I was given a very kind gift by one of my year 11 students on Monday; a jar of honey collected by her dad from the bee-hive in their backyard. I love honey, and I've been eating it on my sandwiches all week. Honey was an important ingredient in Roman cooking, as it was the only form of sweetener they had; the Roman poet Vergil calls honey 'the gift of heaven' (caelestia dona).
In fact Vergil dedicated a whole book of his Georgics (pastoral poems, written to instruct his readers on various aspects of agriculture) to bee-keeping. You might think bees are not a particularly grand topic for Rome's greatest poet, but Vergil explains in his introduction that the life of bees has a heroism all its own:
Admiranda tibi levium spectacula rerum
magnanimosque duces totiusque ordine gentis
mores et studia et populos et proelia dicam.
In tenui labor; at tenuis non gloria, si quem
numina laeva sinunt auditque vocatus Apollo.
I shall tell of the displays of these tiny creatures, worthy of your admiration, and of their great-hearted leaders, and the customs of the whole race with their order and their pursuits and their peoples and their battles. The work may be slight, but the glory will not be slight, if the gods' will allows it and Apollo hears my prayers.
Later Virgil describes a hive of bees as a well-ordered, ideal community
Solae communes natos, consortia tecta
urbis habent magnisque agitant sub legibus aevum,
et patriam solae et certos novere penates,
venturaeque hiemis memores aestate laborem
experiuntur et in medium quaesita reponunt.
They are the only creatures to bring up their offspring communally, they share the buildings of their city and they live their lives beneath the shelter of majestic laws, and they are the only creatures to know a country and a fixed dwelling, and in summer, warned of the approaching winter, they prepare for it, and store up the things they have gathered for general use.
Namque aliae victu invigilant et foedere pacto
exercentur agris; pars intra saepta domorum
Narcissi lacrimam et lentum de cortice gluten
prima favis ponunt fundamina, deinde tenaces
suspendunt ceras: aliae spem gentis adultos
educunt fetus, aliae purissima mella
stipant et liquido distendunt nectare cellas.
For some watch over the provision of food, and do their work in the fields, according to their settled contracts; some within the confines of their homes lay down the honey-comb' first foundation with pollen (the tears of Narcissus) and the sticky sap from the bark of trees, then they hang the clinging wax from it: others lead forth the full-grown young, their country's hope, others press the purest honey and stretch their cells with the bright, sweet nectar.
Sunt quibus ad portas cecidit custodia sorti,
inque vicem speculantur aquas et nubila caeli
aut onera accipiunt venientum aut agmine facto
ignavum fucos pecus a praesepibus arcent.
Fervet opus, redolentque thymo fragrantia mella.
There are those to whom it falls to guard the gates, and they take turns to watch for rain and cloudy skies, or they recieve the cargo of those who arrive, or they form a column and drive off the drones, a lazy herd, from their turf. The hive seethes with activity, and the honey gives off the fragrant scent of thyme.