Apparently this is Pollinator Week. As it happens, I have been surrounded by lovely bees for the last couple of weeks. The Fondation Hardt has several beehives; they are located near the tomb of the Baron Kurd von Hardt. I have heard stories about strange goings on in that part of the garden. Some people avoid it all together, but I find it rather enthralling.While I cannot stand wasps (a dislike that manifests itself in expansive arm flapping), bees never really worry me. I know they are more interested in beautiful flowers than in smelly humans.
Yesterday I was reminded of a very nice Roman story about bees. Scholars working on Quintilian (a first-century CE Latin orator) visited the Fondation. Now, pseudo-Quintilian (someone who is not Quintilian but whose writings are transmitted under his name – I know this is highly confusing) is the author of an oration about bees. This is how the legal case is introduced:
There may be legal suit for damage caused by wrongdoing: a poor man and a rich man were neighbours in the country by their adjacent gardens. The rich had flowers in in garden; the poor had bees. The rich man complained that his flowers were damaged by the bees of the poor man. He requested for them to be relocated. As the poor man did not transfer them, the rich man sprinkled his flowers with poison. All the bees of the poor man perished. The rich man is accused of damage caused by wrongdoing. Pseudo-Quintilian, Orations 13.1
To a modern reader with any knowledge of pollination, this story sounds completely absurd. Bees do not damage flowers: they ensure their survival. However, the ancients did not realise the important role pollinator insects played. To them, bees ‘stole’ honey.
At times, the Greeks and Romans realised that insects did interact in a positive manner with plants, but their explanations are very far from an understanding of pollination. For instance, a technique called ‘caprification’ was – and still is – often carried out: it consists in growing cultivated fig trees not far from wild fig trees (known as ‘caprifigs’, literally goat figs). The ancients had observed that cultivated fig trees would not carry their fruits to maturity without the help of insects that were ‘born’ from the wild figs. These insects (a type of wasp, the Blastophaga) are in fact pollinators that bring pollen from the wild fig trees (which are male) to the cultivated fig trees (which are female). But this is how Theophrastus (the great botanist of antiquity, fourth century BCE), described what happened:
Upon opening the centre of the fruit, the insects feed on the excess fluid and provide passage from the outside air and, on the whole, make [the fruit] better ventilated. For it happens that, along with the effective heat there is, shut up in the fruit, a certain breath (as in the cases of things that are boiled), and when this has been removed and transformed into vapour together with the excess fluid, the fruit remains on the tree. Theophrastus, Causes of Plant Phaenomena 2.9.6
In short, the fruit of the cultivated fig tree is far too dense, as it contains excess ‘breath’ (the Greek word is pneuma). The insects help the fruit remain on the tree and reach maturity by ‘ventilating’ it, that is, by releasing the excess breath. I know… I know… one could not make it up!