Many do not know that there was a time when almost every rural British family who kept bees followed a strange tradition: whenever there was a death in the family, someone had to go out to the hives and tell the bees of the terrible loss that had befallen the family.
Failing to do so often resulted in further losses such as the bees leaving the hive, or not producing enough honey or even 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.
Traditionally, the bees were kept abreast of not only deaths but all important family matters including births, marriages, and long absence due to journeys.
For example in Westphalia, Germany, one custom held that newly married couples going to their new home must first introduce themselves to the bees or else “their married life will be unfortunate.”
If the bees were not told, all sorts of calamities were thought to happen.
This curious custom is known as “telling the bees”.
The practice may have its origins in Celtic mythology that held that bees were the link between our world and the spirit world.
So if you had any message that you wished to pass to someone who was dead, all you had to do was tell the bees and they would pass along the message.
Telling the bees was widely reported from all around England, and also from many places across Europe. Eventually, the tradition made their way across the Atlantic and into North America.
The typical way to tell the bees was for the head of the household, or “goodwife of the house” to go out to the hives, knock gently to get the attention of the bees, and then softly murmur in a doleful tune the solemn news. The key to the family home could also be used as a knocker.
Little rhymes developed over the centuries specific to a particular region.
In Nottinghamshire, for instance, the wife of the dead was heard singing quietly in front of the hive:
“The master’s dead, but don’t you go; Your mistress will be a good mistress to you.”
In Germany, a similar couplet was heard:
“Little bee, our lord is dead; Leave me not in my distress”.
In cases where the beekeeper had died, food and drink from the funeral would also be left by the hive for the bees, including the funeral biscuits and wine, while in some parts of the Pyrenees, one custom includes “burying an old garment belonging to the deceased under the bench where the bee-hives stand, and they never sell, give away, nor exchange the bees of the dead.”
Should the bees fail to be told of a death in the family, “serious calamity” would follow not only for the family in question, but also for any person who was to buy the hive.
In 1855, Bohemian author Božena Němcová’s novel Babička (Grandmother) ends with the title character saying “When I die do not forget to tell it to the bees, so that they shall not die out!”
The novel, which was filled with folkloric practices from Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, and Slovakia, was based on ethnographic research that the author had conducted in the region in the mid-nineteenth century.
However, the relationship between bees and humans goes beyond superstition.
Humans have always had a special connection with bees. For example, in medieval Europe, bees were highly prized for their honey and wax. Honey was used as food, to make mead, probably the world’s oldest fermented beverage, but also as medicine to treat burns, cough, indigestion and other ailments.
Bees were often kept at monasteries and manor houses, where they were tended with the greatest respect and considered part of the family or community. It was considered rude, for example, to quarrel in front of bees.
Moreover, It’s a fact, that bees help humans survive.
70 of the top 100 crop species that feed 90% of the human population rely on bees for pollination.
Without them, these plants would cease to exist and with it all animals that eat those plantsm and this can have a cascading effect that would ripple catastrophically up the food chain.
And the act of telling the bees emphasizes this deep connection humans share with the insect.