Telling the Bees

Telling the Bees


There’s been an alarming decline in honey bee colonies around the world in recent years, and the reasons for the drop remain largely unknown. Honey bees are the world’s most prolific pollinators of food crops, with one third of the food we eat every day relying on pollination. With the bee "crisis" reaching alarming heights, humanity has refocused on its intimate relationship with bees ... and, for this reason, keeping them informed becomes more important than ever.

Telling the bees is a tradition in many European countries in which bees are told of important events in their keeper's lives such as deaths, births and marriages. If the custom was omitted or forgotten and the bees were not "put into mourning" then it was believed a penalty would be paid, such as the bees leaving their hive, stopping the production of honey or dying.

The custom is best known in England but has also been recorded in Ireland, Wales, Germany, Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Bohemia and the United States. 

This practice may have its origins in Celtic mythology where the presence of a bee after a death signified the soul leaving the body, but the tradition appears to have been most prominent in the 18th and 19th centuries in the US and Western Europe.

While the traditions varied from country to country, “telling the bees” always involved notifying the insects of a death in the family, so that the bees could share in the mourning. This generally entailed draping each hive with black crepe or some other “shred of black.” It was required that the sad news be delivered to each hive individually, by knocking once and then verbally relaying the tale of sorrow.

A section from New England poet John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "Tell the Bees" describes the practice:

"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!

Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!"

Most 19th century commentators believed the tradition of telling the bees would die out. But, they were wrong. This is still a commonly known practice in Britain, the US and other parts of the world.

Instead of a superstitious fear of bad luck, today the process is used as a sign of respect. 

After the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the Royal Beekeeper, John Chapple, informed the massive collection of over 30,000 bees at Buckingham Palace and Clarence House of her passing and the ascension of King Charles III. Chapple described the practice to the press this way: "You knock on each hive and say, 'The mistress is dead, but don't you go. Your master will be a good master to you.'"



1. Bees in Hive. Image Credit:
2, 3 & 4. Images via jstor
5. Queen Elizabeth II shortly before her death. Image: MGN

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