Telling the bees
Telling the bees is a tradition in many European countries in which bees would be told of important events in their keeper's lives such as births, marriages and departures and returns in the household. If the custom was omitted or forgotten and the bees were not "put into mourning" then it was believed a penalty would be paid, such as the bees leaving their hive, stopping the production of honey or dying.
History and origins
Little is known about the origins of this practice, although there is some unfounded speculation that it is loosely derived from or perhaps inspired by ancient Aegean notions about bees' ability to bridge the natural world and the afterlife.
The custom is best known in England but has also been recorded in Ireland, Wales, Germany, Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Bohemia and the United States. One Lincolnshire report from the mid 19th century notes,
At all weddings and funerals they give a piece of the wedding-cake or funeral biscuit to the bees, informing them at the same time of the name of the party married or dead. If the bees do not know of the former, they become very irate, and sting every body within their reach; and if they are ignorant of the latter they become sick, and many of them die.
Death and funerals
Following a death in the household there were several ways in which bees were to be informed and therefore put into proper mourning.
The process is described in 1901 work of Samuel Adams Drake A book of New England legends and folk lore in prose and poetry:
...goodwife of the house to go and hang the stand of hives with black, the usual symbol of mourning, she at the same time softly humming some doleful tune to herself.
One such ‘tune’ from Nottinghamshire had the woman (either a spouse or other caretaker) say "The master's dead, but don't you go; Your mistress will be a good mistress to you." Another similar oration recorded in Germany went "Little bee, our lord is dead; Leave me not in my distress."
Another method involved the male head of the household approaching the hive and knocking gently on it until "the bees’ attention was thus secured" and then saying "in a low voice that such or such a person - mentioning the name - was dead." The key to the family home could also be used as a knocker.
One description from the Carolina mountains in the United States says that "You knock on each hive, so, and say, 'Lucy is dead.'"
In cases where the beekeeper had died, food and drink from the funeral would be left by the hive for the bees, including the funeral biscuits and wine. The hive would be lifted a few inches and put down again at the same time as the coffin. The hive might also be rotated to face the funeral procession and draped with mourning cloth.
In some parts of the Pyrenees one custom includes "burying an old garment belonging to the deceased under the bench where the bee-hives stand, and they never sell, give away, nor exchange the bees of the dead."
Should the bees fail to be told of a death in the family, "serious calamity" would follow, not only for the family in question but also for any person who was to buy the hive. For example one record from Norfolk tells of a family who bought a hive of bees at auction from a farmer who had recently died and, because the bees had not been "put into mourning for their late master", they were "sickly, and not likely to thrive." However when the new owners tied a "piece of crepe" to a stick and attached it to the hive the bees soon recovered, an outcome that was "unhesitatingly attributed to their having been put into mourning."
In 1855 Bohemian author Božena Němcová's novel Babička (The Grandmother) ends with the title character saying "When I die do not forget to tell it to the bees, so that they shall not die out!" Němcová's novel, which was filled with folkloric practices from Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia and Slovakia, was based on ethnographic research Němcová had conducted in the region in the mid-nineteenth century.
Although the practice of telling the bees is most commonly associated with funerals, in some regions the bees are to be told of happy events in the family, particularly weddings.
A 1950s article in the Dundee Courier, Scotland, describes the practice of inviting bees to the wedding. If a wedding occurred in the household, the hive might be decorated and a slice of wedding cake left by their hive.
The decoration of hives appears to date from the early 19th century.
A section from John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Home Ballads" describes the practice:
Before them, under the garden wall,
Forward and back
Went, drearily singing, the chore-girl small,
Draping each hive with a shred of black.
Trembling, I listened; the summer sun
Had the chill of snow;
For I knew she was telling the bees of one
Gone on the journey we all must go!
"Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!"
Several artists have captured this often solemn custom.
In the Midsomer Murders episode "The Killings at Badger's Drift" (series 1 episode 1), a minor character remarks that a deceased character's bees must be informed of her death or they will "just clear off". The custom is also explained in "The Sting of Death" (series 21 episode 3) and the bees are in mourning with black cloth on the beehives.
- Drake, Samuel Adams (1901). New England Legends and Folk Lore. Boston: Little Brown and Co. p. 314-315. ISBN 978-1-58218-443-2.
- W. Kite, "Telling the Bees," The Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries 21 (A. S. Barnes & Company, 1889), 523.
- Steve Roud (6 April 2006). The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland. Penguin Books Limited. p. 128. ISBN 978-0-14-194162-2.
- Shakespeare's Greenwood. Ardent Media. 1900. p. 159. GGKEY:72QTHK377PC.
- Morley, Margaret Warner (1899). The Honey-Makers. A.C. McClurg. pp. 339–343.
- Tammy Horn (21 April 2006). Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation. University Press of Kentucky. p. 137. ISBN 978-0-8131-7206-4.
- "The Provinces." Northern Star , 29 Sept. 1849. British Library Newspapers. Accessed 13 Nov. 2021.
- (See The Grandmother translated into English by Frances Gregor in 1891 and published by A.C. McClurg of Chicago).
- "Old Bridal Custom", Dundee Courier, January 23, 1950
- Michael O'Malley (4 November 2010). The Wisdom of Bees: What the Hive Can Teach Business about Leadership, Efficiency, and Growth. Penguin Books Limited. p. 148. ISBN 978-0-670-91949-9.
- Carol Frost (30 May 2006). The Queen's Desertion: Poems. Northwestern University Press. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-8101-5176-5.
- Eugene Field (March 2008). The Poems of Eugene Field. Wildside Press LLC. p. 340. ISBN 978-1-4344-6312-8.
- Deborah Digges (2 April 2009). Trapeze. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-307-54821-4.
- "John Ennis". Poetry International - John Ennis. Poetry International. Retrieved 13 October 2013.
- John Greenleaf Whittier (1975). The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. Harvard University Press. p. 318. ISBN 978-0-674-52830-7.