Tradition of Telling the Bees

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One of the most adorable traditions of beekeeping is the act of “telling the bees”. The ritual dates back many centuries-that we don’t know for sure where it started. It is believed to have origins in Celtic mythology. Lets consider the custom of telling the bees and which family occasions might require the honey bees to be informed.

Black and white picture of beehives in snow with black mourning ribbons for custom of telling the bees of a death..

The Relationship Between Bees and Humans

Bees (especially honey bees) have long been revered by humans. You can find many references to honey and bees in the bible. Other cultures believed bees were gods or messengers from the gods.

Considered to be a link between the human and spiritual world, the presence of a bee after a death was thought to be the human spirit (or soul) leaving the body.

Bees could communicate with those already passed on – “telling the bees” was a show of respect that allowed the loved one to know they are missed.

How the Bees Were Told

The United States and parts of Western Europe are where the practice is most common. This custom came to the New World (along with fierce black honeybees). Of course there were many variations how the bees were told.

In some regions, it was believed the news should be sung or even whispered to the beehive. Some popular refrains were: ” The master’s dead, but don’t you go; Your mistress will be a good mistress to you.” or ” Little bee, our lord is dead; Leave me not in my distress”

Golden honey bee on black field.

“Telling the Bees of Important Family Events”

There are some variations in the actual steps of telling the bees of an important event. It was often related to a death in the beekeeper’s family. But, other major events in the beekeeper’s life were also shared.

  • weddings
  • births
  • deaths
Young couple telling the bees of their marriage with a beehive on grassy area.

Weddings and Births

Bees were told about joyous occasions such as a wedding or birth. The newly married couple would be introduced to the bees to ensure the blessing of a happy marriage and good luck.

Failure to do so might mean there would be a lot of strife and unhappiness in the relationship. No new relationship wanted to take a chance on bad luck.

Death in the Beekeeper’s Family

Death was the most common reason for telling the bees. Any death in the family was a tragedy, but it was the death of a beekeeper that most commonly resulted in the traditional telling.

The hives must know that their master was dead and be allowed to go into a period of mourning. If the bees weren’t told of a death or family tragedy, they would not be able to mourn properly.

This could result in the colony becoming sick and the beehive might die. The bees might even abscond or leave the hive!

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Upon the death of the beekeeper (usually a man), the widow (or servant) would visit the bee yard or apiary. The news must be delivered to each hive individually.

She would lightly knock 3 times on the hive to get the bees attention. ( I hope she stood behind the hive. Being dressed in black and knocking on a beehive is not the safest way to avoid bee stings.)

It is considered a superstition by some but failure to tell the bees of a death was believed to bring on bad luck. Even the human family (or new master (owner) of the hive) might suffer from harm or misfortune.

Widow in apiary to tell bees of death.

Putting the Hives into Mourning

The actual steps involved in telling the bees varies a bit from one location (culture) to another.  Charles Fitzgerald Gambier Jenyns, a British Victorian apiarist and rector, says the message should be delivered at midnight.

Then, a shred of black cloth is draped over the top of the hive to put the bees into mourning. Black crepe (or black fabric) is often attached to the hives for a month. This also serves a a sign to locals that the family was in mourning.

When Queen Elizabeth II died in September of 2022, the royal beekeeper was given the job of telling the Queen’s bees of her passing.

He traveled to hives located at Buckingham Palace and Clarence House. After placing black ribbons tied into bows on the hive, he informed them that King Charles III was their new master.

Buckingham palace bee garden.

The Tradition Continues

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 United States and other parts of the world. Instead of a superstitious fear of bad luck, today the process is used as a sign of respect.

In my area, it is common for local beekeeping associations to notify members upon the loss of a fellow beekeeper.

This happened to me recently when a precious gentlemen “Joe” passed on. He was a wonderful person and a good beekeeper. Always a smile for everyone he met and kind to beginning beekeepers.

So, I told my bees of his passing. Who knows, they might be able to pass on my appreciation to him even now.

FAQs

What does it mean to go tell the bees?

Telling the bees is a ritual or custom were bees were informed of a death or other major event in the beekeeper’s family. Once informed, the bees could help the departed in the afterlife.

What is the myth about telling the bees?

An old country tradition – it was believed that bees should be told of deaths or other family events or the family would suffer bad luck or harm.

Do you have to tell the bees when someone dies?

You do not have to tell the bees when someone dies – unless you want to. If you believe in the old tradition of “telling the bees”, enjoy the ritual. But, it is doubtful you will experience bad luck if you fail to do so.

A Final Word

The old tradition of “telling the bees” may seem silly in the modern world of today. But, there are many things we don’t know – even about honey bees. Perhaps, just perhaps – they may hold even more secrets for us to learn.

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