bees

When Aeneas first views Carthage, he enviously marvels at the spontaneous industriousness of the city:

Just as bees in early summer carry out their tasks

among the flowery fields, in the sun, when they lead out

the adolescent young of their race, or cram the cells

with liquid honey, and swell them with sweet nectar,

or receive the incoming burdens, or forming lines

drive the lazy herd of drones from their hives (1.432ff)

Here is an anthology (Gk.: “collection of flowers”) of apian metaphors, going back to Sappho: “No Bees, No Honey” (I.vi.62). As Maryanne Cline Horwitz observed, “Ancient analyses of bees and flowers are at the bedrock of humanist theory of imitatio.” Yet G. W. Pigman cautioned, “the apian metaphor is perhaps the most misleading topos because it is used to present two opposed conceptions of imitation: the poet as collector (following) and the poet as maker (imitation or emulation). The apian metaphor is not always transformative.”

Homeric Hymn to Hermes (c. 7th-6th century BCE)

From there flying now here, now there,

they feed on honeycomb and bring each thing to pass.

And after that they eat the yellow honey, they are seized

with manic frenzy and are eager to speak the truth.

But if they are robbed of the sweet food of the gods,

then they do buzz about in confusion and lie. (558–63; cited in Reiss)

Plato, Ion (c. 380 BCE): Poets tell us that they bring songs from honeyed fountainsculling them out of the gardens and dells of the Muses; they, like the bees, winging their way from flower to flower. And this is true. For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles.

Lucretius (99–55 BCE), De rerum natura 3.10–12: From your pages, as bees in flowery glades sip every blossom, so do I crop all your golden sayings. 

Horace (65–27 BCE), Carmina 4.2.27–32: I, after the way and manner of the Matinian bee, that gathers the pleasant thyme with repeated labor around the groves and banks of well-watered Tibur, I, a humble bard, fashion my verses with incessant toil.

Seneca (54–39 BC), Epistulae morales 84, letter to Lucilius (“the ancient document most often identified with humanist literary theory” – Kathy EdenThe Renaissance Rediscovery of Intimacy p. 41)

We should follow, men say, the example of the bees, who flit about and cull the flowers that are suitable for producing honey, and then arrange and assort in their cells all that they have brought in; these bees, as our Vergil says, 

                                    pack close the flowing honey, 

            And swell their cells with nectar sweet. 

It is not certain whether the juice which they obtain from the flowers forms at once into honey, or whether they change that which they have gathered into this delicious object by blending something therewith and by a certain property of their breath. For some authorities believe that bees do not possess the art of making honey, but only of gathering it; and they say that in India honey has been found on the leaves of certain reeds, produced by a dew peculiar to that climate, or by the juice of the reed itself, which has an unusual sweetness, and richness. And in our own grasses too, they say, the same quality exists, although less clear and less evident; and a creature born to fulfil such a function could hunt it out and collect it. Certain others maintain that the materials which the bees have culled from the most delicate of blooming and flowering plants is transformed into this peculiar substance by a process of preserving and careful storing away, aided by what might be called fermentation, – whereby separate elements are united into one substance. But I must not be led astray into another subject than that which we are discussing. We also, I say, ought to copy these bees, and sift whatever we have gathered from a varied course of reading, for such things are better preserved if they are kept separate; then, by applying the supervising care with which our nature has endowed us,— in other words, our natural gifts,— we should so blend those several flavors into one delicious compound that, even though it betrays its origin, yet it nevertheless is clearly a different thing from that whence it came. This is what we see nature doing in our own bodies without any labor on our part; the food we have eaten, as long as it retains its original quality and floats in our stomachs as an undiluted mass, is a burden; but it passes into tissue and blood only when it has been changed from its original form. So it is with the food which nourishes our higher nature,— we should see to it that whatever we have absorbed should not be allowed to remain unchanged, or it will be no part of us. We must digest it; otherwise it will merely enter the memory and not the reasoning power. Let us loyally welcome such foods and make them our own, so that something that is one may be formed out of many elements, just as one number is formed of several elements whenever, by our reckoning, lesser sums, each different from the others, are brought together. This is what our mind should do: it should hide away all the materials by which it has been aided, and bring to light only what it has made of them. Even if there shall appear in you a likeness to him who, by reason of your admiration, has left a deep impress upon you, I would have you resemble him as a child resembles his father, and not as a picture resembles its original; for a picture is a lifeless thing.

Quintilian (c. 35 – c. 100), Institutio Oratoria: We know that these are composed of ingredients which produce many and sometimes contrary effects, but mixed together they make a single compound resembling no one of its component parts, but deriving its peculiar properties from all: so too dumb insects produce honey, whose taste is beyond the skill of man to imitate, from different kinds of flowers and juices. Shall we marvel then, if oratory, the highest gift of providence to man, needs the assistance of many arts, which, although they do not reveal or intrude themselves in actual speaking, supply hidden forces and make their silent presence felt?

Plutarch (46–120): The bee by nature finds the smoothest and the best honey in the most bitter flowers and sharpest thornes; so children, if they are properly educated in poetry, will learn somehow to extract something useful and helpful even from works which are suspected of being immoral and inappropriate. (cited in GriffithsThe Garden of Delights, p. 289)

Macrobius (395–423), Saturnalia (preface, from Loeb translation) Nor have I haphazardly deployed these items that are worth remembering, as though in a heap: I have organized the diverse subjects, drawn from a range of authors and a mix of periods, as though in a body, so that the things I initially noted down all a jumble, as an aide mémoire, might come together in a coherent, organic whole. Please do not fault me if I often set forth the accounts I draw from my varied reading in the very words that the authors themselves used; the work before you promises not a display of eloquence but an accumulation of things worth knowing. You should, furthermore, count it as a bonus if you sometimes gain acquaintance with antiquity plainly in my own words, at other times through the faithful record of the ancients’ own words, as each item lends itself to being cited or transcribed. We ought to imitate bees, if I can put it that way: wandering about, sampling the flowers, they arrange whatever they’ve gathered, distributing it among the honeycomb’s cells, and by blending in the peculiar quality of their own spirit they transform the diverse kinds of nectar into a single taste. . . blending the varied samples so that we experience a single flavor:even if some item’s source should be clear, it still seems different from that evident source. We see nature do just that in our bodies, with no effort of our own:3 as long as the foods we take in remain just as they are, floating as solids in the stomach, they are an unpleasant burden, but when they have been changed from what they were, then and only then do they become sources of strength and blood. We should make the same provision in the case of things that nourish our wits: we should not allow what we have taken in to remain intact and alien but should digest and distribute it; otherwise it can pass into memory, but not become part of our thought. That is my goal for the present work: it comprises many different disciplines, many lessons, examples drawn from many periods, but brought together into a harmonious whole. . . .

Peter of Blois (c. 1130–c. 1211), Epistles 92: Why should that be accounted envy which fuses into a single study of virtue and exercise of prudence all that I have taken from my wide reading and digested with keen ardor? For as we read in the Saturnalia and in Seneca’s epistles to Lucilius, we must imitate those bees gathering flowers whose various nectars are turned to honey and are mingled to create a single savor. 

Petrarch (1304–74), Rerum Familiarum, 1.8 “Letter to Tommaso da Messina”: [I]n this matter I cannot give much more than a single piece of advice. . . . In short I want you to realize that [Seneca] is the source of this advice. His loftiest advice about invention is to imitate the bees which through an astonishing process produce wax and honey from the flowers they leave behind. Macrobius in his Saturnalia reported not only the sense but the very words of Seneca so that to me at the very time he seemed to be following this advice in his reading and writing, he seemed to be disapproving of it by what he did. For he did not try to produce honey from the flowers culled from Seneca but instead produced them whole and in the very form in which he had found them on the stems. . . . These are the things I thought I should say about imitating the bees. From their example, select and conceal the better ones in the beehive of your heart and hold on to them with the greatest diligence and preserve them steadfastly, lest anything should possibly perish. And be careful not to let any of those things that you have plucked remain with you too long, for the bees would enjoy no glory if they did not transform those things they found into something else which was better. 

Petrarch, Letter 23, to Boccaccio: An imitator must take care to write something similar yet not identical to the original, and that similarity must not be like the image to its original in painting where the greater the similarity the greater the praise for the artist, but rather like that of a son to his father . . . Seeing the son’s face, we are reminded of the father’s although if it came to measurement, the features would all be different. . . . It may all be summarized by saying with Seneca, and Horace before him, that we must write as the bees make honey, not gathering flowers but turning them into honeycombs, thereby blending them into a oneness that is unlike them all, and better. [“Petrarch fathers his text by ingesting Seneca’s writing and concocting it into his own literary offspring” — SchibanoffChaucer’s Queer Poetics p. 22]

Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, De liberorum educatione (1450, rpt. 1551): A master thus qualified will be competent to fulfill his duty, which is to fence in the growing mind with wise and noble precept and example, as a careful gardener hedges round a newly-planted tree. For in right training of the boy lies the secret of the integrity of the man . . . Other creatures enjoy the colour, or the scent, of the flower; they, however, are wise to extract its lurking sweetness. Thus they choose where they will settle, and are content that with just that fruition of their choice which serves their end . . . Herein is laid down an admirable principle by which we may be guided in reading all authors of antiquity.

Albrecht Durer (1471–1528): We must gather [beauty] together from far and wide, and especially in the case of the human figure – we must study all its limbs seen from before and behind. One may often search through two or three hundred men without finding amongst them more than one or two points of beauty which can be made use of. Thou therefore, if thou desirest to compost a fine figure art forced to choose the head from one man and the chest, arm, leg, hand, and foot from others. Seek diligently, therefore, through all members of every kind, for out of many beautiful things something good may be gathered, even as honey is gathered from many flowers.

Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (1528; English trans. 1561): And even as in green meadows the bee flits about among the grasses robbing the flowers, so our Courtier must steal this grace from those who seem to him to have it, taking from each the part that seems most worthy of praise.

Erasmus, Ciceronianus (1528): They [bees, but thinkers and above all speakers] fashion a liquid with their organs, and after it is made their own, they give that forth in which you do not recognize the taste or odor of flower or shrub but a product mingled in due proportion from them all.

Amadis Jamin, preface to Ronsard’s Franciade (1587): the author . . . he [who] resembles the bee that takes his profit from all the flowers to make his honey; similarly, without swearing by the imitation of one of the ancient poets more than any of the others, he considers what is best in them, from which he [then] enriches . . . our French language.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621): As a good housewife out of divers fleeces weaves one piece of cloth, a bee gathers wax and honey out of many flowers, and makes a new bundle of allFloriferis ut apes in saltibus omnia libant [as bees in flowerly glades sip from all – Lucretius], I have laboriously collected this cento out of divers writers . . . The matters is theirs most part, and yet mine, apparaet unde sumptum sit [it is plain whence it is taken] (which Seneca approves), aliud tamen quam unde sumptum sit apparet [yet it becomes different from whence it is taken]; which nature doth with the aliment of our bodies, incorporate, digest, assimilate, I do conquoquere quod hausi [digest what I have swallowed], disponse of what I take. [the passage “does what it describes, that is, makes something of its own out of the words of others” – Gary Saul MorsonThe Words of Others p. 227]

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), The Battel of the Books (1704): [the bee] by an universal Range, with long Search, much Study, true Judgment, and Distinction of Things, brings home Honey and Wax. [the bee’s] infinite Labour, and search, and ranging thro’ every Corner of Nature [provide] the two Noblest of Things, which are Sweetness and Light.

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), “The Image of Proust”: from the honeycombs of memory [Proust] built a house for the swarm of his thoughts (203).

https://i0.wp.com/img.lib.msu.edu/exhibits/Bees/friendscover.jpg