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How People practiced beekeeping in Ancient Rome

Beekeeping in ancient Rome was a very developed and popular activity

Our knowledge of beekeeping in ancient Rome is based only on written sources that were written in the period 200 BC-400 AD. Unfortunately, no images or material objects of beekeeping have survived. For that matter, we get much more graphic and material information from Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece. Even people living in the Stone Age 8000 years ago have left us cave paintings. For example, the image “The Man of Bicorp” was discovered in the Cuevas de la Araña, or Spider Caves in Valencia, Spain. Thus our study will rely only on such authors living in ancient Rome as Varro (116 to 27 BC) Res rusticae, Book III.16.1-38; Virgil (70 to 19 BC) Georgics, Book IV; Columella c. AD 60 De re rustica, Book IX.2-16; Pliny (the Elder) (AD 23 to 79) Naturalis historia, Book XI.4-16; XXI.

Types of hives used in ancient Rome

Unfortunately, there are no finds of ancient Roman beehives that have survived to our time. The reason for this is that the most popular hives of that time were made of biodegradable materials and for this reason have not survived to our time. Known hives include woven hive, cork bark hive, earthenware hive, ferula hive, horizontal log hive, hive made of wooden boards, hive of sun-dried mud.

Varro in Book III  Res rusticae chapter 16 paragraph 15-17 writes that some make round hives from branches, some from wood and bark, others make them rectangular from fennel plant. The wicker hives are covered with cow dung inside and outside. The best hives were considered to be those made of bark, the worst were earthen hives, as they were cold in winter and hot in summer.

Judging by the references, all beehives in ancient Rome were horizontal. Despite the fact that the Romans at the beginning of the century captured many territories in the provinces of Britain, Thrace, Germania, and Dacia, where there is evidence of the use of vertical beehives, such beehives are not found in Roman sources. Perhaps because at the time of writing the sources we are studying, the information and practice had not yet spread to the territory of Rome itself.

Roles in the bee family

The Romans had a good understanding of the distribution of roles in the bee family. Although this knowledge had already been described by Aristotle in Historia animalium. Therefore, the Romans did not add anything new. Thus Virgil in The Fourth Georgic line 189-202 wrote that bees fulfil different duties. Some bring food, some build honeycombs, some guard, some welcome those who come from the fields, and all together drive out the lazy drones.

Honey plants

The Romans had their own idea of which plants produced the best honey. Columella in his IX book De re rustica Charter 4, devoted to beekeeping, believed that the best honey came from thyme, followed by Greek savory, wild thyme and marjoram. In third place is rosemary and our Italian savory. The worst quality honey was considered to be forest honey.

Honey plant Thyme. Columella believed that the best honey came from this plant
Honey plant Thyme. Columella believed that the best honey came from this plant.

Organization of an apiary

Columella in Chapter 5 described a variant of apiary organization. He believed that no high fence should be erected around the apiary. But in case of fear of robbery, the fence should have windows three feet above the ground. Also, a house for the supervisor and where equipment could be stored, spare hives to receive swarms, and herbs to cure the bees should be attached near the apiary. Columella realized that a source of water was needed near the apiary, which was essential for the bees to breed.

Honey harvesting

In Chapter 15, the honey is ripe and ready to be harvested when all the drones have been kicked out of the hive. First, the hive was treated with smoke from the back of the hive to drive the bees to the front of the hive or to drive them out of the hive altogether. Then knives were used to cut off the honeycomb, leaving the honeycomb with brood. If the honeycomb was cut from the back of the hive, the hive was turned over so that the bees could build new honeycombs for renewal. If the honeycomb was cut from the front of the hive, it is the other way round.

Honey is obtained, on the day it was cut in the hive, while it is still warm. The cut honeycomb is placed in a basket or sieve so that it can drain and strain.  Cells with brood and pollen are removed at once, as they give the honey an unpleasant flavor.

The strained honey was poured into clay jars where it stood for a few days. This was considered to be first grade honey. After the honeycomb is squeezed and the resulting honey is stored separately. This was considered second grade honey.

Beeswax extraction

In Columella’s description in Chapter 16 there is a process for making beeswax. The well drained honeycomb is washed, put into a brass vessel and water added. This is then heated over a fire until the wax is melted and appears on the surface. Then strain and repeat the procedure again. Finally, the wax is poured into suitable molds with a small amount of water so that the wax can be easily removed after it has solidified.

Bee diseases

In Chapter 13 Columella describes bee diseases known at the time, such as starvation, brood failure, dysentery, plant poisoning, possibly European and American fruit moths, and tracheal mite infestation.

Hives for observation

Pliny the Elder In Book XI of Naturalis historia is the only one to mention the use of a transparent hive for observation. He wrote that the ex-consul of Rome had such beehives. They were made from the transparent horn of a lantern. He also wrote that ‘Many too have made hives of transparent stone, so that they might look on the bees working inside’. This is a very interesting fact that speaks of the presence in ancient Rome of hives for observation, which in modern times are made of glass.

Honey in medicine

The use of honey in medicine has been known for a very long time. In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates 460 – 377 BC wrote recipes where honey was used. In ancient Rome, the use of honey for medical purposes is reflected in the writings of Aulus Cornelius Celsus 25 BC-50 AD (De medicina libri VIII). We know from Celsus’ texts that the ancient Romans used honey mainly to treat skin diseases, including inflammations such as erysipelas, wounds, all kinds of ulcers, and eye diseases. Celsus mentions honey in various numerous recipes.

Bees and honey in the mythology of ancient Rome

Bees in ancient Rome transcended the everyday world. In the minds of the Romans, they had a relationship to divine origin and existed between the living and the dead, bringing into the world “heavenly gifts of airy honey”. The Romans also, like the Greeks, believed that honey was derived from the air and that bees only collected it. In the section of “Natural History”, devoted to the properties of honey, Pliny the Elder writes: “At dawn, the leaves of trees are covered with dew, similar to honey …. Whether this liquid is the sweat of the heavens, or the saliva that comes from the stars, or the sap that exudes from the air when it is cleansed…” (Natural History, Book 11, Chapter 12).

Honey also, as in Greece was related to the formation of the god Jupiter, only in Greek mythology he was called Zeus.  In general, the story is very similar to the Greek, but with Roman specifics. Jupiter’s mother goddess Ops, wishing to save him from the fate of being swallowed by his father Saturn, wrapped a stone in a blanket instead of a baby and the unsuspecting Saturn swallowed it instead of the baby. Ops then hid the young Jupiter in a cave in Crete and two nymphs Amalthea, who provided milk, and Melissa, who provided honey, fed Jupiter. Guarding the cradle were the Curetes, the ancient inhabitants of Crete, who banged shields to muffle the cries of the infant Jupiter so that Saturn could not detect him. This association with loud dissonant noise was echoed in the advice Virgil gives to beekeepers, recommending the ringing of rings, bells, and the striking of cymbals as a means of attracting a swarm to help settle it in a particular place (Georgics IV, 64-65).

A depiction of the Curetes ancient mythical inhabitants of Crete
Line drawing of a terracotta relief by Wilhelm Heinrich Roscher (1845-1923). The drawing shows the Kuretes, the ancient mythical inhabitants of Crete, who beat their shields to create noise so that the cry of the newborn Jupiter would not be heard by his father Saturn. It was later believed that the loud noise was a means of attracting a swarm of bees.

Also the role of loud sound is reflected in the myth of the first beekeeping god, Bacchus. This is how the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-17AD) writes about it: “One day Bacchus, accompanied by satyrs, was walking in the Rhodope valley covered with flowers, when unknown insects began to fly to the sound made by the satyrs’ cymbals – they were bees. The bees flew to the sound of copper, and Bacchus gathered them in a swarm and locked them in a hive.

In another myth, depicted on an amphora 540 BC, four men wanted to extract honey from the cave of young Jupiter. But upon seeing the cradle of the mighty infant their armor fell off, leaving them defenseless to the bees that attacked them.

In general, the Ancient Romans were very knowledgeable about beekeeping and paid great attention to it. They adopted beekeeping traditions from Ancient Greece and North Africa, particularly from the beekeeping practices of Ancient Egypt.  Caring attitude to bees was expressed in the fact that the Romans emphasized the need to grow honey plants, clean hives, feed bees at certain times, protect them from natural enemies such as frogs, swallows, snakes, lizards. The identification of bees with a divine origin probably contributed to such a respectful and caring attitude to them and to the fruits of their labor.

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