the reason they are made with a very narrow middle is that they may imitate the shape of the bees. Those that are made of with[i]es are smeared, inside and out, with cow-dung, so that the bees may not be driven off by any roughness; and these hives are so placed on brackets attached to the walls that they will not be shaken nor touch one another when they are arranged in a row. In this method, a second and a third row are placed below it at an interval, and it is said that it is better to reduce the number than to add a fourth. At the middle of the hive small openings are made on the right and left, by which the bees may enter; and on the back, covers are placed through which the keepers can remove the comb.

The best hives are those made of [cork oak] bark, and the worst those made of earthenware, because the latter are most severely affected by cold in winter and by heat in summer.

During the spring and summer the bee-keeper should examine them about thrice a month, smoking them lightly, and clear the hive of filth and sweep out vermin. He should further see to it that several chiefs do not arise, for they become nuisances because of their dissensions. Some authorities state also that, as there are three kinds of leaders among bees — the black, the red, and the striped — or as Menecrates states, two — the black and the striped — the latter is so much better that it is good practice for the keeper, when both occur in the same hive, to kill the black; for when he is with the other king he is mutinous and ruins the hive, because he either drives him out or is driven out and takes the swarm with him. Of ordinary bees, the best is the small round striped one. The one called by some the thief, and by others the drone, is black, with a broad belly.

The wasp, though it has the appearance of a bee, is not a partner in its work, and frequently injures it by its sting, and so the bees keep it away.

Bees differ from one another in being wild or tame; by wild, I mean those which feed in wooded places, and by tame those which feed in cultivated ground. The former are smaller in size, and hairy, but are better workers.

"In purchasing, the buyer should see whether they are well or sick. The signs of health are their being thick in the swarm, sleek, and building uniformly smooth comb. When they are not so well, the signs are that they are hairy and shaggy, as if dusted over — unless it is the working season which is pressing them; for at this time, because of the work, they get tough and thin.

If they are to be transferred to another place, it should be done carefully, and the proper time should be observed for doing it, and a suitable place be provided to which to move them. As to the time, it should be in spring rather than in winter, as in winter it is difficult for them to form the habit of staying where they have been moved, and so they generally fly away. If you move them from a good situation to one where there is no suitable pasturage, they become runaways. And even if you move them from one hive into another at the same place, the operation should not be carried out carelessly, but the hive into which the bees are going should be smeared with balm, which has a strong attraction for them, and combs full of honey should be placed inside not far from the entrance, for fear that, when they notice either a lack of food.

He says that when bees are sickly, because of their feeding in the early spring on the blossoms of the almond and the cornel, it is diarrhoea that affects them, and they are cured by drinking urine.

Propolis is the name given to a substance with which they build a protectum ('gable') over the entrance opening in front of the hive, especially in summer. This substance is used, and under the same name, by physicians in making poultices, and for this reason it brings even a higher price than honey on the Via Sacra.

Erithace is the name given a substance with which they fasten together the ends of the comb (it is a different substance than either honey or propolis) and it is in it that the force of the attraction lies. So they smear with this substance, mixed with balm, the bough or other object on which they want the swarm to settle.

The comb is the structure which they fashion in a series of cells of wax, each separate cell having six sides, the same number as that of the feet given to each bee by nature. It is said that they do not gather wholly from the same sources the materials which they bring in for making the four substances, propolis, erithace, comb, and honey.

Sometimes what they gather is of one kind, since from the pomegranate and the asparagus they gather only food, from the olive tree wax, from the fig honey, but of a poor quality.

Sometimes a double service is rendered, as both wax and food from the bean, the balm, the gourd, and the cabbage; and similarly a double service of food and honey from the apple and wild pear, and still another double service in combination, since they get wax and honey from the poppy.

A threefold service, too, is rendered, as food, honey, and wax from the almond and the charlock.

From other blossoms they gather in such a way that they take some materials for just one of the substances, other materials for more than one; they also follow another principle of selection in their gathering (or rather the principle follows the bees); as in the case of honey, they make watery honey from one flower, for instance the sisera, thick honey from another, for instance from rosemary; and so from still another they make an insipid honey, as from the fig, good honey from snail-clover, and the best honey from thyme.

As drink is a component of food, and as this, in the case of bees, is clear water, they should have a place from which to drink, and this close by; it should flow past their hives, or run into a pool in such a way that it will not rise higher than two or three fingers, and in this water there should lie tiles or small stones in such a way that they project a little from the water, so that the bees can settle on them and drink. In this matter great care should be taken to keep the water pure, as this is an extremely important point in making good honey.

As it is not every kind of weather that allows them to go far afield for feeding, food should be provided for them, so that they will not have to live on the honey alone at such times, or leave the hives when it is exhausted. So about ten pounds of ripe figs are boiled in six congii of water, and after they are boiled they are rolled into lumps and placed near the hives.

Other apiarists have water sweetened with honey placed near the hives in vessels, and drop clean pieces of wool into it through which they can suck, for the double purpose of keeping them from surfeiting themselves with the drink and from falling into the water. A vessel is placed near each hive and is kept filled. Others pound raisins and figs together, soak them in boiled wine, and put pellets made of this mixture in a place where they can come out to feed even in winter.

"The time when the bees are ready to swarm, which generally occurs when the well hatched new brood is over large and they wish to send out their young as it were a colony (just as the Sabines used to do frequently on account of the number of their children), you may know from two signs which usually precede it: first, that on preceding days, and especially in the evenings, numbers of them hang to one another in front of the entrance, massed like a bunch of grapes; and secondly, that when they are getting ready to fly out or even have begun the flight, they make a loud humming sound exactly as soldiers do when they are breaking camp.

Those which have gone out first fly around in sight, looking back for the others, which have not yet gathered, to swarm. When the keeper observes that they have acted so, he frightens them by throwing dust on them and by beating brass around them; and the place to which he wishes to carry them, and which is not far away, is smeared with bee-bread and balm and other things by which they are attracted.

When they have settled, a hive, smeared on the inside with the same enticing substances, is brought up and placed near by; and then by means of a light smoke blown around them they are induced to enter. When they have moved into the new colony, they remain so willingly that even if you place near by the hive from which they came, still they are content rather with their new home.

"As I have given my views on the subject of feeding, I shall now speak of the thing on account of which all this care is exercised — the profit. The signal for removing the comb is given by the following occurrences; if the bees make a humming noise inside, if they flutter when going in and out, and if, when you remove the covers of the hives, the openings of the combs are seen to be covered with a membrane, the combs being filled with honey.

Some authorities hold that in taking off honey nine-tenths should be removed and one-tenth left; for if you take all, the bees will quit the hive. Others leave more than the amount stated.

Just as in tilling, those who let the ground lie fallow reap more grain from interrupted harvests, so in the matter of hives if you do not take off honey every year, or not the same amount, you will by this method have bees which are busier and more profitable. It is thought that the first season for removing the comb is at the time of the rising of the Pleiades, the second at the end of summer, before Arcturus is wholly above the horizon, and the third after the setting of the Pleiades. But in this case, if the hive is well filled no more than one-third of the honey should be removed, the remainder being left for the wintering; but if the hive is not well filled no honey should be taken out.

When the amount removed is large, it should not all be taken at one time or openly, for fear the bees may lose heart. If some of the comb removed contains no honey or honey that is dirty, it should be cut off with a knife.

Care should be taken that the weaker bees be not imposed upon by the stronger, for in this case their output is lessened; and so the weaker are separated and placed under another king. Those which often fight one another should be sprinkled with honey-water. When this is done they not only stop fighting, but swarm over one another, licking the water; and even more so if they are sprinkled with mead, in which case the odour causes them to attach themselves more greedily, and they drink until they are stupefied.

If they leave the hive in smaller numbers and a part of the swarm remains idle, light smoke should be applied, and there should be placed near by some sweet-smelling herbs, especially balm and thyme.

The greatest possible care should be taken to prevent them from dying from heat or from cold. If at any time they are knocked down by a sudden rain while harvesting, or overtaken by a sudden chill before they have foreseen that this would happen (though it is rarely that they are caught napping), and if, struck by the heavy rain-drops, they lie prostrate as if dead, they should be collected into a vessel and placed under cover in a warm spot; the next day, when the weather is at its best, they should be dusted with ashes made of fig wood, and heated a little more than warm. Then they should be shaken together gently in the vessel, without being touched with the hand, and placed in the sun. Bees which have be warmed in this way recover and revive, just as happens when flies which have been killed by water are treated in the same way. This should be carried out near the hives, so that those which have been revived may return each to his own work and home."


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