The Hive

The Hive

By Cate Simons


Georgics 4.184-227

Omnibus una quies operum, labor omnibus unus:

mane ruunt portis; nusquam mora; rursus easdem

vesper ubi e pastu tandem decedere campis

admonuit, tum tecta petunt, tum corpora curant;

fit sonitus, mussantque oras et limina circum.

Post, ubi iam thalamis se composuere, siletur

in noctem fessosque sopor suus occupat artus.

Nec vero a stabulis pluvia impendente recedunt

longius aut credunt caelo adventantibus Euris,

sed circum tutae sub moenibus urbis aquantur,

excursusque breves temptant et saepe lapillos,

ut cumbae instabiles fluctu iactante saburram,

tollunt, his sese per inania nubila librant.

Illum adeo placuisse apibus mirabere morem,

quod neque concubitu indulgent nec corpora segnes

in Venerem solvunt aut fetus nixibus edunt:

verum ipsae e foliis natos, e suavibus herbis

ore legunt, ipsae regem parvosque Quirites

sufficiunt aulasque et cerea regna refigunt.

Saepe etiam duris errando in cotibus alas

attrivere ultroque animam sub fasce dedere:

tantus amor florum et generandi gloria mellis.

Ergo ipsas quamvis angusti terminus aevi

excipiat, neque enim plus septima ducitur aestas,

at genus immortale manet multosque per annos

stat fortuna domus et avi numerantur avorum.

Praeterea regem non sic Aegyptus et ingens

Lydia nec populi Parthorum aut Medus Hydaspes

observant. Rege incolumi mens omnibus una est;

amisso rupere fidem constructaque mella

diripuere ipsae et crates solvere favorum.

Ille operum custos, illum admirantur et omnes

circumstant fremitu denso stipantque frequentes

et saepe attollunt umeris et corpora bello

obiectant pulchramque petunt per vulnera mortem.

His quidam signis atque haec exempla secuti

esse apibus partem divinae mentis et haustus

aetherios dixere; deum namque ire per omnes

terrasque tractusque maris caelumque profundum.

Hinc pecudes, armenta, viros, genus omne ferarum,

quemque sibi tenues nascentem arcessere vitas;

scilicet huc reddi deinde ac resoluta referri

omnia nec morti esse locum, sed viva volare

sideris in numerum atque alto succedere caelo.


When all engage in common toil,

Then all who work must rest.

Each dawn, bees tumble daily from their homes

(No loitering allowed)

And when at night the evening star

Has nudged them from their grassy fields,

They shelter in their pleasant hives.

Their nightly task? To soothe their weary selves.

Now hear them buzz and bumble in

The corners of their chambered cells—

But when they’re gathered in their little rooms

Their din at last subsides. Sweet silence falls,

And in the inky night, a welcome sleep

Once more invades their tired limbs.

Then when the clouds expand with rain,

They know it’s best to shelter in their hives.

When East winds come,

They shun the fickle skies

And settle, safe inside their city walls.

There they harvest water from the raindrops

And dart and zoom about, lifting

Great pebbles with their tiny wings.

Just as unsteady skiffs can haul

Their ballast in the tossing waves—

Just so, the bees will use these rocks

To right themselves and pass, unhindered, in the air.

You’ll marvel at the customs of these bees.

They do not lose themselves in sexual delights—

Our Venus is unknown to them—

Nor do they bear their young in pain—instead

The females find their little ones

Amidst the leaves and fragrant herbs,

And once their darling’s found, they pause

And clasp it softly in their gentle mouths.

They toil for Queen and country—they’ll

Raze their palaces, crush the waxen realms

Of bygone days, and build

A new foundation—all for Queen—before they die.

On stubborn rocks they beat their flimsy wings,

Eroding them till little’s left,

Then sacrifice their very lives to birth

Fresh multitudes of bees.

Great is their reverence for flowers—

For they glory in creation—

They spawn the flow of amber drops

We humans love to drink.

And although their days are numbered

(They see a seventh summer and no more)

They exalt all prior generations.

The grandfathers of grandfathers maintain

A holy space inside their homes.

In all the world—not Egypt, nor great Lydia,

Nor in the distant tribes of yonder Parthia,

Nor in that race of Medes that settled by

The far Hydaspes waterway—

No people pay such deference to their Queen.

As long as she is safe, the hive’s a joyous place,

But when she’s lost, their faith is lost,

And they destroy themselves, their stores

Of honey, and their frames of honeycomb.

The Queen’s their great protectress now.

To her they kneel. Their noisy buzz

Becomes a sort of friendly home.

There the bees unite to forge a phalanx—

They form a mass that lifts her in the air.

In war, they sacrifice themselves.

In death, they find the beauty in their wounds.

Some who witness their example

Discern divinity in bees,

As God himself breathes life to all

On land, in fields, in seas and sky.

The flocks and herds of every kind

Of beast—yes, even men like us—

Each one of us receives the sacred breath of God.

Then at the end, we are returned to him—

Riven into bits and born anew. Death

Never truly bides among us.

Our souls transcend this earth and find

Their final resting place

In kingdoms where the starry heavens dwell.


Author’s Statement

During quarantine, I’ve spent much of my time outdoors. Outside, surrounded by nature, I’m able to slow down and separate myself from some of the anxiety I’ve lately felt about the general state of the world. In the last few months, this passage from Vergil’s Georgics has been very much on my mind, and I’m especially drawn to Vergil’s efforts to portray bees in human terms. At present, we’re struggling with a world that reflects an almost constant state of crisis—a world where mutual sacrifices are imperative to achieve any sort of common good—and I’m struck by how Vergil endows his little bees with an almost poignant sense of duty. Even though Vergil was, of course, a pre-Christian poet, I see echoes of both Christianity and eastern religion throughout the final stanza. I’ve tried to highlight those perspectives in my translation; I want to convey both the beauty and the universality of Vergil’s language.


Cate Simons (College ’21) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies (Languages and Literature) and minoring in Fine Arts.