Telling The Bees: The Original Buzz Feed

November 21, 2023 | Samantha Henman

Telling The Bees: The Original Buzz Feed

Who’s the first person you tell when something major happens in your life? You might call a parent, or other family member, or best friend to let them know about a wedding, birth, or death. But there’s something you might be forgetting. Have you considered telling the bees?

Humans have been beekeeping for at least 10,000 years, and unfortunately, older beekeeping practices involved destroying the colony when harvesting the honey. An increased usage of frame hives in the 18th century meant that beekeepers could keep their colonies instead of culling them—making the practice much more sustainable. And, at some point along the way, people began making it a point to tell their bees about things that happened outside of the hive. 

In one of the few early recorded instances of “telling the bees,” a mid-19th century report from Lincolnshire, England noted a marked change in behavior if bees weren’t told of someone’s marriage or death. Instead, it was suggested to share sweets from the wedding or funeral with the bees and let them in on the knowledge. The writer even remarked that the bees not knowing about a marriage made them cranky and prone to stinging, while not knowing about a death could make the bees very ill and could even be fatal.

The Widow by Charles Napier HemyCharles Napier Hemy, Wikimedia Commons"The Widow" by Charles Napier Hemy, a painting featuring a widow and her son telling the bees of a death in the family

This went both ways as well. In one German practice, your marriage might be doomed if you opted out of telling the bees. More often, the custom of telling the bees was associated with funerals—with specific instructions about just how to tell them as well. One such verse went "Little bee, our lord is dead; Leave me not in my distress". Depending on the origin of the practice, the bees could actually be invited to the funeral, or the hive could be decorated, or it would be lifted and put down at the same time as the coffin. 

While it may seem antiquated, the practice isn’t isolated to the 19th and 20th centuries. When Queen Elizabeth II died in 2022, the royal beekeeper not only informed the bees at Buckingham Palace and Clarence House—he also let them know when Charles III was crowned king. The beekeeper said that he told them “The mistress is dead, but don't you go. Your master will be a good master to you”.

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