Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Virgil's Colony Colapse Disorder

Spring hints through the occasional snowfall, and my thoughts turn towards the birds and the bees … especially the bees for some reason.

I have decided to raise honeybees again. I will be raising the carnelian strain (Apis mellifera carnica Pollmann) because it, of the strains available to me, is the best adapted to “long winters”, and at the altitude I will be raising them the winters are still longer than those experienced by flatlanders.

I have received a pile of wood from Mann Lake, and I will soon assemble the Langstroth hives my bees will live in. My bees will arrive at CAL ranch in a screen-sided wooden box sometime in May. I might name them “Raymond”.

Internet chatter would suggest that a malady called CCD (for Colony Collapse Disorder) threatens the continued existence of bees. It is unfortunately true that CCD is amongst the ever-growing number of threats to any hive. I lost my last hive to a harshly cold winter and -probably Nosema-induced- dysentery. The bees emerged from the hive on a too-cold winter day to paint little black stripes on just about everything. There were none left to emerge in the spring.

Long before 2006, when CCD was named, hive deaths were a problem. In the winter of 2000-2001 50% of Pennsylvania hives were lost. But the problem of hive deaths goes back in time much farther than that. In-or-around 29 BCE Virgil published his now famous book of four poems called the Georgics; the fourth of these was devoted to Apiology, with special attention to hive collapse.

Virgil sat down with Octavian shortly after he returned from the battle of Actium as the most powerful man in the Western World (in 31 BCE), and read him a pre-publication copy of the Georgics.

“It's monstrous labour, when I wash my brain, and it grows fouler.”
          -- Gaius Julius Octavius (Caesar Augustus) to Marc Antony in “Antony and Cleopatra” by William Shakespeare (Act II Scene VII)

Virgil is perhaps best known as Dante’s guide through the environs of Hell. In the “Inferno” Dante recounts wild and wacky adventures in Hell with Virgil; his posthumous friend and mentor. In Hell they see the sights, go skinny dipping with strange women in the river Lethe, and sightsee the ongoing torture of the damned.

“He with the cloven tail assumed the figure
The other one was losing, and his skin
Became elastic, and the other's hard.” -- Dante from “Inferno”

Dante chose Virgil as his guide through hell because the complexity of Virgil’s verse could compactly communicate many themes. When talking about placement of hives Virgil could have simply stated “avoid swallows as they eat bees”. Instead he said:

“And Procne smirched with blood upon the breast
From her own murderous hands. For these roam wide
Wasting all substance, or the bees themselves
Strike flying, and in their beaks bear home, to glut
Those savage nestlings with the dainty prey.” – from Virgil’s Georgics

Procne was Tereus’s Wife. Tereus raped his sister-in-law Philomena one day, and then ripped out her tongue to prevent her telling. Philomena wove a tapestry to tell her sister about her husband’s escapades, and together they behead, then cook, then feed Procne’s son to his father. Tereus becomes angry when he finds out, and the two sisters narrowly escape his axe by being turned into birds by the Gods.

Beekeeping is even more interesting when one realizes that some threats to the hive are not delicately chirping birds but vengeful cannibals.

So important is the message in Virgil’s beekeeping description that one French translator for the Georgics was recommended to the Académie française by Voltaire. Jacques Delille served as professor for Latin poetry through the French revolution, he would translate Virgil’s Aeneid, he would write original poetry, but his translation of the Georgics would remain one of his most treasured works.

Delille would be succeded as professor of Latin Poetry by Pierre François Tissot. Tissot was the brother-in-law of Jean Marie Claude Alexandre Goujon. Goujon, a famous “La Montagne” revolutionary, famously stabbed himself to death with a knife Tissot supplied while on his way to be beheaded.

As Jacques “The French Virgil” Delille lay in state Tissot allowed a young historian by the name of Aime Nicolas Leroy access to the body of his predecessor. Leroy removed a large swatch of skin from Delille’s chest, and another from his leg. Leroy then used this human skin to bind a copy of Delille’s translation of the Georgics. History does not suggest that Tissot supplied Leroy with the knife he used to flay the French poet, but I like to think he did.

“I don't think I was seen by anyone; rich with my little treasure, I left and disappeared at once. Some will perhaps find a little fault with the act I have just confessed. When I got the idea of stealing these fragments, so frail but so precious for me, it overcame me, and I felt myself driven on by my respect for an illustrious dead man . . . and I committed; this Larceny by way of reverence.”
Aime Nicolas Leroy quoted in “Religatum de Pelle Humana” by Lawrence S. Thompson

It is fitting that the Georgics should have such a complex and bloody history as this complements the causes of colony collapse that it describes.

Not content with the standard theist “God Did It” explanation for natural phenomenon, Virgil provides a backstory for the collapse of a particular set of hives. The backstory is full of the type of jealousy, betrayal, and carnage that makes for great telling. In order to resurrect the hives the beekeeper is sent on a journey into hell; for advice and ingredients.

This is Virgil’s method of reversing CCD:

“ But not Cyrene, who unquestioned thus
Bespake the trembling listener: "Nay, my son,
From that sad bosom thou mayst banish care:
Hence came that plague of sickness, hence the nymphs,
With whom in the tall woods the dance she wove,
Wrought on thy bees, alas! this deadly bane.
Bend thou before the Dell-nymphs, gracious powers:
Bring gifts, and sue for pardon: they will grant
Peace to thine asking, and an end of wrath.
But how to approach them will I first unfold-
Four chosen bulls of peerless form and bulk,
That browse to-day the green Lycaean heights,
Pick from thy herds, as many kine to match,
Whose necks the yoke pressed never: then for these
Build up four altars by the lofty fanes,
And from their throats let gush the victims' blood,
And in the greenwood leave their bodies lone.
Then, when the ninth dawn hath displayed its beams,
To Orpheus shalt thou send his funeral dues,
Poppies of Lethe, and let slay a sheep
Coal-black, then seek the grove again, and soon
For pardon found adore Eurydice
With a slain calf for victim."” -- Book 4 of Virgil’s Georgics

Virgil offers proof that this works.

“But sudden, strange to tell
A portent they espy: through the oxen's flesh,
Waxed soft in dissolution, hark! there hum
Bees from the belly; the rent ribs overboil
In endless clouds they spread them, till at last
On yon tree-top together fused they cling,
And drop their cluster from the bending boughs.” -- Book 4 of Virgil’s Georgics

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