Telling The Bees
Folklore and Tradition
Reading Time: 4 minutes
by Sue Norris If you have ever had any doubt that beekeeping is a magical interaction between human and insect, then the practice of telling the bees should convince you that our ancestors held these delightful creatures in high esteem and reverence. The practice of “telling the bees” is an ancient one — so old no one really knows where it started or when.
The mythology attached to the bee is extensive, ranging from the far East to the British Isles and eventually Canada and the U.S.
The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun god, Ra, created the bee and that the soul of the departed turns into a bee.
The Egyptians used wax as a sealant on canopic jars and also in makeup. Honey was used as a sweetener, antiseptic salve, and as funerary gifts for the deceased to take to the next world.
It is a little-known fact that Celtic warriors fought for the Egyptians and eventually found their way into Greece around 4 BC. The Celts had great reverence for the bees believing them to be winged messengers from the gods.
The ancient Greeks believed that bees could bridge the divide between the world and the afterlife and carried messages back and forth between the worlds.
Many people believe that the mythology of the bee as a traveler between worlds began in ancient Greece, but it is plausible that the ancient Celts taught the Greeks this. Since the Celts and ancient Greeks existed around the same time frame and did in fact, become trading partners in certain areas, it would be hard to determine exactly where exactly the belief originated.
Regardless of origin, the ancients had great regard for this industrious little creature and believed it was a messenger between the worlds of the living and dead. They also believed that the bee possessed great wisdom and it was believed in the British Isles that the bee possessed the knowledge of the ancient druids.
The bee provided our ancestors with honey and wax. The honey was used as a sweetener (no sugar back then) and it was also fermented into mead, a powerful beverage beloved by the Celts. Honey was also used as a healing salve for wounds and infections. The wax was converted into candles. Beeswax candles burn cleaner and brighter than other types of candles.
Bees were held in such high regard that in medieval times, laws were passed to protect them. The Bech Bretha (Bee Laws) is one such document from Ireland. It is a collection of laws that governed the care and ownership of bees.
There were set punishments for stealing hives or being stung by a neighbor’s bee. The laws also governed who “owned” a swarm of bees. Ownership was usually divided between the finder and the owner of the land.
Bees were such an important part of medieval life that they were treated very well. As magical creatures that could fly between the dead and living worlds, they were treated as part of the family.
The whole idea of “telling the bees” is about involving them in the important news and happenings of the household. Things such as a birth, marriage, or death had to be relayed to the bees otherwise they would take offense and perhaps abandon the hive, bringing bad luck.
Of course, custom varied from place to place, but it was not unusual for bees to receive a piece of wedding cake from the wedding party.
If the owner of the bees died, it was vital that someone go and tell the bees of the death. In some places, a piece of black material was hung over the hive. Often a rhyme or song was said or sung to the bees to tell them of the death. If this procedure wasn’t followed, it was thought that the bees would desert the hive which would bring more bad fortune to the household.
These customs were predominant in the British Isles until the early part of the 20th century. The customs of beekeeping came to Canada and the U.S. with the pilgrims and other immigrants — the bees also came with the immigrants since America did not have honey bees!
John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker poet, wrote a poem in 1858 called “Telling the Bees.” The poem describes returning to a house where the servant girl was draping the hives in black and singing to them of their owners’ death.
The custom of telling the bees has all but died out in most places but can still be found in remote, rural areas where superstition and science live in an uneasy truce. It is mostly now found in remote areas of the British Isles, Ireland, parts of France and some areas in the southern United States.
I used to talk to my bees all the time, there were never any special occasions to consult them, but I like to think they were listening.
SUE NORRIS was born and raised in the UK. She traveled around the world as a registered nurse and settled in New York state with her partner about 25 years ago. She currently lives on 15 rural acres with 40-ish chickens, four rabbits, two dogs, and three cats, and assorted wildlife. Sue is happily retired and enjoying the serenity.
Originally published in the June/July 2022 issue of Backyard Beekeeping and regularly vetted for accuracy.