Telling the bees – a long lost tradition?

19th December 2020#other
Telling the bees – a long lost tradition?

As we move through winter months full of traditions 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 beekeeper or a family member would have to go, knock 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 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 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
Runs the path I took;
You can see the gap in the old wall still,
And the stepping-stones in the shallow brook.

There is the house, with the gate red-barred,
And the poplars tall;
And the barn’s brown length, and the cattle-yard,
And the white horns tossing above the wall.

There are the beehives ranged in the sun;
And down by the brink
Of the brook are her poor flowers, weed-o’errun,
Pansy and daffodil, rose and pink.

A year has gone, as the tortoise goes,
Heavy and slow;
And the same rose blows, and the same sun glows,
And the same brook sings of a year ago.

There’s the same sweet clover-smell in the breeze;
And the June sun warm
Tangles his wings of fire in the trees,
Setting, as then, over Fernside farm.

I mind me how with a lover’s care
From my Sunday coat
I brushed off the burrs, and smoothed my hair,
And cooled at the brookside my brow and throat.

Since we parted, a month had passed,–
To love, a year;
Down through the beeches I looked at last
On the little red gate and the well-sweep near.

I can see it all now,—the slantwise rain
Of light through the leaves,
The sundown’s blaze on her window-pane,
The bloom of her roses under the eaves.

Just the same as a month before,–
The house and the trees,
The barn’s brown gable, the vine by the door,–
Nothing changed but the hives of bees.

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!

Then I said to myself, “My Mary weeps
For the dead today:
Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps
The fret and the pain of his age away.”

But her dog whined low; on the doorway sill,
With his cane to his chin,
The old man sat; and the chore-girl still
Sung to the bees stealing out and in.

And the song she was singing ever since
In my ear sounds on:–
“Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!”