There was a time when almost all rural British families who had bees followed a strange tradition. Every time there was a death in the family, someone had to go out to the hives and tell the bees about the terrible loss that had befallen the family. Failure to do so often resulted in additional loss, such as the bees leaving the hive, not producing enough honey, or even dying. Traditionally, bees were kept informed not only of deaths, but of all important family matters, including births, marriages, and long absences due to travel. If the bees were not told, all kinds of calamities were thought to occur. This peculiar custom is known as "Telling the bees."
Humans have always had a special connection to bees. In medieval Europe, bees were prized for their honey and wax. Honey was used as a food to make mead, possibly the oldest fermented beverage in the world, and as a medicine to treat burns, coughs, indigestion, and other illnesses. Candles made from beeswax are brighter, longer lasting, and cleaner than other wax candles. Bees were often kept in monasteries and manor houses, where they were cared for with the utmost respect and considered part of the family or community. It was considered rude, for example, to fight in front of bees.
The practice of telling bees may have its origins in Celtic mythology which held that bees were the link between our world and the spirit world. So if you had any messages that you wanted to convey to someone who was dead, all you had to do was tell the bees and they would convey the message. Bees were widely reported throughout England and also in many places in Europe. Over time, the tradition made its way across the Atlantic and into North America.
The typical way of telling the bees was for the head of the family, or the "good wife of the house" to go to the hives, tap gently to attract the attention of the bees, and then mumble the solemn news in a sad tone. Little rhymes developed over the centuries specific to a particular region. In Nottinghamshire, the wife of the dead was heard singing softly in front of the hive: “The master is dead, but do not go; Your lover will be a good lover for you. "In Germany, a similar couplet was heard:" Bee, our lord is dead; Don't leave me in my anguish ”.
Telling bees was common in New England. The 19th century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier describes this peculiar custom in his 1858 poem "Counting the Bees."
Before them, under the garden wall,
Back and forward
He left sadly singing to the girl in the small house,
Covering each hive with a piece of black.
Shivering, I heard: the summer sun.
He was cold as snow;
Because I knew she was telling the bees about one.
Missing on the trip we all must go!
And the song that he sang ever since.
In my ear it sounds:
- “Stay home, pretty bees, don't fly again!
Mrs. Mary is dead and gone!
In case of death, the beekeeper also wrapped the upper part of the hive with a piece of black cloth or crepe. If there was a family wedding, the beehives were decorated and pieces of cake were left outside so that the bees could also participate in the festivities. The newlywed couples were introduced to the house bees, otherwise their married life would be miserable.
If the bees did not “mourn”, the family and the person who bought the hive suffered terrible misfortunes. Victorian biologist Margaret Warner Morley, in her book The Honey-Makers (1899), cites a case in Norfolk where a man bought a hive of bees that had belonged to a man who had died. The previous owner had failed to put the bees in mourning when their master died, causing the bees to fall ill. When the new owner covered the hive with a black cloth, the bees regained their health. In another tale, an Oxfordshire family had seventeen hives when their keeper died. Because nobody told them about death, all the bees died. There are many such tales in Morley's book.
The intimate relationship between bees and their keepers has led to all kinds of folklore. According to one of them, it was bad luck to buy or sell hives, because when you sell it, you sell your luck with your bees. Instead, the bees were traded or given as gifts. If the bees flew into a house, a stranger would soon call. If they rested on a roof, good luck was on the way.
But the relationship between bees and humans goes beyond superstition. It is a fact that bees help humans to survive. 70 of the top 100 crop species that feed 90% of the human population depend on bees for pollination. Without them, these plants would cease to exist and with them all the animals that eat those plants. This will have a cascading effect that would spread catastrophically up the food chain. Losing a hive is much more than losing a supply of honey. The consequences are dangerous to life. The act of telling the bees emphasizes this deep connection that humans share with the insect.