Last Saturday was National Bee Day and reported the importance of our relationship with bees. Mankind is dependent upon them to pollinate 70 of the top 100 crop species that feed 90% of the human population. Without pollination these plants would cease to exist as would the animals who eat them. This could create a catastrophic effect that would ripple across the entire food chain.
Mankind has had a mystical, magical relationship with bees for hundreds of years, with much folklore surrounding it. In medieval Europe, bees were prized for their honey and wax. Honey was used to make mead, the world's oldest fermented beverage, and was also used as medicinal cure for burns, cough, indigestion and other ailments. Candles made from beeswax burned brighter, longer and cleaner than other wax candles.
Bees were often kept at monasteries and manor houses, where they were tended with the greatest respect and considered part of the family or community and through this intimate relationship traditions evolved. Whenever there was a death in the family, someone went to the hives to tell the bees of the terrible loss. Failing to do so often resulted in further losses such as the bees abandoning the hive, not producing honey, or possibly dying.
Traditionally, the bees were kept abreast of not only deaths but all family matters including births, marriages, and a long absence due to journeys. If the bees were not told, fearful calamities were bound to happen. This peculiar custom traveled from Europe across the Atlantic to the Americas, settling in New England. The 19th century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote of it in his 1858 poem “Telling the Bees”.
It is thought the practice of telling the bees had its origin in Celtic mythology which held the belief bees were the link between our world and the spirit world. If one had a message and wished to pass it to one who had died, it could be whispered to the bees who would pass it along to the hereafter.
Telling the bees was widely reported from many places across Europe… in fact Napoleon Bonaparte so loved bees that among his formal attire was a vest of black silk with golden-gilt bees upon it.
The traditional way to ‘tell bees’ was for the head of the household to go to the hives, knock gently to gain their attention, then softly murmur the news. In case of deaths the beekeeper wrapped the top of the hive with a piece of black fabric or crepe. New babies were introduced as were newly-wed couples. For a wedding, the hives were decorated with flowers and pieces of cake were left so that the bees could partake in the festivities. Also, it was considered terribly bad manners to argue in the presence of bees as they find it upsetting.
Losing a beehive is far worse than losing a supply of honey as the long-term consequences are life threatening. The ancient act of ‘telling the bees’ emphasizes the deep connection humans share with this small insect... we must treat them as though our lives depend upon them, for indeed they do.
Photo: A lovely display of honey in London… the colors are spectacular!