Saturday, June 2, 2007

Did the Ancient Romans Know About Colony Collapse Disorder?

Glenn Reynolds links to this post on the much-discussed colony collapse disorder, which involves the sudden dissapearance of entire colonies of bees. The Straight Dope says the disorder has been known for a century, but it occurred to me that knowledge might go back a lot further.

Vergil, in the 1st Century BC, wrote a long poem about farming, and its fourth book is devoted to beekeeping. A couple of passages seem tantalizing:

But when the bees fly aimlessly and play listlessly in the sky,
And they abandon their hives and leave their homes cold,
You should keep their changeable minds from this empty game.
Nor is it hard to stop them: rip the wings off the kings*.
(*Vergil, along with the rest of the Romans, thought that the queen bees were male.)

At cum incerta volant caeloque examina ludunt
contemnuntque favos et frigida tecta relinquunt,
instabiles animos ludo prohibebis inani.
Nec magnus prohibere labor: tu regibus alas
eripe ...
He also wrote,
But if the whole colony suddenly should fail,
And it doesn't have a breeding stock from which a new one might be recalled ...

Sed siquem proles subito defecerit omnis,
nec genus unde novae stirpis revocetur habebit ...
Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Vergil also recommends a remedy, called bugonia, which is the creation of new bees in an interesting way. Vergil's near contemporary M. Terentius Varro summed up Roman thought on the matter thus:
Apes nascuntur partim ex apibus, partim ex bubulo corpore putrefacto.

Some bees come from other bees, some from the rotting corpse of an ox.
I wouldn't recommend their cure, but it seems like the ancients might have been familiar with the disease.

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