Telling the Bees
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The telling of the bees is a traditional English custom, in which bees would be told of important events in their keeper’s lives, such as births, marriages, or departures and returns in the household. The bees were most commonly told of deaths in their master’s family. The custom was prevalent all over England, as well as in a few places in Ireland and Wales but not in Scotland. If the custom was omitted or forgotten then it was believed a penalty would be paid, that the bees might leave their hive, stop producing honey, or die. A 1950 article in the Dundee Courier Scotland, describes the practice of inviting bees to the wedding.
To inform the bees of a death their hive might be hung with a black cloth, while a “doleful tune” is sung. Another method of “telling the bees” would be for their master to approach the hive and knock gently upon it. The house key might also be used to knock on the hive. When the master of the house had the attention of the bees they would tell the bees the name of the person that had died.
Food and drink from a beekeeper’s funeral would also be left by the hive for the bees, including the funeral biscuits and wine. The hive would also be lifted a few inches and put down again at the same time as the coffin. The hive might also be rotated to face the funeral procession, and draped with mourning cloth. If a wedding occurred in the household, the hive might be decorated, and a slice of wedding cake left by their hive. The decoration of hives appears to date to the early 19th century.
The custom spread with European immigration to the United States in the 19th century. An 1890 article in The Courier-Journal newspaper also described the practice of inviting bees to the funeral.