Telling the bees is an age old tradition stemming from Europe in which bees would be told of important events in their keeper’s lives such as births, deaths and marriages.
Little is known about the origins of the tradition but some say it’s derived from Celtic mythology or even ancient Aegean notions about bees’ ability to bridge the natural world and the afterlife.
It was believed that if the keeper forgot to tell the bees, misfortune would follow; the bees might leave their hive or stop the production of honey or worse, they would die.
The custom of telling the bees is best recorded in England but it is known to have been practised in Wales, Ireland, France, Germany, The Low Countries, Switzerland and later, in the United States. One Lincolnshire account from the 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 everybody 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 a 1901 work; A book of New England legends and folklore 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.Samuel Adams Drake
One such ‘tune’ from Nottinghamshire had the wife saying “The master’s dead, but don’t you go; your mistress will be a good mistress to you.”
A similar song in Germany went “Little bee, our lord is dead; Leave me not in my distress.”
Another method of telling the bees involved the male head of the household approaching the hive and knocking gently on it with the key to the family home until “the bees’ attention was thus secured” and then saying “in a low voice that such or such a person was dead.”
A description from the Carolina mountains in the United States says that “You knock on each hive, so, and say, ‘Lucy is dead.’ Bees could also be invited to the funeral.
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 or it may be turned to face the funeral procession and draped with mourning cloth.
In the Pyrenees it was custom to bury a garment belonging to the deceased beekeeper under the bench where the bee-hives stood. It was not permitted to sell, give away or exchange the bees of the dead.
If the bees were not told of the death of the keeper, “serious calamity” would befall the family but also to any person who was to take over the hive.
One account from Norfolk tells of a family who bought a hive of bees at auction from a farmer who had recently died. 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 recovered, an outcome attributed to their having been “put into mourning.”
Although the practice of telling the bees is most commonly associated with death, in some regions the bees are to be told of happy events in the family too, particularly weddings.
An article in the Dundee Courier from the 1950s 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 for the bees.
In Germany, newly married couples going to their new home must first introduce themselves to the bees or “their married life will be unfortunate.”
A French tradition held that unless beehives were decorated with scarlet cloth at a wedding and the bees allowed to take part, they would go away.
The custom of ‘telling the bees’ has been described in many poems including one called Home Ballads:
Before them, under the garden wall,John Greenleaf Whittier
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!
In an episode of the TV drama Midsomer Murders (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 curious custom of telling the bees strengthens the conviction that there exists a age old sympathy and relationship between bees and humans.