Although most contemporary society no longer cares, among those who perceive the ongoing numinosity of existence, bees are considered sacred creatures. Acting as intermediaries between the Gods and this world, their divine status is noted throughout the ages, from Ancient Aryan/Indian stories where Krishna is described as having a bee on his forehead, to the Greek legend of Zeus turning his nursemaid Melissa into a bee, to the Norse stories of honey-mead offered in Valhalla. The Finnish Kalavala mentions bees, the ancient Paleolithic art of Spain includes bees, our European Christians look forward to a heaven of milk and honey as just as our ancient Celtic ancestors looked forward to an otherworld filled with rivers of honey. The Ancient Egyptian pharaohs, starting with Menes of the first dynasty, were given, among others, the title “Beekeepers”. There even exists speculation today that the sacred Irminsul of the Germanic tribes was, in fact, a pillar-shaped form of a beehive, designed to attract and house the sacred bee.
Until white gold (as cane sugar was called) began its inroads into European culture (the 1600s) there was little else to sweeten anything with. The inevitable decline of honey use in favor of easily storable mild-flavored sugar meant that bees and beekeeping began to decline as well. And with that decline, ebbed the divine role of bees in everyday life.
Still, though, in England in particular, but also in Ireland, Wales, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, France, and even the Colonial Eastern United States, the veneration of bees did not completely die out with the decrease of honey use. Country villages and farmer families remained steadfast in their beekeeping traditions, holding on to them so long that these traditions were recorded in newspapers as late as 1952 when it was noted that British beekeepers went with scarves on their heads to dutifully tell their bees that their king, King Edward the sixth, had died.
Telling the bees is as simple as it is important: when a death occurs, a person must approach the closest hive and quietly let the bees know. Local traditions vary, but often a hive will be draped with a black cloth, and a piece of funeral food will be placed at the opening of the hive. Some people knock, or tap the hive with a house key or a set of keys before they tell the bees; others send either the spouse or the youngest in the family to do the telling. Should it be the actual beekeeper who dies, the hives will often be turned, so that they do not see the sorrows. Some bees were invited to attend funerals; others were given information regarding the funeral by a note pinned to the hive. Once a burial (or cremation) takes place, the cloth is removed, the hive returned to old.
Telling the bees is a practice that is as old as it is widespread. Harking back to a time when people knew bees as ‘The Little Servants of God’ and ‘The Small Messengers of God’, it is said that informing the bees is a task of utmost importance. If the bees are not told of important events around them, the colony will die or they will swarm and fly away.
With the colony collapses of today’s honey bees, it’s not too hard a stretch to see that this is not exactly an old beekeeper’s wife’s tale: perhaps it is time we all return to the old ways. Speaking from personal experience, it is a transcendent occurrence for the individual to partake in this ancient ritual. More importantly, when we re-start telling the bees, we will ultimately save ourselves as well as them.