Minding Your Bees and Cues

A Diachronic Ouija – Zoom Interview with Virgil
By: Becky Masterman & Bridget Mendel

For the interview issue of this magazine, we chose to contact the ancient Latin poet Virgil (who lived slightly before Christ). Below, we are sharing the unedited transcript of our interview. As you’ll see we had a few technical glitches for which we ask your forgiveness; this was our first time using Zoom’s time-travel feature, Ouija-Zoom.

More shocking than some of his outdated ideas are how relevant many of his sentiments are to modern beekeepers… approximately two thousand years later!

The importance of bee habitat is featured in Virgil’s work. Photo Credit: https://pxhere.com/nl/photo/1256075

Becky: Hello from the future! Thanks so much for making time for this Ouija-Zoom. Well why don’t you start by telling us how you got into beekeeping?

Virgil: [transcript unclear, something about the gods]

Bridget: Okay, we kind of lost you there Virgil, are you still there? Maybe try turning your video off?

Becky: Is his screen frozen or is that just a marble bust of… himself?

Virgil: Hi sorry, Oija-Zoom doesn’t work very well here! I’m in Mantua visiting my dad’s horse farm. [takes sip of wine]

Becky: Oh hi there! We can hear you now! Good morning, and thanks so much for agreeing to do an interview with us. So what time of year is it back there in 32 B.C.? We are here in Minnesota in the Fall of 2022…

Virgil: …when the golden sun has driven Winter
under the earth, and unlocked the heavens with Summer light!

Becky: Wow, Spring! Lovely! Okay, let’s go right into some management stuff. Our audience is a lot of beginner beekeepers. Can you talk a little about site selection for someone who is just getting into bees?

Ancient Roman Poet, Virgil, is known to many because of his epic poem the Aeneid. Beekeepers will find wisdom in book IV of his Georgics poem. Photo Credit: Armando Marcini, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Virgil: First look for a site and position for your apiary,
where no wind can enter (since the winds prevent them
carrying home their food) and where no sheep or butting kids
leap about among the flowers, or wandering cattle brush
the dew from the field, and wear away the growing grass.
But let there be clear springs nearby, and pools green with moss,
and a little stream sliding through the grass,
and let a palm tree or a large wild-olive shade the entrance,
so that when the new leaders command the early swarms
in their Springtime, and the young enjoy freedom from the combs,
a neighboring bank may tempt them to leave the heat,
and a tree in the way hold them in its sheltering leaves.
Let green rosemary, and wild thyme with far-flung fragrance,
and a wealth of strongly-scented savory, flower around them,

Bridget: Wonderful, thanks. I love that you mention having lots of flowers blooming near the hive! That’s so important. Can you talk more about the stream thing? What if folks don’t live near a little stream and pools green with moss? Can they still have an apiary, or could they just maybe put out a bucket of water?

Virgil: Whether the water flows or remains still, throw willows
across the center, and large stones, so that it’s full
of bridges where they can rest, and spread their wings
to the Summer sun, if by chance a swift Easterly
has wet the lingerers or dipped them in the stream.

Bridget: And circling back to planting flowers: can you talk more about habitat? Besides finding a good location, how should we be thinking about habitat for our bees?

Virgil: He whose concerns are these, let him bring thyme and wild-bay,
himself, from the high hills, and plant them widely round his house:
let him toughen his hands himself with hard labor, let him set
fruitful plants in the ground himself, and sprinkle kind showers.
And for my part, if I were not at the furthest end of my toil,
furling my sails, and hurrying to turn my prow towards shore,
perhaps I too would be singing how careful cultivation ornaments
rich gardens, and of the twice-flowering rose-beds of Paestum,
how the endive delights in the streams it drinks,
and the green banks in parsley, and how the gourd, twisting
over the ground, swells its belly: nor would I be silent about
the late-flowering narcissi, or the curling stem of acanthus,
the pale ivy, and the myrtle that loves the shore.

Bridget: Thanks, V! It’s true that planting habitat is hard, but important work for beekeepers. And yes, we mustn’t be silent about the importance of late blooming flowers!

Virgil: I’m not done!

Bridget: Apologies, continue…

Virgil: I recall how I saw an old Corycian, under Tarentum’s towers,
where the dark Galaesus waters the yellow fields,
who owned a few acres of abandoned soil,
not fertile enough for bullocks to plow,
not suited to flocks, or fit for the grape harvest:
yet as he planted herbs here and there among the bushes,
and white lilies round them, and vervain, and slender poppies,
it equaled in his opinion the riches of kings, and returning home
late at night it loaded his table with un-bought supplies.
He was the first to gather roses in Spring and fruit in Autumn:
and when wretched Winter was still splitting rocks
with cold, and freezing the water courses with ice,
he was already cutting the sweet hyacinth flowers,
complaining at the slow Summer and the late zephyrs.
So was he also first to overflow with young bees,
and a heavy swarm, and collect frothing honey
from the squeezed combs: his limes and wild-bays were the richest,
and as many as the new blossoms that set on his fertile fruit trees
as many were the ones they kept in Autumn’s ripeness.
He planted advanced elms in rows as well, hardy pears,
blackthorns bearing sloes, and plane-trees
already offering their shade to drinkers.
But I pass on from this theme, confined within narrow limits,
and leave it for others to speak of after me.

Becky: Wow, excellent plant list, and great point about using sub-par agricultural land for planting bee food. I know you are furling your sails and all, but if you change your mind about retirement, we’d love to have you join our Minnesota Beekeeper’s Habitat Committee! Your passion about planting for bees is contagious.

Virgil: [sips from goblet]

Bridget: I’m still stuck on your comment about the importance of late blooming flowers. Can you tell our readers any other fav Fall flowers?

Virgil: There’s a meadow flower also, the Italian starwort,
that farmers call amellus, easy for searchers to find:
since it lifts a large cluster of stems from a single root,
yellow-centered, but in the wealth of surrounding petals
there’s a purple gleam in the dark blue: often the gods’ altars
have been decorated with it in woven garlands:
its flavor is bitter to taste: the shepherd’s collect it
in valleys that are grazed, and by Mella’s winding streams.
Boil the plant’s roots in fragrant wine, and place it
as food at their entrances in full wicker baskets.

Bridget: Ah. The Michaelmas daisy! We’ve got a ton of different kinds of purple asters blooming right now in Minneapolis. We don’t typically boil aster wine for the bees… we just let them gather nectar? But.. Thanks for the idea?

Becky: Okay switching gears a little. Here in Minnesota, we get a lot of questions about entrance size, entrance reducers etc. What are your opinions on hive entrances?

Virgil: Let the hives themselves have narrow entrances,
whether they’re seamed from hollow bark,
or woven from pliant osiers: since Winter congeals
the honey with cold, and heat loosens it with melting.
Either problem’s equally to be feared with bees:
it’s not for nothing that they emulate each other in lining
the thin cells of their hives with wax, and filling the crevices
with glue made from the flowers, and keep a store of it
for this use, stickier than bird lime or pitch from Phrygian Ida.

Becky: Actually Dr. Marla Spivak and her lab have been working a lot on the “glue made from flowers” aka propolis. Would you be interested in reading any of her papers on the importance of propolis for bee health?

Virgil [sips from goblet]

Becky: Cool, we’ll put links in the chat. [https://beelab.umn.edu/spivak-lab/publications] Meanwhile, was it a good year for honey harvest in ancient Italy?

Virgil [silently pours urn of honey over statue of self while staring at the screen]

Becky: Okay so I’m guessing it was a good year! Not so great here in Minnesota. 2022 was not a great year for honey for us, and now lots of new beekeepers are asking if they can maybe harvest a few combs from the brood nest. What do you think?

Virgil: If you fear a harsh Winter, and would spare their future,
and pity their bruised spirits, and shattered fortunes,
who would then hesitate to fumigate them with thyme
and cut away the empty wax?
The more is taken, the more eagerly they devote themselves
to repairing the damage to their troubled species,
and filling the cells, and building their stores from flowers.

Becky: We totally agree: better to leave enough for the bees and pray to Apollo for a good harvest next year. Okay, we need to be mindful of Virgil’s time travel. Thanks so much Virgil, we appreciate you!

[logoff into various dimensions]

For the full transcript of Virgil’s thoughts on beekeeping, please refer to Georgics IV, from which we have pulled all of Virgil’s quotes:

There are many translations of Georgics IV which is part of a four-part series of agricultural poems, simply known as the Georgics. The translation we chose is a more modern one, completed by Anthony Kline.

Becky Masterman led the UMN Bee Squad from 2013-2019. Bridget Mendel joined the Bee Squad in 2013 and has led the program since 2020. Photos of Becky (left) and Bridget (right) looking for their respective hives. Please share any thoughts about Ouija-Zoom or your beekeeping superstitions via email to mindingyourbeesandcues@gmail.com

The authors would like to thank Dr. Marla Spivak for helpful edits and suggestions and Dr. Adam Kline and the Poetry in Translation website (https://www.poetryintranslation.com/) for granting us permission to use his father’s translation of Virgil’s Georgics IV.

Kline, A. S. (2001). Virgil: Georgics. Retrieved October 6, 2022, from https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/VirgilGeorgicsI.php