The Strange, Kind of Sweet Tradition of Telling the Bees

Sunday April 07, 2019 Written by Alex Garsden

Bees G1

Common wisdom dictates that bees are delicate and temperamental beings. One should, therefore, avoid exposing them to any of their extensive aversions – a list which as recently as the early 20th century included lying, cheating, foul language, being exchanged for money, and the sight of menstruous women (a phenomenon liable to cause an entire swarm to drop dead).

Antiquity’s understanding of bees as passed souls, and, therefore, a link to the underworld, provides some context for one custom employed to care for these creatures of peculiar and discriminating taste. Practiced over a territory spanning the Pyrenees to the south, Westphalia to the east, and New England to the west, the tradition of ‘the telling of the bees’ holds that one must duly relay the death of the master or mistress of the house to one’s bees or face “serious calamity” (ordinarily the imminent migration or death of the hive).

Particular variations on the custom include that a black funeral crepe should be tied to the hive, that a key to the house should knock upon it before gently breaking news of the passing (usually by reciting certain incantations), that food from the wake should be brought to them, and that the hive should be either lifted into the air as the deceased leaves the house, or lowered as they enter the ground. Commonly the hive is also invited to (and often attends) the funeral, and, on numerous occasions, has been recorded arriving uninvited, and in foul temper, should this fail to be done.

This tidbit was first published in Smith Journal volume 30. Grab a copy, subscribe or find your nearest stockist.

Image: The Bee Friend, Hans Thoma, via Wikimedia Commons