Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 85.djvu/171

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167
IN THE TIME OF VIRGIL

APICULTURE IN THE TIME OF VIRGIL
By GEORGIA WILLIS READ

THE science of apiculture, as it is understood to-day, is the slow growth of centuries of human observation and investigation. For unnumbered ages it has been a work of interest to man to reclaim these singularly untamable insects from the state ferœ naturæ to that domitæ naturæ, as the legal phrase has it—to render their natures sufficiently tractable to enable man to appropriate to himself the benefits of their toil. Though bees have responded to the process of domestication less readily than almost any other of the forms of wild life which man has subjected to his control—since even to-day, after thousands of years of cultivation, they slip back easily and completely into their aboriginal state when opportunity offers—man's efforts to this end have been unremitting, his interest in this task has never flagged. Who knows but that the missing link or an even more remote progenitor sacked the city of the bees for its rich spoil, and handed down to man the instinct for this conquest? Always within the memory of man, at any rate, as the ancient Romans used the phrase, meaning thereby always within the bounds of tradition, honey has been esteemed as a delicacy for the table, and as a valuable condiment in wine-making. The ancient Egyptians, whose very cities have long since crumbled to dust, prized their swarms of bees, which they kept in earthenware vases much as the natives of Africa and Asia do to-day; while it is by no means uncommon to find in histories of ancient races mention of honey as a dainty and a thing of price.

By the time that Virgil wrote his rambling treatise on bees, on their characteristics and their manners, their habits and their needs, apiculture was recognized as an important branch of husbandry. In Virgil's estimation it ranked apparently with the more universal interests of agriculture, the raising of crops and the care of cattle, since of the four books that he wrote on this group of subjects, one is entirely devoted to the culture of bees. In it he gives with patient, painstaking care, a complete guide to practical beekeeping as it was understood in those days, and adds, one can not help thinking for his own pleasure primarily, countless charming apicultural fancies and fables which he had heard. Though the theories as to the life and habits of bees which were held by the most intelligent men of that age, bear no stamp of that absolute and unimpeachable precision which exact science imparts to any subject, one can but marvel at the frequent correctness of their