The tradition of ‘telling the bees’ may have its roots in Celtic Mythology, which holds that the presence of a bee after death signifies the soul leaving the body, linking the bees to the spirit world (see ref). However, the ritual seems to have been recorded most in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in New England and Europe. ‘Telling the bees’ was to tell the bees of any major life events, including deaths, marriages and births. This ritual was practised by many rural families who kept bees.

The practise of this ritual was seemingly strongest in relation to mourning. In the cases of deaths, it was required the news be delivered to each hive individually, the beekeeper knocking once and then verbally passing on the news. The bees were also ‘put into mourning’, meaning the beekeeper would wrap the top of the hive with a piece of black fabric or veil.

This tradition of course varied across time and place. For example, Charles Fitzgerald Gambier Jenyns, a British Victorian Apiarist in his book, A Book about Bees (1886) tells that messages should be relayed to the bees at midnight. Tammy Horn, a literary scholar writes in her book Bees in America: How the Honey Bee shaped a Nation (2005), that in New Hampshire, the news of a death would not only be sung to the bees but also rhymed .

One of the most famous references to the tradition is written by nineteenth century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier in his 1858 poem “Telling the bees”. Here is an excerpt.

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!

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!”

It appears there were known consequences for not following through this tradition: tragic misfortune to the families and the bees. And while the tradition seems to have disappeared, left in trails of song and poems, a connection perhaps exists. As said by Colleen English, “Today, with the bee crisis, we seem to have returned to a morbid intimacy with the bees”.

bees gathering to protect the hive, or perhaps gathering to listen ?

An intriguing and captivating tradition… one that celebrates the connection between beekeeper and bees and the symbolism of bees and the spirit world.

Reference: “Telling the Bees” by Colleen English. September 5, 2018. Journal Article.