The bee friend – painting by Hans Thoma
The Custom of Telling the Bees
There was a time when almost every rural British family who kept bees followed a strange tradition. Whenever there was a death in the family, someone had to go out to the hives and tell the bees of the terrible loss that had befallen them. Failing to do so often resulted in further losses such as the bees leaving the hive, or not producing enough honey or even dying. Traditionally, the bees were kept abreast of not only deaths but all important family matters including births, marriages, and long absences due to journeys. If the bees were not told, all sorts of calamities were thought to happen. This peculiar custom is known as “telling the bees”.
Humans have always had a special connection with bees. In medieval Europe, bees were highly prized for their honey and wax. Honey was used as food, to make mead, and as medicine to treat burns, coughs, and other ailments. Beeswax candles burned brighter, longer, and cleaner than other candles. Bees were often kept at monasteries and manor houses, where they were tended with the greatest respect and considered part of the family or community. It was considered rude to quarrel in front of bees.
The practice of telling the bees may have its origins in Celtic mythology that held that bees were the link between our world and the spirit world. So if you had any message that you wished to pass to someone who was dead, all you had to do was tell the bees and they would pass along the message. Telling the bees was widely reported from all around England, and also from many places across Europe. Eventually, the tradition made its way across the Atlantic and into North America.
The typical way to tell the bees was for the head of the household, or “goodwife of the house” to go out to the hives, knock gently to get the attention of the bees, and then softly murmur the solemn news.
A widow and her son telling the bees of a death in the family.
Painting by Charles Napier Hemy
In case of deaths, the beekeeper also wrapped the top of the hive in black. If there was a wedding in the family, the hives were decorated and cake left outside so that the bees could partake in the festivities. Newlyweds introduced themselves to the bees of the house, otherwise their married life was bound to be miserable.
The intimate relationship between bees and their keepers has led to all sorts of folklore. According to one it was bad luck to buy or sell hives, because when you sell one, you sell your luck with your bees. Instead, bees were bartered or given as gifts. If bees flew into a house, a stranger would soon call. If they rested on a roof, good luck was on its way.
But the relationship between bees and humans goes beyond superstition. It’s a fact, that bees help humans survive. 70 of the top 100 crop species that feed 90% of the human population rely on bees for pollination. Without them, these plants would cease to exist and with it all animals that eat those plants. This could have a cascading effect that would ripple up the food chain. Losing a beehive is much worse than losing a supply of honey. The consequences are life threatening. The act of telling the bees emphasizes this deep connection humans share with the insect.