Telling the bees

From Simon's beekeeping blog. Comments are welcome via email.


I won't be going to visit the hives for a day or two, so I thought maybe some bee folklore would be interesting. In the nineteenth century in rural Britain, when there was a death in the family, particularly of the beekeeper, somebody would have to go out and inform the bees of the loss. This was usually done by draping the hive with black crêpe or some other 'shred of black', knocking once, and delivering the solemn news to the bees. If this wasn't done, the bees may swarm, get ill, or even die themselves.

The practice, or rather those of New England families who brought them over to the USA, is described more fully in a recent JSTOR Daily article. It speculates that the origin of the practice may be 'in Celtic mythology, where the presence of a bee after a death signified the soul leaving the body'. It cites Telling the Bees, a 1858 poem in which the tradition is depicted, by John Greenleaf Whittier:

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!"