Telling the bees

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,
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!

John Greenleaf Whittier

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.

Wildflower verges

Stephen Barnes, chair of BBKA trustees has written to Area Associations and Branch Secretaries asking that we sign a petition urging the government to encourage local authorities to plant more wild flowers on roadside verges and other spaces in the public realm.

There are a number of advantages to wild flowers verges. Not least, they are nicer to look at than mowed grass but in the longer term, they save councils money and reduce the congestion caused by grass cutting. Most importantly of all, wild flower verges, roundabouts and meadows provide habitats for wildlife including pollinators.

Some enlightened councils are already investing in wildflower meadows as too is the Wildlife Trust.

Signing the petition is an opportunity to show support for this idea and to encourage councils to do the same.

Petition the Government


Bee Health Day 2022

Hampshire Beekeepers’ Association has release full details of the 2022 Bee Health Day which is being held at Sparsholt College, Winchester on 18 June 2022 from 08:45 to 17:00.

Attendees are limited to ninety so if you’d like to go, it’s a good idea to register early. HBKA has created an Eventbrite page for members to secure their place. Tickets are available now and will be issued on a first come first served basis.

Use the following link to access the HBKA Eventbrite page where further information is also available. Bee Health & Disease Day 2022 Tickets, Sat 18 Jun 2022 at 08:45 | Eventbrite

This event is only available to members of Hampshire Beekeepers’ Association.

Important notes

When booking members will be asked for their association details; in our case Meridian not their BBKA Number.

You will also be asked if you wish to have lunch at the Bites Cafe, which is located next to the Sainsbury Building where the event is being held.

For any questions please contact our secretary Richard Skinner.

Mobile: 078 1264 2970

Apiary meeting, 21 May

Meridian members gathered at Swanmore today for our second apiary meeting of the season. The weather and bees were both kind for which we were grateful; we had several new members in attendance including Eileen, Jane, Kate, Pete, Patrick, Rachael and Jake.

In all, three hives were opened including Robin’s colony housed on twenty-two frames in two standard National boxes which is what Beekeepers call ‘double brood’. Thank you to Robin for allowing us to go through your hive.

Becky showing her group through one of the Association hives.

Thank you too, to Lisa and Becky for showing their group through two of the Association’s hives. Both colonies were occupying nine frames and are building up steadily. The queens were seen in both colonies, as well as brood at all stages. Honey, nectar and pollen were also identified and some of our newbies saw eggs for the very first time.

Healthy “pearly-white” larvae clearly segmented, lying in the characteristic ‘C’ shape in a pool of brood food. Eggs can be seen on the right-hand side.
Everybody was able to practise handling and turning a frame. Zoom in on Lucy’s face for an interesting close up of flying bees!

Thank you very much to Simon for demonstrating the ‘sugar roll’ technique of varroa counting. We were all perplexed by the apparent lack of varroa detected by the exercise. Only one varroa was found.

We also took out the monitoring boards from the Association colonies and despite a healthy drop of pollen, wax and other debris, only one varroa was detected on one of the boards. Could this be right?

As usual, the meeting concluded with tea and biscuits and the chance to chat bees and life!

Becky’s group watching a worker emerge from her cell.

Thank you to Becky and Lisa for leading their group and to Chris and Nicky for their support and to the Hammond’s for their usual hospitality.

Thank you also to those of you who parked elsewhere for keeping the Hammond’s driveway clear.

Denise: Spring update, West End apiary

I am pleased to say that both Meridian colonies at West End apiary survived the winter and as soon as the weather warmed up, in March, we were eager to open the hives and evaluate their progress.

The West End apiary is developing steadily

It was noted that there was brood and eggs present but the bees were only using 6 frames in each colony.

Spring is a good time to give bees new clean foundation. Various research suggests new clean foundation invigorates the bees and reduces the likelihood of any potential diseases, that the winter bees may be harbouring in old comb, from developing to critical levels.

There are two main popular choices for replacing old comb,

I was reluctant to carry out a shook swarm as there were too few bees and I didn’t want to lose all the young brood which, if allowed to develop, would boost the hive numbers. Therefore, a Bailey comb change seemed the way to go.

On 26th March, Stage One commenced by placing a clean brood box with clean frames, complete with foundation, on to the top of the existing brood box, matching the number of frames used by the bees and placing a dummy board each side. A feeder of 1:1 syrup was placed on the top of the crown board and the hive was left for a week.

After seven days the new brood box was checked, the Queen was found and moved into the upper box onto a frame with a few eggs and larvae. A Queen excluding Bailey board (with an entrance eke) was placed between the old and new brood boxes and the original entrance was blocked.

At this point the weather changed and became very cold, which gave me sleepless nights worrying that I may have killed the Queen. Research suggests that should the bees have a choice to save the brood or the Queen, due to extreme temperatures, they will save the brood.

It was an anxious time waiting for the weather to warm up sufficiently to open up the hive again to see what had happened.

Three weeks later, I opened both hives to find to my relief that both queens were happily laying lovely brood in the fresh foundation. Some capped brood were still in the lower old brood box and I decided to remove these frames and complete the comb change early.

  • The whole hive was moved to one side and a clean floor put on the stand
  • The top clean brood box with the queen and new frames of foundation was placed on to the floor.
  • The Bailey board was removed
  • The hive reassembled with the syrup feeder on top of the crown board until it was empty.
The hive inspection at the 24 April apiary meeting demonstrates the successful outcome of the comb change.

Happy days!

The other Meridian colony, 24 April

Practical day, 8 May

On Sunday 8 May, Louise and Denise hosted the second of the practical sessions; the culmination our most recent introduction to beekeeping course.

There were eight new beekeepers present; Jane Dunham, Rachel Cole, David Bence, Tom Wells, David Redman, Paul and Alex Whitfield and Eileen Mansfield.

The sun shone, the bees were on their best behaviour and Denise and Louise enjoyed being back as a group post lockdown.

During the hive inspections, a queen was spotted, eggs, pearly whites, drones , young bees and bees emerging were all seen. There was also plenty of pollen coming in and dancing going on.

The differences between nectar, uncapped honey, capped brood and capped honey were demonstrated and during the inspection, some drone larvae was disturbed which provided an opportunity to observe varroa feeding on the larvae.

Wax moth trails were spotted in another hive, the frame was tapped revealing the moth’s larva which was flicked from the hive to become bird food!

Louise and Denise were delighted by the calm approach displayed by all the new beekeepers and the competence with which they handled the frames and their hive tools.

Thanks to Robin for allowing the use of his hive and as always, to John and Sarah for use of the apiary.

Denise adds that all the students did very well and that she and Louise were impressed that they had remembered how to lift and turn a frame!

We hope that everybody enjoyed the day and that it is just the start of a long and rewarding beekeeping journey.

Asian hornet talk

Post event notes and suggested way forward

From: Louise Evans, 22 March 2022

To: Meridian members

Subject: Asian hornet briefing

Dear all,

Thank you to those who attended the briefing on the Asian Hornet. Together, with the education of members and spring queen trapping (with traps adapted to prevent the slaughter of other beneficial species) we can make a very good effort to prevent this species establishing itself here.

With concerted effort, it will be one less hazard for beekeeping and reserve public funds for better purposes.

Our thanks go to Andrew Durham for all his research and the presentation. I am much amused that his risk assessment shows that his colonies are some of the least at risk. Mine, sadly are close to the Hamble estuary!

Meridian members

Our thanks go to Simon Fitzjohn who has been prototyping the museliere for us to copy and adapting wasp traps we already had for members to trial. Simon has produced several variants of the trap so that we can assess what works best.

The traps were distributed to Meridian members at the Practical day on 23 April.

Remember: attractant for Asian hornet traps is pressed apple juice and/or fermented cappings or honey from the solar extractor – with a mechanism (ie: mesh) to stop other insects drowning in the liquid and an escape.

From: Andrew Durham

Subject: Asian Hornet Briefing 20th March – Notes for Website

Dear All,

I have decided that to save time (and help your members with the detail) to produce a pdf of the whole of the Integrated defence in the Apiary section and send it to you for posting on your website as a resource for your members.


Apiary meeting, West End, 24 April

It was a beautiful day for an apiary meeting; warm enough to keep our bees happy but cool enough to be comfortable in a bee suit. These two short videos give a flavour of the day. Denise led us through the Meridian colonies, both of which were looking good. Denise had successfully completed Bailey comb changes on both colonies just eleven days prior and the bees had responded by drawing out beautiful (surprisingly yellow) fresh comb.

They had also built up strongly since the completion of the comb changes on 13 April and there was plenty of brood at all stages in both colonies too. All the boxes had been refurbished recently and the bees were given new foundation so everything in both hives was pristine and new. The bees were joy to behold and displayed a temperament to match.

The West End apiary is developing well and will be a great asset to the Association going forward.

Preparation day

Chris, Denise and Bryan get stuck into the frames!

Sunday 3 April began with sunshine, coffee and bee chat. Chris, Denise, Phil, Louise, Richard and Bryn gathered at Richard’s home in West End to clean kit and prepare equipment for the forth-coming season.

Rendering wax

Chris Jordan had kindly bequeathed his equipment to Meridian. Louise attended the funeral and Richard collected the kit from the family.

The team scraped and flamed supers and boxes; cut out old wax, cleaned up lots of frames in the burco boiler, rendered wax, all the time sharing bee-keeping anecdotes, plans and tales.

Frames were cleaned up in the Burco boiler which can be borrowed by Meridian members.

Thanks to Chris Jordan we have additional hives for West End and another suit for beginners.

Richard kept us well furnished with tea and coffee. Fourteen other people had said they could come and help, so unfortunately we didn’t get as many frames made up as we would have liked and our work took all day but it was enjoyable nevertheless.

Maybe next time you might join us for an hour? We’d be delighted to see you.

Scott Peters, a dear friend

By Colin Bowsher, March 2022

On Friday 11th March, Louise, Terry Lacey (former Meridian Treasurer) and I attended the funeral of Scott Peters, aged 95 years.

My association with him had begun on a Meridian course in 2005. ‘Scottie’, eight years my senior, was a character and my ‘bee buddy’ who I shared many happy, some good, some bad, hours, days and years learning about and keeping bees.

Both of us, being full of keen enthusiasm, found a common interest in making our own equipment, attending auctions, meetings and conventions.

After learning the correct way to keep bees on Alan’s introductory course, we were all told that we had passed and that I was lucky to have a mentor who lived just down the road (Louise) if I had any problems.

Sound advice I’m sure, but knowing that mentors are busy people, and call it pride but there is an embarrassment in thinking you’ve done something stupid!

Scottie and I were both retired so could visit each other to discuss daft mistakes we had made with the bonus that a morning’s discussions could be followed by a meal and a pint!

The sitting room chairs at Scottie’s house were sited next to a bay window where one could observe the entrances of a couple of hives, with tea and biscuits provided by Una, Scottie’s long suffering wife.

These observations would result in new ideas and plans to ‘improve’ our bees’ environment. Constructing new mesh floors, adapting entrances, larger brood boxes etc. The plans would be carried out in my workshop.

On one memorable occasion Scottie asked for my assistance in spinning his honey. I’d already done mine with my wife in our conservatory using a four frame manual hand spinner. Scottie had a superior model with an electric drive. He kept it in the corner of a 6’ x 8’ washroom, which also contained a sink and stack of supers with just enough room for two operators.

The outside wall had a 2’6’’ opening window. I was aware of a few insects sharing our space. As the frames were put into the extractor and spinning begun, the room got quickly darker as bees covered the window. The room was filling with bees wanting their honey back!

The little room was evacuated and the door firmly shut as we called for beesuits! It was decided to open the window to assist the bees exit. The vacuum cleaner was used. Time to retire for a cup of tea provided by Una, God bless her!

We were involved together in many other projects. Hive stands for Lainston House to site bees along the lime avenue for delicious green honey, construction of a dartington long hive, and latterly a change over to the Rose hive system.

One of Scottie’s last projects was to move his hives into a Beehouse made from a good quality shed sited in his daughter Sharon’s garden. This project ended when he got badly stung one evening and spent nine days in hospital.

Beekeeping with Scottie was always adventurous and never dull: we learnt a lot together and enjoyed every minute of it. He could be outspoken, even blunt on occasion. To me, as a close friend, he will be very badly missed and never forgotten.

Colin Bowsher, March 2022

Some more from Scott’s daughter, Sharon

Scott Peters 1927 – 2022.

Scott managing the barbecue at a Meridian event

Although born in Portsmouth, Dad was a country boy at heart and often talked with great fondness about living with the thatcher in Thrutxon as an evacuee.

One of the many things he remembered from his days with the thatcher was the importance of telling the bees.

I also remember Alan Jonhson demolishing this myth, telling us bees were deaf, although l do wonder if they pick up some pheromones from us standing by the hive?

upon retirement, Dad rebuilt a wooden folk boat and had some great adventures including sailing single handed to the Azores and back. This hobby came to a spectacular end, when after losing the rudder off Lulworth Cove he and I limped back to Portsmouth through the 2005 Trafalgar celebrations. We were promptly arrested by armed marines for entering the exclusion zone and then towed home.

After that, he was open to new ideas, where he could keep his feet firmly on the ground.

I had just started the Meridian introductory course, and after a couple of weeks he joined me and never looked back. He was deeply interested in the life and habits of bees, verbally sparring with Alan and enjoyed the intelligent, good humoured company of the association.

He learnt quickly and read widely. He was furious when he failed the BBKA basic exam, not through lack of knowledge, but because he had tried to cram all his answers into the spaces on the exam paper instead of in the answer booklet!

We worked out it was more than sixty years since he had last sat an exam so this was understandable but it still rankled!

Scott also hugely enjoyed the woodwork associated with bee keeping and quickly filled his shed, then mine, with hives, supers and frames, much to mum’s disgust. He was aways keen to try new ideas and for a while having three hives inside a shed, with individual plastic ducting entrances was very successful. Just watching the bees come and go, and identifying the pollen they were bring home gave him much pleasure.

As did visiting his hives at Monument Farm on Portsdown hill when the rape crop was in full bloom.

Another source of pleasure was his friendship with Colin, and their queen breeding enterprises. Many happy hours were spent planning, building and adapting equipment. Some interesting structures emerged, but as far as l know, no queens!

Scott was a very sociable, and relished the meetings, stewarding at the Royal Bath & West show and the guest lectures arranged by Meridian. Always happy to chat to everyone and share a joke.

Enjoyed too, were the trips to the New Forest for the heather season, the picnics and apiary meetings at Twyford.

When he retired from beekeeping at the age of 92, it was Meridian who helped me with the sale of his equipment. His bees and hives went next door to my generous neighbours and were put to good use. Sadly, they suffered colony collapse in 2020, and my neighbour complains the new bees do not have the gentle temperament of Scott’s bees. Coincidental? Who knows.