Isidore on the Secret Life of Bees

“Bees” [apes] are called that either because they bind themselves to one another with their feet [pes], or because they are born without feet [a-pes]. Later they get both feet and wings. They are skilled at the process of making honey and live in assigned places; they construct their homes with indescribable skill. They establish honeycombs with wax woven together from various flowers, and fill up the hive with countless offspring. They have kings and an army, and provoke battles; they flee from smoke and are disturbed by commotion.

Many people through experience know that they are born from the corpses of cattle. To create these, the flesh of dead calves is beaten so that worms are created from the rotting gore; later, these become bees. Those arising from oxen are properly called “bees,” those from horses “hornets,” those from mules “drones,” and those from donkeys “wasps.”

The Greeks call the larger ones that are born in the most remote parts of the honeycombs “costri.” Some think that they are kings. They are called this because they lead the camps [castra]. The drone is a larger than a bee, smaller than a hornet, and it is called a “drone” [fugus] because it eats what others have worked on, like a glutton [φαγός], for it eats without having done the work. Virgil says about them, “Idle cattle keep drones away from the hives.”

Wasps . . . Hornets [Scabrones] are so called from “horse” [cabus, caballus], which is what they are created from. But just as hornets are born from the rotting flesh of horses, so too are scarabs often born from these, from which they get their name.

Apes dictae, vel quod se pedibus invicem alligent, vel pro eo quod sine pedibus nascuntur. Nam postea et pedes et pinnas accipiunt. Haec sollertes in generandi mellis officio adsignatas incolunt sedes, domicilia inenarrabili arte conponunt, ex variis floribus favum condunt textisque ceris, innumera prole castra replent, exercitum et reges habent, proelia movent, fumum fugiunt, tumultu exasperantur.

Has plerique experti sunt de boum cadaveribus nasci. Nam pro his creandis vitulorum occisorum carnes verberantur, ut ex putrefacto cruore vermes creentur, qui postea efficiuntur apes. Proprie tamen apes vocantur ortae de bobus, sicuti scabrones de equis, fuci de mulis, vespae de asinis.

Costros Graeci appellant, qui in extremis favorum partibus maiores creantur: quos aliqui reges putant. Dicti quod castra ducant. Fugus est maior ape, scabrone minor. Dictus autem fugus quod alienos labores edat, quasi fagus; depascitur enim quod non laboravit. De quo Vergilius [Georg. 4.168]: Ignavum fucos pecus a praesepibus arcent.

Vespae . . . Scabrones vocati a cabo, id est a caballo, quod ex eis creentur. Sicut autem scabrones nascuntur de equorum carnibus putridis, ita ex his iterum saepe nascuntur scarabaei; unde et cognominati sunt.

—Isidore, Etymologicae 12.8.1–4

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