“A Bedfordshire woman was telling me the other day,” says a writer in a Northern daily paper, “how her son had been stung all over by bees. ‘And no wonder,’ she said, ‘he never told them he was going to put them in a new ‘ome, and everybody knows that before you goes to put bees in a new ‘ome, you must knock three times on the top of the ‘ive and tell ’em, same as you must tell ’em when anyone dies in the ‘ouse. Ef you don’t, they’ll be spiteful, for bees is understanding creatures, an’ knows what you say to them.”
Yes, in secluded villages, among old people, the bee superstition still exists, but the modern apiarist will have none of it. To him it is a bit of poetry from out of the past. And it has some poetry in it; in fact it is one of the most picturesque of all rural superstitions, and some of them are neither picturesque nor decent. Whittier’s “Telling the Bees” is so good a description of the idea that it is worth quoting in part:–
“Just the same as a month before,
— The house and the trees,
The barn’s brown gable, the vine by the door,–
Nothing changed but the hives of bees.
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!'”
Brand does not mention “telling the bees,” nor does Sir Henry Ellis, but the latter has some notes which apparently go further back than the origin of the “telling.” 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 ancient 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.”
-The Origins of Popular Superstitions and Customs, T. Sharper Knowlson-
Read more about bees in folklore here: http://hubpages.com/education/Celtic-Lore-of-the-Honey-Bee