In the fourth book of the Georgics, Virgil turns to bees and beekeeping with this charming account of their way of life. The Curetes are ancient Cretans, who saved the new-born Jupiter from being devoured by Chronos, his father, spiriting him away under cover of their music and hiding him in a cave where the bees fed him on honey. Cecrops is the mythical first King of Athens – Attica, and Mount Hymettus especially, was famous for bees and honey.
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Nunc age, naturas apibus quas Iuppiter ipse
addidit, expediam, pro qua mercede canoros
Curetum sonitus crepitantiaque aera secutae
Dictaeo caeli regem pavere sub antro.
solae communes natos, consortia tecta
urbis habent magnisque agitant sub legibus aevum,
et patriam solae et certos novere penates,
venturaeque hiemis memores aestate laborem
experiuntur et in medium quaesita reponunt.
namque aliae victu invigilant et foedere pacto
exercentur agris; pars intra saepta domorum
Narcissi lacrimam et lentum de cortice gluten
prima favis ponunt fundamina, deinde tenaces
suspendunt ceras: aliae spem gentis adultos
educunt fetus, aliae purissima mella
stipant et liquido distendunt nectare cellas.
sunt quibus ad portas cecidit custodia sorti,
inque vicem speculantur aquas et nubila caeli
aut onera accipiunt venientum aut agmine facto
ignavum fucos pecus a praesepibus arcent.
fervet opus, redolentque thymo fragrantia mella.
ac veluti lentis Cyclopes fulmina massis
cum properant, alii taurinis follibus auras
accipiunt redduntque, alii stridentia tingunt
aera lacu; gemit impositis incudibus Aetna;
illi inter sese magna vi bracchia tollunt
in numerum versantque tenaci forcipe ferrum:
non aliter, si parva licet componere magnis,
Cecropias innatus apes amor urget habendi,
munere quamque suo. Grandaevis oppida curae
et munire favos et daedala fingere tecta.
at fessae multa referunt se nocte minores,
crura thymo plenae; pascuntur et arbuta passim
et glaucas salices casiamque crocumque rubentem
et pinguem tiliam et ferrugineos hyacinthos.
omnibus una quies operum, labor omnibus unus:
mane ruunt portis; nusquam mora; rursus easdem
vesper ubi e pastu tandem decedere campis
admonuit, tum tecta petunt, tum corpora curant;
fit sonitus, mussantque oras et limina circum.
post, ubi iam thalamis se composuere, siletur
in noctem fessosque sopor suus occupat artus.
Come, I shall tell of the qualities that Jupiter himself gave to bees as reward when they followed the sweet music and clashing cymbals of the Curetes and fed the King of Heaven, hidden in a Cretan cave. Only they nurture their young in common, own the dwellings of their city communally, and pass their busy lives in thrall to mighty laws; only they recognise a homeland and household gods and, thinking of the coming of winter, work in summer as hard as can be, pooling the results. One group looks after provisions, and by unbreakable agreement is kept at work in the fields, while indoors another lays down narcissus-juice and sticky tree-bark glue as foundations for the honeycomb, on which they hang the strong beeswax: another brings up the growing young, hope of the race, while others press in honey, pure as pure, swelling the cells with liquid nectar. The lot of some is to guard the door, watch by turns for rain and clouds in the heavens, take what others bring home, or in battle order keep the idle herd of drones out of the hive. The strenuous work goes on, and the fragrant honey gives off a perfume of thyme. And as when Cyclopes are making thunderbolts from malleable iron, while some draw in and expel blasts of air from the bull-hide bellows and others quench the hissing bronze in the bosh, and Mount Etna groans as the anvils are mounted on the stands, another group swings arms in cadence with tremendous strength and turns the iron in the grip of tongs, just so, to compare small things with great, an innate love of possession drives on Cecrops’s bees, each through its duty. That of the old is looking after the hive, building the honeycomb and shaping the intricate dwelling, while the young make their tired way home in the dark after nightfall, legs laden with thyme: everywhere, they browse on arbutus, green willow, cassia, the saffron glow of crocus, the sticky linden tree and dusky hyacinths. All have the same rest from work, and all labour alike: at dawn they rush unhesitating from their gates; the same bees, when evening has warned them that it is finally time to cease feeding and leave the fields, make for home, tend to their bodily needs, and a murmur goes up as they hum around door and threshold. Afterwards, once they have settled in their chambers, there is silence deep into the night, and well-earned slumber pervades their limbs.