In Virgil’s "Georgics," a long didactic poem about husbandry and agriculture published around 29 BC, there is a famous section dedicated to bees and beekeeping. “First find your bees a settled sure abode, / Where neither winds can enter (winds blow back / The foragers with food returning home),” the poet advises his reader and would-be beekeeper, “Nor sheep and butting kids treads down the flowers, / Nor heifer wandering wide upon the plain / Dash off the dew, and bruise the springing blades.”
He goes on to discuss, in sparkling hexameter, the different kinds of trees and flowers bees prefer, the type of water they drink, their natural enemies (“the gay lizard… the bee-eater, and what birds beside”), the most common types of disease, as well as their physiology and social organization. For Virgil, bees are a metaphor for the ideal society, where each member has fixed duties and responsibilities, never deviating from the task. “Together in one city, and beneath / The Shelter of majestic laws they live; / And they alone fixed home and country know.” As paragons of hard work and patriotism, bees are what all Roman citizens must admire and emulate. If Rome is to prosper, it must be like a beehive.
Remus Cenusa is Romanian and has never read Virgil, but he cares for his bees like a true Roman. He keeps about 60 beehives in the Corna Valley, a bucolic piece of paradise next to Rosia Montana, in the Apuseni Mountains of Transylvania. It must be the perfect spot for his job: full of acacia trees and flowers, a clear brook gurgling nearby, the landscape probably unchanged for the last two thousand years. His house is a humble one-story abode with a colorful garden, a vegetable patch, and chicken coop next to it. Two little dogs, both of them named Mickey, bark at passers-by.
Remus moved here in 1979, from his home a few houses down the road, to live with the family of his wife. His father-in-law was an avid beekeeper and Remus, a carpenter by training, quickly picked up a second trade and then combined the two. He set up his workshop next to the house and began to make beehives—from cherry, oak, pine—and to raise his own bees in them.
“It takes me about 16 hours to make one beehive,” Remus says, his woolen vest full of wood shavings, “but the bees love me because I make their homes. Their favorite wood is pine.”
Soon, both the bees and the beekeeper might lose their homes. The Rosia Montana Gold Corporation, which plans to open the biggest open-pit gold mine in Europe, has proposed to turn the Corna Valley into a reservoir for cyanide-laced tailings, the byproduct of industrial gold-leaching. The design features a 600-foot wall at the bottom of the valley, which will hold back as much as 250 million tons of tailings by the end of the mine’s life.
Remus would not give up his home. He has put up a sign on the front of his house “This property is not for sale.” He wears a baseball cap that says in Romanian “Rosia Montana sum EU” (Rosia Montana is ME). He was born here, he lives here, and he wants to die here, under the buzz of his bees.
“What this company is doing is a disaster. It wants to destroy our lives,” Remus says. “I don’t want to go to Recea,” he adds, referring to the brand new suburb in the nearby town of Alba Iulia built by the gold-mining company for the people who agree to sell their properties in the Rosia Montana area and move. “I’d like to write on my honey labels ‘Better than Gold.’”
Remus is 57, with clear blue eyes and an open face. When he removes the tops of the hives, he doesn’t wear a veil or protective gloves and he rarely uses a smoker. The bees know him. They know the maker and custodian of their world. Remus takes out each frame, carefully, lovingly, and looks at the honey-laden combs like an artist at his masterpiece. “See the queen?” he asks. “When the queen is strong, the beehive is more productive and works better.”
But sometimes there are problems. “In the autumn, when the bees don’t have enough flowers, one beehive could steal the honey of another. And then there’s swarming. A beehive can swarm four times before it’s a weak beehive.”
The beehive of Rosia Montana is a weak one. Compelled by the worsening economic situation and the company’s seemingly sweet offers, many of the local residents have already packed up and left. There used to be more than 140 people in the Corna Valley alone—now there are a mere 40. Like Virgil’s “bee-eater,” the corporation has invaded the community and scattered it. There are no other alternatives for the region, it claims.
“There’s always an alternative for people who want to work,” Remus counters. “I pray to God for a good year and lots of honey.”
Remus is a deeply religious, patriotic man, but he has a lighter side as well—call it his bee dance. In the evening, when he is done taking care of his hives, he snatches a leaf from a pear tree and starts playing songs—on the pear leaf! It is his flute. His grandmother taught him the skill. He plays Romanian and Hungarian folk songs, the Romanian national anthem, “Happy Birthday,” the hymn “Christ Has Risen.” When he is done, he looks at the darkening valley. There’s the chime of cowbells in the distance. (See related audio above)