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Bees Throughout The Ages: Bees in Ancient Greece and Rome

Beekeeping activity in Ancient Greece and Rome
In Ancient Greece and Rome beekeeping was an important activity.  Although bees were kept in large numbers in Rome, such was the demand that honey and wax were imported from other parts of the Empire such as Spain and Corsica.  Early agricultural treatises including Varro’s De re rustica, and Vergil’s Fourth Georgic provide an insight into beekeeping during this period.
This coin, depicting a bee, originates from the Ancient Greek city Ephesus.  The city was famous for the Temple of Artemis (completed circa 550BC), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and later became a major Roman settlement.
·      Hives
The Roman hives are thought to have been made from cork oak bark, fennel stems or wicker-work.  The inside was smeared with cow dung.  Varro recognized the importance of situating the hive close to water.  Surprisingly, the accounts include recipes for sugar syrup and sweet cakes based on his recommendation to give bees food to prevent them using their stores.  In ancient Greek and Roman ruins, there is also evidence of top bar hives (which are based on a cavity covered with wooden sticks).  During honey collection, beekeepers burnt cow dung to smoke the hives!
·      Uses of honey and wax
Romans liked mixing sweet and savoury foods so honey was used widely in a range of recipes.  For example when preparing vegetables a mixture of honey, vinegar, salt and water was used (called Oxymel).
Wax was used in medicine as a broth-like mixture for the treatment for dystentry and as a skin softener.  It also served a practical function as a tablet – small wooden frames were filled with wax, and a sharp instrument such as a bone or metal stylus were used to mark the wax.
·      Aristotle and Bees
Although Aristotle, the famous Greek philosopher, never kept bees himself – he made many important and detailed observations which can be found in his text titled History of Animals.  He documents some interesting views on reproduction of bees which was clearly not well understood – there was the belief that bees did not give birth and fetched their young from flowers!
A picture depicting Aristotle studying animals (circa 1791, source not known)
He correctly worked out that bees develop in the cells of the comb.  The fact that there are three groups of bees including the worker and drone bees was also correctly identified, although the Queen bee was mistaken as a King.  He knew that the bees collected material from flowers but it was suggested that honey originated from the atmosphere rather than from flowers!  His proof of this was the fact that there are times when flowers are abundant but little honey is produced and other times when combs are filled very rapidly in a matter of days.
·      Vergil and The Legend of Aristaeus
One of Vergil’s major works is called the The Georgics.  In the fourth book in this series, he documents the life and works of bees which are presented as a model for human society.  In the second half, there is an epyllion (a short narrative poem) which includes the story of Aristaeus and the bees.
This is a wood cut from The Georgics (Book IV) depicting a peaceful scene with several beekeepers (circa 1502).
Aristaeus, a beekeeper, was the son of the water-nymph Cyrene.  When his bees died he sought the help of his mother.  She advised him that the old god of the sea, Proteus, could show him how this disaster could be prevented but would only do so if compelled.  Aristaeus was instructed to find and chain him which was difficult as Proteus could assume a number of different forms.  However, if his captor was strong enough to hold him thoughout these changes he would eventually give in and answer what was asked. 
So Aristaeus did as he was told, found Proteus at his favourite haunt and seized him despite the terrible forms he became until he eventually returned to his normal shape.  In answer to the question, Arisaeus was told to sacrifice to the gods, leaving the carcasses of the animals at the place of sacrifice.  Nine days later he was to return and examine the bodies.  When he returned, he found to his surprise a great swarm of bees in one of the carcasses.  He was never again troubled by the disease or loss of his bees.
Next time, we’ll focus on the fascinating role of bees in different religions.  In particular, we’ll focus on scriptural references from the monotheistic faiths of Judaisim, Christianity, and Islam.
…download the eBook on Amazon to read the full series!

2 thoughts on “Bees Throughout The Ages: Bees in Ancient Greece and Rome

  1. Enjoyed this, looking forward to the next one.

  2. Good day! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and tell you I really enjoy reading your blog posts. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same topics? Thanks a ton!

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