The bees, all identical in appearance, zoom into their hives in three orderly rows.

The bees, all identical in appearance, zoom into their hives in three orderly rows.

The text here is…imaginative.

Text Translation:

Of bees. Bees, apes, are so called either because they hold on to things with their feet, or because they are born without feet (the Latin word for ‘foot’ is pes). For afterwards they acquire both feet and wings. Expert in the task of making honey, they occupy the places assigned to them; they construct their dwelling-places with indescribable skill, and store away honey from a variety of flowers. They fill their fortress, made from a network of wax, with countless offspring. Bees have an army and kings; they fight battles. They flee from smoke; they are irritated by noise; many are found to have been born from the corpses of oxen. To produce them, you beat the flesh of dead calves, so that worms come forth from the putrefying blood; these later become bees. Properly speaking, however, only the creatures that come from oxen are called bees; those that come from horses, are hornets; those from mules, drones; wasps, from asses.

The Greeks call the larger bees which are produced on the outer parts of the honeycomb castros; some think they should be called ‘kings’ because they they are leaders in the fortress. Bees, alone among all the kinds of living things, raise their offspring communally, live in a single dwelling, are enclosed within a single homeland, and share their toil, their food, their tasks, the produce of their labour and their flight. What else? Procreation is common to all, as is the purity of their virginal body in the common process of birth, since this is achieved without intercourse or lust; they are not wracked by labour pains, yet they produce at once a great swarm of offspring, collecting them with their mouths from leaves and grass. They choose their own king, they appoint themselves his people; but although they are subject to the king, they are nevertheless free. For they have the right of selecting him and of offering him their loyalty, because they love him as one whom they have chosen and honour him with such a responsibility. Moreover, the king is not chosen by lot, because in such cases the outcome is a matter of chance not judgement. And often, by the unpredictable chance of fate, the least suitable candidate is chosen over better ones.

Among bees, the king has outstanding natural characteristics, standing forth by virtue of the size and appearance of his body. And, what is essential in a king – a merciful nature. For even if he has a sting, he does not use it for revenge, for there are laws of nature, unwritten but embedded in custom, that those who are endowed with the greatest power should be the more lenient in administering punishment. The bees who do not comply with the laws of the king, repent and punish themselves and die by their own sting. It is custom that the Persians are said to preserve today: that those who have committed a crime pay the price by carrying out their own sentence of death. Thus no peoples serve their king with the devotion shown by the bees: not the Indians, nor the Persians, who are subject to exceedingly harsh laws, nor the Sarmatians. Their devotion is such that no bees dare leave their living areas in search of food, unless the king has gone first and has claimed his place at the head of the flight.

Their flight takes them over a scented landscape, where there are gardens of flowers, where a stream flows through meadows, where there are pleasant places on its banks. There young people play lively games, there men exercise in the fields, there you find release from care. The bees’ pleasant labours amid the flowers and sweet grasses provide the foundations of their fort. For what else is a honey-comb in the bee-hive but a kind of fortress? After all, from the hives drones are kept out. What four-cornered fort, however, could possibly have the skilled workmanship and elegance that there is in the honey-combs, in which tiny, round compartments are connected one to another for support? What master of construction taught the bees to construct six-sided compartments, each side of the same, unvarying length; to hang between the walls of each living area fine beds of wax; to compress the honey-dew; and to fill their storehouses, woven from flowers, with a kind of nectar? You can see how the bees all compete with each other in carrying out their duties: some keeping watch over those who are seeking food; some keeping a careful guard on the fort, that is, the hive; some keeping a look-out for rain, their eye on the massing clouds; some making wax from the flowers; some collecting in their mouth the dew poured from the flowers.

You can see too, however, that no bees lie in wait for other creatures, to take advantage of their toil; and none take a life by force. If only they themselves did not need to fear the ambushes of thieves! Nevertheless, they have their own weapon, the sting, and pour poison into the honey-dew if they are provoked; and when they inflict a wound in the heat of revenge, they lay down their lives in the act. In recesses deep in its fortress, the hive, the bee pours out the dewy moisture, and gradually with the passage of time it is compressed into honey, although it was liquid to begin wit; and by contact with the wax and the scent of flowers, it begins to glow with sweetness of honey. The Scripture might justifiably extol the bee as a good workman, as it does the ant, saying: ‘Go to the bee and see how it works and imitate its way of working’ (see Proverbs, 6:6). For the bee is engaged in a highly respected branch of industry; kings and commoners alike consume its product for the sake of their health; it is much sought-after and loved by all.

Hear what the prophet would say. It is a fact that God instructs you to follow the example of that little bee and imitate its way of working. See how industrious it is, how much it is loved; everyone longs for and seeks out its fruit of its labour; this is not kept for certain kinds of people only, but grows sweet in the mouths of kings and commoners, to the enjoyment of all without distinction. Honey is not only a source of pleasure but of health; it soothes the throat and heals wounds; and it acts as a remedy for internal ulcers. Thus although the bee may be weak in terms of physical strength, it is strong in terms of its vigorous good sense and love of virtue. Lastly, bees defend their king, giving him the utmost amount of protection, and think it a noble act to die for him. When their king is safe, they cannot change their judgement or alter their opinion. When they have lost their king, they abandon the faithful discharge of their duty and plunder his store of honey, because he who commanded their loyalty is slain. Although other birds barely produce a single brood in any one year, bees produce two, and being thus twice as fertile, they outnumber the rest.

Folio 63r – the eagle, continued. De apibus; Of bees.


Leave a Reply