Tuesday, January 01, 2008


Beeological Warfare

I just finished reading Holley Bishop's very interesting Robbing the Bees (New York: Free Press, 2005). On pp. 152-153 she discusses the use of bees as weapons in classical antiquity. Some of Bishop's references are easy to track down. One is Herodian 3.9.5 (tr. Edward C. Echols):
The Hatrenians fought back bravely; pouring down a steady stream of stones and arrows, they did considerable damage to the army of Severus. Making clay pots, they filled them with winged insects, little poisonous flying creatures. When these were hurled down on the besiegers, the insects fell into the Romans' eyes and on all the unprotected parts of their bodies; digging in before they were noticed, they bit and stung the soldiers.
Note that Herodian doesn't actually mention bees here.

Another reference is to Aeneas Tacticus 37.3 (tr. Brian Campbell):
And if at any point the tunnel comes into the ditch, throw the wood and the shavings there and set fire to them. Then cover the rest of the ditch so that the smoke penetrates the tunnel and injures those inside. Indeed it is possible that the smoke will kill many. Some have even released wasps and bees into the opening and caused distress to those in the tunnel.
The "some" mentioned by Aeneas Tacticus are the inhabitants of Themiscyra, who were besieged by Lucullus in 72 B.C. [Correction here.] See Appian, Mithridatic War 11.78 (tr. Horace White):
The besiegers of this place brought up towers, built mounds, and dug tunnels so large that subterranean battles could be fought in them. The inhabitants cut openings into these tunnels from above and thrust bears and other wild animals and swarms of bees into them against the workers.
But one of Bishop's references is more elusive (p. 153):
For naval battles, the Romans developed special shipboard swarm catapults. They raised bees and kept them in lightweight, fragile earthen hives for the sole purpose of lobbing them onto enemy ships. Angry bees would so unnerve the opposing sailors that they often jumped overboard to escape.
It is not difficult to find secondary sources which make similar assertions, e.g. Rick Beyer, The Greatest War Stories Never Told (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), p. 37:
The Romans made such frequent use of beehives in their catapults that some historians feel it contributed to a massive decline in the European bee population during the latter stages of the Roman Empire.
But where is the ancient evidence? Beyer on p. 203 cites his sources, two of which are articles in Gleanings in Bee Culture unavailable to me: John T. Ambrose, "Bees in Warfare" (Nov. 1973) and Roger Morse, "Bees Go to War" (Oct. 1955). Beyer also cites a web page by Conrad Bérubé, "War and Bees: Military Applications of Apiculture," which I find here. Bérubé states:
The Romans, for instance, having prudently learned not to exact a tax of honey in Asia Minor also learned, in the great Roman tradition of imitation and innovation, to use bees in the wars they waged. They were less deceptive in this than the Heptakometes, however, and instead of employing the subterfuge of poisoned honey they simply sent beehives catapulting into the ranks or fortifications of their enemies. The unleashed fury of the bees, enraged when their hives were smashed, is credited with being the decisive stroke of more than one battle. Turn-about being fair play the Dacians, of what is today Romania, defeated the armored legions of Rome, at least temporarily, with their own salvo of skeps [7].
A skep is a beehive. Bérubé's footnote 7, alas, refers only to yet another secondary source, C. Krochmal and A. Krochmal, "Beekeeping in Romania," American Bee Journal 122.5 (1982) 345-346, also unavailable to me.

Perhaps there are ancient references to catapulted beehives, but in a quick search I haven't found any. Adrienne Mayor's Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs (New York: Overlook Press, 2003) might be one place to look, but its pages are invisible in Google Books.

I noticed a few minor mistakes in Bishop's book. On p. 238 she calls Herodotus a "Roman historian" (he was Greek and never mentioned Rome), and on p. 239 she calls Vitruvius a Greek (he was a Roman). On p. 247 she mistakenly dates Varro to the first century (should be the first century B.C.). On p. 214 she writes:
Discussing the best domestic arrangement for bees, Columella wrote in the first century that "It is expedient for the apiary to be under the master's eye." In ancient Greece and Rome, the master was often a male slave known as the melitore.
So far as I know, there is no such word as melitore in classical Greek or Latin.

But these are quibbles. I find Bishop's candid admission that she doesn't "know it all" refreshing (p. 323):
Every year I am humbled, educated, and inspired to learn and know more, and every year I realize how much I don't know....Though I have been keeping bees for years and have researched and written about them for thousands of hours, I still consider myself a beginner.
Bishop's main informant, beekeeper Donald Smiley, has much the same to say (p. 66):
[T]here's always more to learn. Not a year goes by that I don't see something different, learn something different. I never get tired of this.
Smiley (pp. 41-43) and Bishop (p. 282) both admit to some embarrassing mistakes when they first started keeping bees.

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