Georgics Book 4, lines 149 - 190

The natural history of bees

by Virgil

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.

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More Poems by Virgil

  1. Virgil predicts a forthcoming birth and a new golden age
  2. Aristaeus’s bees
  3. Charon, the ferryman
  4. Aeneas sees Marcellus, Augustus’s tragic heir
  5. Souls awaiting punishment in Tartarus, and the crimes that brought them there.
  6. Aeneas saves his son and father, but at a cost
  7. Laocoon warns against the Trojan horse
  8. Aeneas tours the site of Rome
  9. A Fury rouses Turnus to war
  10. Virgil begins the Georgics
  11. Aeneas comes to the Hell of Tartarus
  12. The death of Dido.
  13. The journey to Hades begins
  14. Fire strikes Aeneas’s fleet
  15. The farmer’s happy lot
  16. Dido and Aeneas: Hell hath no fury …
  17. The farmer’s starry calendar
  18. Aeneas’s oath
  19. Rites for the allies’ dead
  20. Omens for Princess Lavinia
  21. More from Virgil’s farming Utopia
  22. Aeneas joins the fray
  23. Mercury’s journey to Carthage
  24. Aeneas prepares to tell Dido his story
  25. Dido falls in love
  26. The Harpy’s prophecy
  27. Virgil’s perils on the sea
  28. Aeneas rescues his Father Anchises
  29. Signs of bad weather
  30. Sea-nymphs
  31. Aeneas’s ships are transformed
  32. The Trojan Horse enters the city
  33. The portals of sleep
  34. Anchises’s ghost invites Aeneas to visit the underworld
  35. The Syrian hostess
  36. How Aeneas will know the site of his city
  37. In King Latinus’s hall
  38. Aeneas reaches the Elysian Fields
  39. The death of Pallas
  40. King Latinus grants the Trojans’ request
  41. Turnus is lured away from battle
  42. Juno throws open the gates of war
  43. Juno is reconciled
  44. Catastrophe for Rome?
  45. The Fury Allecto blows the alarm
  46. Virgil’s poetic temple to Caesar
  47. Jupiter’s prophecy
  48. Aeneas finds Dido among the shades
  49. The Trojans prepare to set sail from Carthage
  50. The Trojans reach Carthage
  51. The death of Priam
  52. The infant Camilla
  53. Aeneas’s vision of Augustus
  54. Storm at sea!
  55. Dido’s release
  56. Mourning for Pallas
  57. Turnus the wolf
  58. Palinurus the helmsman is lost
  59. Turnus at bay
  60. Vulcan’s forge
  61. The death of Euryalus and Nisus
  62. Aeneas is wounded
  63. New allies for Aeneas
  64. Hector visits Aeneas in a dream
  65. Help for Father Aeneas from Father Tiber
  66. King Mezentius meets his match
  67. The Aeneid begins
  68. Aeneas learns the way to the underworld
  69. Love is the same for all
  70. Laocoon and the snakes
  71. Dido and Aeneas: royal hunt and royal affair
  72. Rumour
  73. Aeneas arrives in Italy