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Telling Bees Your News Ensured Sweet Honey

Telling Bees about a death in the household ensured the uninterrupted flow of sweet honey. The apian news cycle could also include marriages, journeys, births and other significant events. How people delivered news varied, but most agreed that cutting bees out of the loop could result in ill fortune.

Some people view Telling Bees as a superstitious remnant of times past, and yet the custom persists. In 2022, the Royal Beekeeper at Buckingham Palace performed the sacred ritual. He draped the hives under his care with black sashes, knocked gently on each then quietly announced the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

In an interesting twist, researchers armed with specialized microphones have learned that while some humans still deliver news to their hives, bees have been Telling Humans alarming news of their own.

Following are seven things to know about Telling Bees, plus a note about Bees Telling Humans  about the health of our environment.

#1—We Owe Bees Respect And Gratitude

Humans have harvested honey, royal jelly, pollen, propolis, beeswax, and venom for thousands of years.

According to The Clemson Apiculture and Pollinator Program, medicinal properties of honey have also made it essential to spiritual ceremonies in cultures worldwide and for healing a range of illnesses including multiple sclerosis and arthritis.

“…and honey bees themselves are used as healing agents treating human ailments through Apitherapy. Honey bees even have been used as tools of war, deployed to attack the enemy, thwarting invasions and defending ancient cities.” (Clemson)

Some crops including cherries, almonds and blueberries rely almost entirely on honey bee pollination. By pollinating a wide array of crops, honey bees  diversify the human diet. They also contribute to livestock production by pollinating alfalfa and clover.

As a keystone species, bees are essential to human survival. According to Statista, the global market for honey alone reached just over 8 billion U.S. dollars in 2020. (Statista)

Even more significant, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations writes that, a third of the world’s food production depends on bees. While there are many other pollinators, bees perform an estimated eighty percent of the heavy lifting. (FAO)

NOTE: PETA and other animal rights organizations do not condone inhumane practices of some commercial producers of honey.

#2-Who Delivers News And How They Do It Varies

Although bees have been vital to humans for thousands of years, the custom of Telling Bees was most commonly practiced in Europe and America through the 1800s and early 1900s.

How news was delivered varied widely. The messenger could be male or female, wife or son. They could be dressed formally or not, whisper quietly or sing. They could speak in rhyme or conversationally.

In his 1901 book. New England Legends and Folk Lore Drake, Samuel Adams writes:

“The old way of doing this is was for the goodwife of the house to go and hang the stand of hives with black, the usual symbol of mourning, she at the same time softly humming some doleful tune to herself. Another way was for the master to approach the hives and rap gently upon them. When the bees’ attention was thus secured, he would say in a low voice that such or such a person—mentioning the name—was dead.”

#3–Bees Were Kept In The Loop, Or Else!

There was a price to pay by those who avoided Telling Bees significant news.

In his 1900 publication of Shakespeare’s Greenwood: The Customs of the Country, George Morley writes:

Thus the business of ‘telling bees’ of any important event happening in the homestead is never forgotten, or dreamt of being omitted. The bees must be told of a birth, marriage, departure, return, or death of any member of the keeper’s family, and then all goes well; but let this ceremony be once omitted (either from forgetfulness, neglect or design), then a penalty in some form or other will have to be paid. Such is the steadfast faith of the Warwickshire rustics, who, to avoid the penalty, tell their bees everything.

The price paid for not Telling Bees varied. Hives could swarm away to a new location. They could produce less honey or inferior honey. In some cases, entire hives were reported to die off. And then there was retaliation as reported in “The Provinces.” Northern Star [1838], 29 Sept. 1849.

“At all weddings and funerals they give a piece of the wedding-cake or funeral biscuit to the bees, informing them at the same time of the name of the party married or dead. If the bees do not know of the former, they become very irate, and sting every body within their reach; and if they are ignorant of the latter they become sick, and many of them die.”

#4–Margaret Warner Morley Offered Anecdotes Of The Price To Pay 

Margaret Warner Morley, (Feb. 17, 1858 – Dec. 12, 1923), was an American biologist, educator, and author of many works on nature and biology.  In her book The Honey Makers (1899), she outlines a detailed guide to honeybees from anatomy and social habits to history and literature.

In her chapter that deals with Telling Bees, Morley writes about a case in Norfolk where a man purchased a beehive whose owner had recently passed away. Because the bees had not been properly told the news and placed into mourning, they fell sick. But the new owner draped the hive in black cloth, restoring the bees to health.

In an anecdote from Oxfordshire, a bee keeper died. Because no one followed the practice of Telling Bees, all the bees in his seventeen hives also died.

#5–John Greenleaf Whittier Wrote About The Fading Tradition in 1858

New England Quaker writer John Greenleaf Whittier published his poem “Telling Bees” in 1858 in the Atlantic. Colleen English writes for JSTOR, which uses research from its academic journal database to provide context for current events, that in the introduction Whittier noted the ritual “formerly prevailed” and that it was brought to America from “the Old Country.” Clearly, the tradition was already starting to fade. Nevertheless, the poem was a success.

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!

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!”

(Link to Full Poem, Telling Bees)

#6–The Tradition Was Honored For Queen Elizabeth II

Telling Bees has been part of rural British folklore for centuries. Most recently Palace Beekeeper, John Chapple, travelled to Clarence House and Buckingham Palace to deliver the news to the royal bee hives.

According to the royal website:

Buckingham Palace is home to four beehives, which live on the island in the middle of the lake, in the centre of the Garden while Clarence House is home to two beehives, which live in the Garden. The bees that call Buckingham Palace and Clarence House home forage on a wealth of nectar plants that grow on the island and in the gardens.

Chapple draped black sashes and rapped gently on the hives, Telling Bees in each of the Queen’s death. He also promised in hushed tones that their new master, King Charles III will treat them well.

#7–Bees Link Us To The Afterlife Like Monarch Butterflies

Monarch butterflies are viewed as souls returning to the fir forests of central Mexico every year on Dia de los Muertos. Similarly, world cultures including the Yucatec Maya worshiped bees as the embodied souls of the dead and winged couriers to the otherworld.

Rupert Taylor writes in Owlcation”

The ancient Celts believed that bees formed a connection between the spirit realm and the human world. Supposedly, information could be given to bees and they would pass it on to the dearly departed.” (Owlcation)

Bees Are Telling Humans A Few Things About The Environment

It’s no secret that bees are critical to our life on this planet thus deserving of our respect, gratitude and understanding. While we have been Telling Bees our news for centuries, hopefully we will listen to their collective buzz and respond accordingly.

A University of Montana research team has developed a system to help us understand the collective buzzing of bees in their hives. The resulting intel can provide a kind of biological alert system to tell bee keepers when hives are in danger from exposure to disease or toxins.

 According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Bee Alert Technology is aimed at helping plant production and protection by providing a means of rapid, autonomous reporting of pesticide incidents impacting honey bee colonies. The company developed an electronic device to monitor bee colonies for exposure to pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids. Those are a class of synthetic, neurotoxic insecticides used on agricultural crops, lawns, gardens, golf courses, and in flea and tick pet treatments. 

Based on analysis of more than 3900 digital audio recordings, it turns out that bees buzz differently when exposed to various poisonous chemicals.  According to Research Professor Jerry Bromenshenk, bees respond within 30 seconds or less to the presence of a toxic chemical.

Bees also make specific sounds when exposed to various common bee maladies including Varroa Mite and American Foulbrood. Bee keepers have known for centuries that hives make specific sounds when the queen is removed. With sensitive microphones and computerized equipment from Bee Technology we now know that bees have a more sophisticated vocabulary than previously known.

Bee Technology also developed Bee Health Guru, an app to help beekeepers maintain healthy hives.  The app utilizes hive sounds for the phone’s artificial intelligence database.

While beekeepers from novice to expert continue Telling Bees their news, they are also using this app to hear what the bees are Telling Humans.

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