As we move through winter months full of traditions which we thought it might be nice to share a forgotten tradition relating to our beloved honey bees. While honey bees are often associated with life, helping to pollinate flowers and plants and bring honey to the world, they also have a very special connection to death with the tradition of ‘Telling the Bees’.
Bees were once considered to be extended members of the family. In the 19th century it was considered important to keep them up to date with family events, especially significant events such as the death of a family member. They were seen to have a symbolic link to the family, while some believed the messages you told them were passed along to those that had died. During the 19th century this practice was observed by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s in 1858 and we have included his poem at the bottom of this blog.
It is believed that this tradition and their link to the spiritual plane may have originated from Celtic mythology where the presence of a bee after a death was thought to be the soul leaving the body. The presence of a butterfly or a rainbow in modern times is now closely linked to this idea so it is interesting to see how this has evolved and changed over the years, but that the meaning and spiritual connection is still as important as it ever was.
When someone in the family died the bee keeper or a family member would have to go, knock and and tell each hive in succession. They would also place the bees in mourning along with the rest of the family by draping a black cloth, or scrap of black material over or on the hive. It was thought that if the bees were not told it could result in the colony dying or the hive leaving as they were not able to properly mourn, so it was very important that this tradition was upheld. The bees were were also informed of happy events such as marriages and births that took place.
This tradition may have been lost over the years, but bees remain an essential part of life and of death. They are an important part of our natural burial grounds because it's due to the bees that the flowers at our natural burial grounds thrive. They are critical to our ecosystem, and not only provide a honey but have an important part to play in the production of vegetables. We do all we can to encourage the bee population and love watching them as they fly across the woodlands and the meadow from flower to flower. For some they may still hold that spiritual meaning of having a family member or friend close or nearby, or of the soul leaving the body. If you see a bee at a funeral in the future you may wish to think back to that ancient Celtic belief and the mourning of the bees.
It would be interesting to hear if this tradition is still upheld by some modern beekeepers.
John Greenleaf Whittier's Poem - Telling the Bees - 1858
Here is the place; right over the hill
Stories and thoughts from the Leedam camp.
We'd love to hear what you have to say. Use the 'add comment' button at the bottom of each post or contact us here.
You can also find us on facebook and twitter, where we engage in debates, post updates about the burial grounds and more.