Why the Bees are Dying: An Ancient Solution to a Modern Problem Found in Classic Literature

by , 06/26/13
filed under: Animals, Environment

bee, bee flying, bees, bee and flower

Image via Shutterstock

I’m seeing news of bees’ demise everywhere. Most recently in Whole Foods’ visionary photo of its half-empty produce section in a world without bees. It brought to mind the frightening prophecy (though falsely attributed to Einstein and perhaps questionable) that mankind would have only four years to live if bees disappeared from the face of the earth. It also brought to mind a question I grappled with during my days as a grad student in the Classics at Columbia. It concerns a scene in Virgil’s Georgics (4. 281 – 558), where the beekeeper, Aristaeus, suddenly loses all of his bees through sickness and hunger. What relevance does this classic fable have today, you ask? Keep reading to more about the significance of Aristaeus’ story, and how his actions could help guide us in our own bee crisis today.

Aristaeus and his bees, Aristaeus, bees

The poet begins his story of Aristaeus by addressing “anyone [whose] whole stock [of bees] has failed him…[anyone who] knows not how to restore the race in a new line.” Then he reveals the solution: the bugonia, a method “whereby often, in the past, the putrid blood of slain bullocks has engendered bees.”

The ensuing description of the bugonia, a rather gory sacrificial ritual, is practically rendered as a step-by-step how-to guide. But the results are miraculous and surreal. From the emulsified, rotting flesh of a sacrificed bull carcass, a new swarm of bees springs spontaneously.

There exist varying versions of the ritual. Whether it was actually practiced or not, my intention is to explore the bugonia as a timeless mythic trope instructive to us now in the midst of our own bee crisis.

When his bees die, Aristaeus is devastated and perplexed. In seeking the cause of their death, he appeals to the sea-god Proteus, who eventually yields the answer. The bees’ death is punishment for a grave crime, which is revealed as Aristaeus’ role in Eurydice’s death. (Eurydice was the beloved wife of the legendary musician, Orpheus.) Aristaeus had chased the nymph, who fleeing from him, ran along a river, where a snake, hidden by the bank, fatally bit her.

The narrative then segues into perhaps the most famous part of the story–Orpheus’ journey to the Underworld to retrieve the dead Eurydice, albeit unsuccessfully. Though Virgil describes the bereaved Orpheus as inciting the punishment against Aristaeus, the actual penalty, the death of the bees, is exacted by the Nymphae, the fellow sisters of Eurydice, who herself was an oak nymph.

nymphs by bouguereau, nymphs painting, bouguereau painting

Nymphs were minor female nature deities, typically associated with particular locations or landforms. They inhabited mountains and groves, rivers, dells and cool grottos; they were free and loved to dance and sing. We may regard them as personifications of the creative activities of nature itself, most aptly described by the life-giving outflow of springs.

Aristaeus was a culture hero, honored for introducing such civilizing skills not only of beekeeping, but also of curdling milk to make cheese and taming wild oleaster to bear olives. In other words, he worked with the raw resources of nature, coaxing and plumbing them to bear their fruits for the good of mankind.

If nature, or the nymphs, is the domain of Aristaeus’ expertise, then perhaps it is not specifically sexual lust that drives him to chase Eurydice, but more generally, the human instinct for exploiting nature for profit.

To atone for this crime, Aristaeus is instructed to perform the bugonia, which as mentioned above involves the sacrifice of bulls.  The bull is a particularly symbolic animal, in that it is exemplary of the instinctual, semi-domesticated passions of man.

We can see this very symbolism in the Spanish bullfight, where the matador plays the hero, superior than the average man, pitted against a seemingly impossible, life-threatening task. In confronting the enraged bull, he is face-to-face with the instinctual passions of his own animal nature. But the eventual killing is not a haphazard, brutal slaughter; it is a disciplined, ritual act, entailing steps as detailed as those which Aristaeus follows for the bugonia.

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