Thursday, December 17, 2015

Telling the Bees

An odd death superstition involves bees. It originated in Europe and then was brought to America.

In the 19th century this custom spread from New England to the edge of the Appalachia. It involved people “telling the bees” when their beekeeper died. This superstition even included telling the bees when one of the keeper’s family members died.

It was believed if the bees were not told they would die or leave their hives in search of a new home.

This was an economic loss that family’s whom kept bees were not willing to risk for honey was a valuable commodity.


So these families went out of their way to protect their hives--which included the following customs.

When someone died a person was sent to inform the bees of this death. They would then drape the hive in black crepe. In some instances, funeral cake or wine was left out for the bees to enjoy.

Many families even pinned an “invitation” to the funeral on the hive.

This last custom came about because bees were known to invade funeral services if
Danville Bee
June 4, 1956
they were not told. These incidents are well documented. Here are just a few.

In 1894, during a funeral being held in a church the mourners noticed swarming bees. A pallbearer was stung on the neck and the undertaker was attacked viciously.

When the procession headed for the graveyard the bees followed. Many of the mourners left afraid they would also be stung.

Minneapolis Journal
July 6,1901
In 1901, a graveside service for a deceased Indiana child turned into a scene of panic when the mourners were attacked by thousands of bees as the coffin was lowered into the ground.

The grave could not be covered until that night when it was safer.

Margaret Culp’s funeral in 1916 was delayed when farmers scheduled to dig her grave where “stung severely” by bees.

The Washington Herald
August 9,1916
Honey-bee swarm.

At the turn of the century, during a funeral for Josh Simms in Kentucky flowers were placed on his grave as it was being covered. Mourners then watched as a huge swarm of bees landed on the gravesite.

They then stung many mourners who had remained behind.

All these funerals have something in common—the deceased was either a beekeeper or was a relative of one. The bees had not been told there was a death in the family—and when the hives were checked afterwards they were abandoned.

In 1858, the American poet, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem about this belief
John Greenleaf Whittier 
entitled, Telling the Bees. Here is just the last part of this poem.

Before them, under the garden wall,
Forward and back,
Went drearily singing the chore-girl small,
Draping each hive with a shred of black.

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!

Then I said to myself, “My Mary weeps
For the dead to-day:
Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps
The fret and the pain of his age away.”

But her dog whined low; on the doorway sill,
With his cane to his chin,
The old man sat; and the chore-girl still
Sung to the bees stealing out and in.

And the song she was singing ever since
In my ear sounds on:--
“Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!”


Here is a link to the entire poem.

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