Peter Jones

Ancient and Modern – 6 September 2008

Peter Jones on what we can learn from bees

Apparently some scientists believe that the patterns in which bumblebees search for food — ‘geographic profiling’ is the technical term — could help detectives hunt down serial killers. The ancients would not have been surprised.

It is largely to Virgil in the final book of his ‘farming-manual’ Georgics (c. 29 bc) that we owe our understanding of the extent to which the ancients saw in bees a model for human life. ‘I will set out in order for your admiration,’ Virgil explains, ‘the spectacle of a tiny world, with its great-hearted leaders, its customs and pursuits, its people and battles.’ It is as if bees alone shared in the divine logos (‘reason’) that raised humans above the level of animals.

Virgil describes how bees live in towns and cities in the ultimate communal state, sharing their progeny and housing and appreciating the sanctity of the home. They have houses with roofs, doors, thresholds and household gods. They all start and end work together. Some go out to gather the pollen, others prepare the combs at home, others instruct the young, others stand sentry. By their diligent activity over the summer they prepare far-sightedly for the winter. Workshy drones, however, are driven out of the hive. Romans did not know that their purpose was to mate with the queen and propagate the hive; indeed, they thought the queen a king.

Their main qualities are labor, fortitudo and concordia, Roman virtues par excellence. Exhibiting the civic pride and collective virtues of the old Roman, they are thrifty, orderly and highly patriotic. They obey their ruler without question.

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