Monday, October 23, 2006



Steve Hartsoe, Bee Shortage Could Lead to Agriculture Crisis (Associated Press, January 28, 2005):
North Carolina is trying to boost the buzz surrounding the state's crops. As farmers leave tobacco and move into new crops like cucumbers, melons, and berries, the state is confronting a crisis: it simply doesn't have enough honeybees to pollinate all those flowering plants.

"I feel that if we don't do something now about (this) we may be heading toward an agriculture crisis in the state," said David Tarpy, the state's cooperative extension apiculturist and assistant professor at North Carolina State University.
Killer bees and tracheal mites are the culprits. I was interested to read recently about a new part-time business, Overland Apiary, run by Scott and Erin Forbes in Portland, Maine. Their 11 hives are already bringing in $3,000 a year.

In the final part of his Georgics, Vergil tells the farmer what to do if his supply of bees runs out. He explains (4.284-285, tr. H. Ruston Fairclough)
the mode whereby oft, in the past, the putrid blood of slain bullocks has engendered bees.

quoque modo caesis iam saepe iuvencis / insincerus apes tulerit cruor.
Of course bees don't really arise spontaneously from the carcass of a bullock. But this error was fairly common among ancient writers. R.A.B. Mynors in his commentary on the Georgics traces the belief at least as far back as the 3rd century B.C., when Philetas (fr. 22 Powell) called the bee βουγενής (ox-born). According to St. Jerome's chronicle (for 760 B.C.), an early Greek poet named Eumelus wrote a work entitled Bugonia (birth from an ox), although we don't know whether it dealt with bees.

Rudyard Kipling wrote an amusing poem about what would happen if a farmer actually tried to follow Vergil's advice and generate bees spontaneously from the carcass of an ox. To give the title of Kipling's poem too soon would spoil the ending.
A farmer of the Augustan age
Perused in Virgil's golden page,
The story of the secret won
From Proteus by Cyrene's son --
How the dank sea-god showed the swain
Means to restore his hives again.
More briefly, how a slaughtered bull
Breeds honey by the bellyful.

The egregious rustic put to death
A bull by stopping of its breath,
Disposed the carcass in a shed
With fragrant herbs and branches spread,
And, having thus performed the charm,
Sat down to wait the promised swarm.

Nor waited long. The God of Day
Impartial, quickening with his ray
Evil and good alike, beheld
The carcass -- and the carcass swelled!
Big with new birth the belly heaves
Beneath its screen of scented leaves.
Past any doubt, the bull conceives!

The farmer bids men bring more hives
To house the profit that arrives;
Prepares on pan, and key and kettle,
Sweet music that shall make 'em settle;
But when to crown the work he goes,
Gods! What a stink salutes his nose!

There are the honest toilers?
Where the gravid mistress of their care?
A busy scene, indeed, he sees,
But not a sign or sound of bees.
Worms of the riper grave unhid
By any kindly coffin-lid,
Obscene and shameless to the light,
Seethe in insatiate appetite,
Through putrid offal, while above
The hissing blow-fly seeks his love,
Whose offspring, supping where they supt,
Consume corruption twice corrupt.
The title of Kipling's poem is The Bees and the Flies.

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