Opinion

The Secret Lives of Words: National Honey Bee Day, heaven’s gift, and ‘Ulee’s Gold’

Rick LaFleur More Content Now
Posted: Aug. 12, 2019 10:04 am

Our little French bulldog Ipsa (Latin for "Herself") bolted into the house the other day, yowling with even more attitude than usual. We soon saw why, when welts popped up all over her body. After dosing her with benadryl, my wife Alice discovered she’d been stung on her face, perhaps by a bee - an occupational hazard for pups prone to poking around in the shrubs and challenging whatever critters they find stirring.

More likely the culprit was a yellow jacket, but the incident got me thinking about bees and then, as lunchtime was approaching, about honey. National Honey Bee Day is coming up on Aug. 17, and it’s an event celebrated by beekeepers and honeybee enthusiasts across the U.S. We buy Tupelo honey whenever we’re in Apalachicola, Florida, and Little Switzerland Apiary honey when we visit the century-old Orchard at Altapass, a few miles from our cabin near Spruce Pine, North Carolina. Both varieties are among the finest we’ve ever tasted and are locally produced of course - a reminder that backyard hives and larger scale beekeeping are growing in popularity all around the country, helping counteract the effects of colony collapse disorder (which contributed to the loss of some 10 million hives in the U.S. between 2006 and 2013).

A family friend, Joe Conti, remarked to me a while back that the joys of beekeeping include "not just the marvelous golden honey that can be harvested, but the beauty of watching up close the inner workings of truly social creatures. All the individuals selflessly labor for the good of the whole," as Joe put it, "and the beehive functions as a superorganism of sorts - a wonder to behold!"

Ancient Greeks and Romans shared this view, and beekeeping was big business in the Mediterranean world, where cane sugar (the elder Pliny called it saccharon, our word SACCHARine) was rare and costly. Honey was the sweetener of choice, employed in cooking, wine and even medications. The first-century B.C. philosopher-poet Lucretius remarked that his use of verse rather than prose for his treatise "On the Nature of the Universe" was "honey at the edge of the medicine cup," making his prescriptions for sane living more palatable.

The Latin word for "bee" was apis, and an APIary is a place where hives of honeybees are tended by an APIarist (just as an AVIary, from Lat. avis, is a preserve for keeping birds). "Honey" was meli in classical Greek, mel/mellis in Latin, source of MOLasses and more obviously MELLifluous, like the soprano’s voice that "flows (from fluere, as in FLUid) like honey." Mel was also a term of endearment, as "honey" is in English; a character in one of Plautus’ comedies calls his sweetheart cor meum, spes mea, mel meum, "my heart (cor as in CORonary, CORdial, and COURage) , my hope, my honey."

An even older, pre-Greek word has given us MELissa, which in origin meant "honeybee" and might be the perfect name for your next sweet baby girl. The mythic nymph MELissa discovered honey and fed it to the infant Zeus with his milk, and melissa officinalis is the scientific name for lemon balm, which is used to flavor ice cream and herbal teas. The biblical manna, a sweet exudate from certain plants, was sometimes called mel ex aere (as in AERate and AERial), "honey from the air."

Collection of honey from the hives of wild bees is depicted in cave paintings dating back 15,000 years, and APIculture, the formal cultivation of bees, was practiced in the Middle East from as early as the eighth millennium B.C. and by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks beginning at least four millennia ago. Honey jars were found in King Tut’s tomb, dating to the 14th century B.C.

A simile in Book Two of Homer’s "Iliad" compares the Greek troops, rushing to assemble, with "swarms of bees pouring out of a rocky hollow, burst on endless burst, bunched in clusters seething over the first spring blooms" (Fagles’ translation). Writing centuries later, the philosopher Aristotle was fascinated with bees and described their behavior in considerable detail in his "History of Animals" - sometimes erroneously, as when he reports the charming theory that bee offspring were not born but plucked from the blossoms of flowers.

Varro and Columella give us detailed insights into Roman apiculture, and the cookbook writer Apicius shares lots of recipes calling for honey. But no Latin author tells us more about bees and their keepers than Vergil, who devoted an entire volume of his "Georgics" ("On Farming") to a loving exposition of the lives of these insects and their social, humanlike behavior. The "Aeneid," Vergil’s Trojan War epic, is better known today, but Dryden called the "Georgics," "the best poem of the best poet," for its artistry of course, but also for its majestic, sympathetic view of country life, agriculture, and the wondrous world of nature.

Vergil shared in the "Georgics" his conception that "God … pervades all things" and that even "bees have received a share of the divine intelligence" (Fairclough’s translation). It’s not just their honey - "heaven’s gift," as Vergil called it - but their fascinating industry, organization and cooperative fervor, the poet’s "wondrous pageant of a tiny world," that have lured humans to their hives for thousands of years.

The 1997 movie "Ulee’s Gold" draws energy from this universal fascination, as seen in the story of Vietnam vet and beekeeper Ulysses Jackson (played by Peter Fonda). If you’ve seen the film (if not, it’s on Netflix and Amazon), you’ll understand that Ulee’s "gold" is both the honey from his bees and the sweetness that he ultimately discovers within his own heart, as he heals his broken family with his beekeeper’s tough love. Van Morrison sings "Tupelo Honey" over the closing credits. Just hearing that tune in my head, and thinking of the approach of National Honey Bee Day, makes me want to rush to our pantry for some of that golden nectar to drizzle over a slice of buttery toast - Alice’s favorite breakfast treat.

Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is "Ubi Fera Sunt," a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, "Where the Wild Things Are," ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.

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