"The mistress is dead, but don’t you go..."
September 11, 2023 5:30 PM   Subscribe

"Telling the bees is a European tradition in which bees are told of important events, including deaths, births, marriages and departures and returns in the keeper's household. If the custom was omitted or forgotten and the bees were not "put into mourning" then it was believed a penalty would be paid, such as the bees leaving their hive, stopping the production of honey or dying." The most high profile recent practice of this was last year at about this time but it's also historically been the subject of poetry and paintings. More about John Chapple, who was the royal beekeeper until retiring in May. [via]
posted by jessamyn (21 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, so that explains the title of the last Outlander book: Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone - apparently an Appalachian tradition also.
posted by fFish at 5:40 PM on September 11 [4 favorites]

I had a couple of hives. Named the queens after my grandmothers and great grandmothers. They were wonderful ladies - it got to where I could open the hives without any protective gear, they knew me so well; and once I accidentally took a bee in with a mouth of tea - I hadn’t seen her there! and she buzzed in my mouth but never stung me.

I was only stung once. I had to sell my hives - forced to move to a place I could not take them to. The gentleman came out to inspect the hives, handed me cash, and drove away, waiting to come back later in the day to collect them.

As I was walking back to the house, 40 feet or so from the hives, I heard a madly flying bee come up from behind — and she stung me, right on the nape of my neck, where I could not get to it. Only time I was ever stung. They KNEW.

Always tell the bees.
posted by Silvery Fish at 5:42 PM on September 11 [23 favorites]

I JUST came across this a few days ago:

Ten things that the bees also like to know (a post from one of my all-time favorite things on the internet: Listing to Port, created by MeFite gnimmel - FPP The hats of your mortal enemies, turned inside-out and used as flowerpots ; Projects post )

I love watching bees and listening to bees, but I don't think enough about telling them things. I should definitely tell things to the bees.

Thank you for this lovely post, jessamyn!
posted by kristi at 6:06 PM on September 11 [7 favorites]

Tell the Bees...
Belief, Knowledge and Hypersymbolic Cognition

posted by lalochezia at 6:11 PM on September 11 [5 favorites]

There’s a folklore zine Tell the Bees
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:13 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]

Also, this custom is the origin of the Bee Bee See, which was originally staffed with bees. Strange, but true!*

* For values of “true” including “false.”
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:15 PM on September 11 [8 favorites]

In the BBC drama Lark Rise to Candleford, there is a scene in which Queenie, portrayed by Linda Bassett, has to go out and tell the bees of a [presumed] death.
posted by apartment dweller at 6:38 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]

Just picturing the bees afterwards like "ridiculous! as if we gave a shit if their queen died! fucking humans amirite"
posted by potrzebie at 7:42 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]

I bet the bees are like “hmm that large flightless bee is telling us that another large flightless bee queen is dead? What am I supposed to do with this information bzzzzzzz”

And then an older bee says “bzzzzzzzzlol the large bees think if they don’t tell us, we’ll uhhh, kill them or something? That’s what I heard bzzzzzz”

“Yeah those large bees are weird, they can’t even fly!”

Bzzzzz bzzzz bzz bzzz 🐝
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:40 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]

Also in my headcanon “bzz bzzzz” is the bee-equivalent of this : ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:43 PM on September 11 [2 favorites]

This tradition has to have its origin in a nosey neighbour who lived or hung out within earshot of some hives unnoticed. "Yes, mr bee keeper neighbour of mine, it is imperative that you profess all your deepest secrets and developments loudly near the hives, for the bees you see. I am off now, but please, loudly with all the secrets, yes?" and then goes and hides behind a haystack or something, ears peeled.
posted by Dysk at 10:23 PM on September 11 [3 favorites]

Also New England: see the poem "Telling the bees" by John Greenleaf Whittier.
posted by Vegiemon at 10:51 PM on September 11

There is a lot of whimsy in this thread.
posted by Vegiemon at 11:06 PM on September 11 [1 favorite]

Myself, and two of the other Druids/Pagans in the rural Worcestershire grove I'm part of, do this.

It's a pretty pleasant activity, sitting in an orchard under the shade of an apple tree on a hot summer's day (or very recently, an unusually hot September day), just telling the family and local news to a nearby hive of bees. Whether the bees understand it, or whether they don't, or whether the bees are a conduit for a greater intelligence in a connected alternate universe who is processing this information, I don't know and it doesn't matter.

And anyway; I drink mead within and outside of ritual, so guess that's their payment in-kind.
posted by Wordshore at 3:21 AM on September 12 [8 favorites]

Telling the bees can be very therapeutic, but be careful you don’t engage in it too much, or you will tell the bees more and more until you have full-blown Bee Tell Mania….
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:38 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]

I periodically hear voices in white noise when I am in certain states of mind — mainly when one of my autoimmune issues is flaring.

I haven’t been around a beehive in a long time, but I am almost certain that the humming of a beehive would be an ideal medium to host such voices.

I daresay I might be able to hold a conversation with those voices, in fact.
posted by jamjam at 4:54 AM on September 12 [3 favorites]

I heard about this for the the first time a month ago in episode 71 of the "This Is Love" podcast called Telling the Bees:
"For a long time, beekeepers have told bees their news. They’ve told their bees about weddings, and when people they know have died. It’s said that if they don’t, the bees will leave their hives, or stop making honey, or die.

Sometimes, like after Queen Elizabeth II died, beekeepers draped hives in black ribbon. Sometimes they’d shift their hives slightly to the right. “This movement would signal to the bees that the universe had changed, ever so slightly.”"
Transcript available at the link as well.
posted by amf at 9:06 AM on September 12 [4 favorites]

The wonderful Ursula Vernon (writing as T. Kingfisher) has a fantastic very short story about this. (By very short, I mean five minutes to read.)
posted by Hactar at 9:07 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]

Now I always presumed the tradition was really for when the old beekeeper died and it would be someone the bees knew, even if they had been retired for awhile. The new beekeeper told the bees and it was essentially a ritual to emphasize to the keeper themself that from here on in, the welfare of the bees rested on their own shoulders.

Of course if you are the Royal Beekeeper, telling the bees is an oath of loyalty: "I will serve your new master as I served your old mistress: I will not let you die."

But for the cottager or farmer who keeps bees the transition is much more personal: "It is her tradition I take on, patience and easy stillness. I will walk among you unveiled and court the honor of your touch. When you touch me I will stand still so that you may know me. When the cells are uncapped I will not harvest, no matter my need for wax. For you I will plant the sweetest fields of flowers: clover and lavender, sage and sunflowers. At night when it rains I will think of you, and the scourge of mold in the hive. When the sun melts the frost on the grass, I will be glad for you, because your wings can know the feel of flight again. When your queen dies I will mourn the end of your era. When a new queen flies my heart will lift with her. Your children are my children now."

It's like when you are picking out the clothes and dressing a bereaved child: Okay, your mother's dead; I am not your mother but I am going to take on some serious alloparenting now. You may not say it out loud but you feel it in your body, like a vibration.

If you don't go and tell the bees the mistress is dead, how are you going to know if they were properly cared for during her final illness? Things get neglected when the household pauses in anticipation of a death. Everything hangs suspended. You better go check on the bees.
posted by Jane the Brown at 9:09 AM on September 12 [10 favorites]

Thank you, Jane the Brown.
posted by SPrintF at 10:14 AM on September 12 [2 favorites]

I am glad to see that the very odd and mystical Museum of Jurassic Technology in L.A.was cited for its section on "Tell the bees." That was the first place I heard of the practice of telling the bees. It seemed like a fitting place to learn of this custom.
posted by mermayd at 4:24 PM on September 12

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