Sunday, March 30, 2008

Beliefs that surround bees......

When I spoke to my Mom this week she mentioned that there is a belief that goes back a long LONG time...about speaking to bees. This is especially important when someone dies. Tradition says that when someone dies - especially a beekeeper, someone should go to the hives and tell the bees.

I hadn't heard about this, so I thought I would do some searching on the web and find out some more about this! Here is a little of what I found! I think the last piece is the most interesting!


In Molle's Living Libraries (1621) we read:--"Who would beleeve without superstition (if experience did not make it credible), that most commonly all the bees die in their hives, if the master or mistresse of the house chance to die, except the hives be presently removed into some other place? And yet I know this hath hapned to folke no way stained with superstition."

Here the bees are not to be told of a death in the house: they die themselves if the hives are not removed. In a later century they do not die, but the hives must be turned round.

I found the following in the "Argus," a London newspaper, Sept. 13, 1790; "A superstitious custom prevails at every funeral in Devonshire, of turning round the bee-hives that belonged to the deceased, if he had any, and that at the moment the corpse is carrying out of the house. At a funeral some time since, at Collumpton, of a rich old farmer, a laughable circumstance of this sort occurred: for, just as the corpse was placed in the hearse, and the horsemen, to a large number, were drawn up in order for the procession of the funeral, a person called out, 'Turn the bees,' when a servant who had no knowledge of such a custom, instead of turning the hives about, lifted them up, and then laid them down on their sides. The bees, thus hastily invaded, instantly attacked and fastened on the horses and their riders. It was in vain they galloped off, the bees as precipitately followed, and left their stings as marks of their indignation. A general confusion took place, attended with loss of hats, wigs, etc., and the corpse during the conflict was left unattended; nor was it till after a considerable time that the funeral attendants could be rallied, in order to proceed to the interment of their deceased friend."

If one must find a suitable source for all these varying ideas about bees and bee hives, it can only be in the mysteries surrounding the activities and habits of bees, now much better understood than they used to be; and in the manner in which signs of a religious nature were sought and found in daily phenomena. To the intelligence of the peasant a bee could not but provide marvels sufficient to win his respect, if not something more; for the bee worked industriously and cleverly on behalf of the peasant, and asked no wages. In other words, the peasant was a debtor to the bee, and his attitude was one of gratitude. Out of this feeling, no doubt, arose a sense of identity in interests--a fellow-feeling which prompted him to "tell the bees" of a death, and to turn the hive at a burial.

The religious element is seen in a letter, dated 1811, contributed to The Gentleman's Magazine. The writer says: "There is in this part of Yorkshire a custom which has been by the country-people more or less revived, ever since the alteration in the style and calendar: namely, the watching in the midnight of the new and old 'Xmas Eve by bee-hives, to determine upon the right 'Xmas from the humming noise which they suppose the bees will make when the birth of our Saviour took place. Disliking innovations, the utility of which they understand not, the oracle, they affirm, always prefers the most antient custom." This is a good instance of using bees as a means of divination, and when once a people start divining, a crowd of omens is sure to follow in their train.

The theory that when the bees in a farmer's hives die, he will soon be compelled to move from the farm, is easily accounted for by Mr Gibson. "A hive of bees rarely dies unless the season is so bad that it is disastrous to farming; consequently, where a farmer holds his farm on a yearly tenancy, it may follow that he will find it necessary to go elsewhere to build up his fortune."


Beliefs associated with bees go back to Hellenistic Greece and before where they were understood to be related to and a manifestation of the muse from which comes the bees alter identity of the muse's bird. And, the practice of telling of the bees of important events in the lives of the family has been for hundreds of years a widely observed practice and, although it varies somewhat among peoples, it is invariably a most elaborate ceremonial. The procedure is that as soon as a member of the family has breathed his or her last a younger member of the household, often a child, is told to visit the hives. and rattling a chain of small keys taps on the hive and whispers three times:

Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead.
Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead.
Little Brownies, little brownies, your mistress is dead.

A piece of funeral crepe is then tied to the hive and after a period of time funeral sweets are brought to the hives for the bees to feed upon. The bees are then invariably invited to the funeral and have on a number of recorded occasions seen fit to attend.

There are a great many other practices that are observed concerning bees. Among those that know them well, bees are understood to be quiet and sober beings that disapprove of lying, cheating and menstruous women. Bees do not thrive in a quarrelsome family, dislike bad language and should never be bought or sold for money. Bees should be given without compensation but if such compensation is essential, barter or trade is greatly preferable so that no money changes hands.


Who Will Tell the Bees? Telling the bees is a tradition dating back to
Medieval times, where a designated "beespeaker" visited the apiaries to
tell the bees about significant events in the lives of the community. It is
still thought by some apiarists that when a beekeeper dies someone must
inform the hives of her death and introduce them to their new keeper. It
has been observed that failure to report the beekeeper's death will cause
the bees to swarm.

As Canada becomes increasingly urbanized, it becomes more important to grow
food right in our cities. Since honeybees help pollinate food crops and
provide us with honey, the city of Vancouver made it legal for apiarists to
keep hives in their urban back yards. Currently, wild and domestic
populations of bees are in peril in North America and Europe.


There are many corollary practices associated with the telling of the bees, one of the most important being the "heaving up" of the hives. This practice requires that on the day of the funeral as the funeral party is preparing to leave the house the hive and coffin are both "heaved" or lifted at the same moment.
Coming a little nearer, Plato's doctrine of the transmigration of souls holds that the souls of sober quiet people, untinctured by philosophy come to life as bees. Later than Plato comes Mahomet, who admitted bees, as souls, to paradise; and Porphyry said of fountains; "They are adapted to the nymphs, or those souls which the Ancients call bees." There is a strange story told in My School and Schoolmasters which goes as follows:

A friend and I lay on a mossy bank on a hot day. Overcome by the heat my friend fell asleep. As I watching drowsily, I saw a bee issue from the mouth of my sleeping friend, jump down to the ground and crossed along withered grass stubs over a brook cascading over stones, and enter through an interstice into an old ruined building. Alarmed by what I saw, I hastily shook my comrade, who awakened a second or two after the bee, hurrying back had re-entered her mouth. My friend, the sleeper, protested at my waking her saying that she had dreamt that she had walked through a fine country and had come to the banks of a noble river, and just where the clear water went thundering down a precipice, there was a bridge all silver which she crossed and entered, a noble palace on the other side. she was about to help myself to gold and jewels when I woke her and robbed her of this fate."
There are similar histories from other places; in one the sleeping person was moved by a companion. A few moments later, a bee returned to the spot and scurried hither and thither in terror looking for the sleeping form, but failed to know it. When the sleeper was nudged in his new resting place, he was found to be dead.
This belief that the bee is a soul of one departed is undoubtedly the origin of the belief of "Telling the bees," for souls of the departed, are they not in communion with God?

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