Bees are a familiar sight around the world being native to al continents except Antarctica. There are 16,000 known species and the most common is the western honey bee, also known as the European honey bee. It is this species that this work mostly refers to. Since early times humans have watched bees go about their everyday business and marveled at their sheer industry while being intrigued by the mystery of their societies. This has led to the evolution of a rich body of folklore and tradition and many superstitions and customs. Present here are a few small samples of this bee lore mingled with a few facts.
Bees provide us with many different useful products including honey, royal jelly, pollen propolis, wax and even bee venom. However, there are many other less obvious products of bees we depend on that are more important and more widely used. Bees help pollinate many different fruits, vegetables and plants of all kinds which we make into many different products such as jam, dried fruit, even alcoholic beverages such as mead and much more. They are not just useful to humans but also other animals and plants and are an essential part of local ecosystems which integrate into the global system. An army of bees and other insects help pollinate these products and many other vegetables and plants used by humans. Without bees this army would be sorely depleted. Our ancestors may not have realised the full extent of their usefulness but knew enough to want to develop an intimate relationship with them.
Telling The Bees
It was seen as important for a beekeeper to keep his bees updated on any important information as news came in. This was because bees could become upset and stop producing honey, abandon the hive or even die if not kept informed. Therefore, it was seen as important that news that might affect them was broken gently but not withheld. The origin of this custom is not known but there is an idea it may have evolved because people in many countries in ancient times thought bees had the ability to bridge the living world with the afterlife.
There is a longstanding custom of telling the bees important events such as births, deaths and marriages that happen in the life of a beekeeper. This tradition is found in the UK, Ireland, Germany, France, Switzerland and other European countries as well as North America.
When someone in the household passed away it was deemed essential that the bees should be informed so that they could mourn properly. Furthermore, it was essential that the bees were informed of any death in the family otherwise some tragedy would afflict the keeper’s family or perhaps jinx the hive.
An English custom required the wife of the house, or housekeeper, to drape something black over the hive while humming a sad tune. In Nottinghamshire the words to one such tune were,
“The master’s dead, but don’t you go;
Your mistress will be a good mistress to you.” (1)
Whereas in Germany the song was,
“Little bee, our lord is dead;
Leave me not in my distress.” (2)
In some places the head of the household was required to knock on each hive until he thought he had the attention of the bees. Next, in a sombre and serious voice he explained a certain person had died revealing the name of that person. Sometimes the key to the family home was used to tap upon the hives.
Where it was the case that the beekeeper had passed away food and drink from the funeral was left near the hives for the bees. Sometimes the hive would be lifted and then put down at the same time as the funeral. It was draped in a mourning cloth and rotated to face the funeral procession.
In parts of the Pyrenees they buried an old piece of clothing belonging to someone who had died under the hive. Many people believed the bees and hives should never be given away, sold or swapped after their keeper had died as it brought bad luck.
In the USA in parts of New England and Appalachia it was important to tell the bees when a family member died. Whoever was the family beekeeper would ensure the bees were properly informed of the death so that the news could be passed around.
In some regions it was believed bees liked to be told about weddings and happy events as well as funerals. A tradition from Westphalia, Germany says to ensure good fortune in their married life, when moving into their new home, newlyweds must first introduce themselves to the bees. A Scottish newspaper, the Dundee Courier reported on the tradition in the 1950s, stating that the hive should be decorated and a slice of wedding cake left for the bees near the hive. A custom from Brittany involved decorating the hive with scarlet cloth which would allow the bees to join in with the celebrations.
Messengers of the Gods
There was a belief in ancient Greece and Rome that bees were the messengers and servants of the gods. Romans avoided a flying swarm of bees but not for fear of being stung. Instead they thought they were swarming at the command of the gods and bearing their messages and did not want to impede them in their work for the divinities.
Ancient Egyptians believed honey bees had been generated from the tears of Ra, their sun god, that had fallen to earth becoming his messengers between him and humanity. Between 3000 b.c.e. and 350 b.c.e., the honeybee was used as a symbol by the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Similar to the Egyptian and Roman view, the ancient Celtic people saw the honey bee as a messenger between heaven and earth.
Importance of Bees
Bees continue to play an important role in the ecosystems and their importance to humans is undiminished, if anything, as we learn more about the world around us it increases.
© 19/08/2020 zteve t evans
Reference, Attributions and Further Reading
Copyright August 19th, 2020 zteve t evans
- (1), (2), W. Kite, “Telling the Bees,” The Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries 21 (A. S. Barnes & Company, 1889) – Telling the bees – Wikipedia
- Legends of the Bees – Moray Bee Dinosaurs
- Why Are Bees Considered Such Good Luck In Folklore? – Icy Sedgwick
- Bee – Wikipedia
- Sacred Texts – THE ORIGINS OF POPULAR SUPERSTITIONS AND CUSTOMS – BY T. SHARPER KNOWLSON
- Edwardes, Tickner. The lore of the honey-bee . London, Methuen. Kindle Edition
- Bee Image by Sven Lachmann from Pixabay
- File:The Widow by Charles Napier Hemy.jpg from Wikimedia Commons – The Widow by Charles Napier – Public Domain