Telling The Bees

There’s a special fondness a beekeeper has for his/her hives. As a beekeeper myself, I have this uncanny feeling that this fondness between the ‘keeper of the bees’ and these amazing insects is somehow mutual.

On many occasions, I have found myself walking down to my hives, only for the sheer pleasure of listening to their joyful buzzing sounds. To sit and watch my bees methodically fly in and out of the hive is something that brings a feeling of peace and contentment, and a glimpse into God’s goodness.

 Job 12:7-10

7 “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; 8 or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. 9 Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? 10 In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.

 On occasion, I’ve been known to talk to my hives, as if they really cared what was happening in my human world. Yes, I know, it’s odd but true. If something is laying heavy on my mind, whether good or bad, I tell it to my bees.

 And apparently, I’m not the only beekeeper over the course of history to do this. This uncanny relationship between humans and bees has led to all types of folk-lore throughout the centuries-one of those being the ‘Telling of the Bees’.

The Bee Friend , by Hans Thoma, 1863/1864

The Bee Friend, by Hans Thoma, 1863/1864

According to this ancient custom that began in Europe, important events such as births, death, marriage, important family matters and long jaunts away from the home were to be shared with the bees. If you neglected to tell the bees, the bees would leave, die off, quit producing honey, or a possible worse calamity would befall the home. This widely known practice spread into Ireland, Wales, Germany, Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Bohemia, and eventually made its way into North America. The 19th century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier describes this peculiar custom in his 1858 poem “Telling the bees”.

‘Trembling, I listened: the summer sun

Had the chill of snow;

For I knew she was telling the bees of one

Gone on the journey we all must go!’

Charles Napier Hemy 's painting  The Widow  (1895)

Charles Napier Hemy's painting The Widow (1895)

For a death in the family, the head of the household was to go out to the hives and ‘put the bees into mourning’. The typical way to tell the bees was to gently knock three times with the house key to get the attention of the bees, then softly and mournfully convey the solemn news. The beekeeper would wrap the top of the hive with a black fabric, which also signified to neighbors that the family was in mourning.  If the bees were not ‘put into mourning’, terrible misfortune could overcome the family.

Young girl draping the beehive in black

Young girl draping the beehive in black

The custom also extended to joyful occasions, such as births or weddings. If there was a wedding in the family, the newly wedded couple introduced themselves to the bees of the house. The hives were then decorated and pieces of cake left outside so the bees could partake in the festivities.

But is this relationship between humans and bees really just superstition? The fact is, bees help humans survive. According to the USDA,

‘Pollinators are a reminder that of the 100 crop species providing 90 percent of the world's food, over 70 are pollinated by bees. One out of every three bites of food in the United States depends on honey bees and other pollinators.’

Whether superstitious or not, you’ll find me out ‘telling the bees’ about my day, be it filled with sorrow or joy. Bees might not care about human concerns, but I know the act of ‘telling the bees’ enhances my life by drawing me closer to nature through God’s amazing little creatures.