June 14, 2015

Telling the Bees: An Old Funerary Ritual

I always associate this time of years with bees. Maybe it's because they appear in such large numbers at this time of year, or maybe it's because honey tastes like liquid sunshine. When I was a child I was afraid of being stung, but now that I'm older I'm happy to see the bees going about their work.

The other day I was standing near some window boxes that had lots of lavender growing in them. Swarms of bees were flying around and crawling through the lavender. The ground was covered in pollen they had knocked down. The bees were as busy as bees!

The Native Americans did not keep bees, but the English settlers brought honeybees with them when they came to New England. They were an important part of farm life and in some ways were treated almost as partners in the agricultural endeavor. Unlike other farm animals, the bees worked independently and asked for almost nothing in return.

I think that it's because of this that people in New England used to practice an interesting ritual called "telling the bees." When someone on a farm died, their surviving relatives would be sure to inform the bees that this person had passed away. Otherwise, it was thought that the bees would stop working or possibly even abandon their hive.

Image from Fast Company magazine.

The poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote about this practice in his 1858 poem "Telling the Bees." After a month away, a man comes to visit the farm where his beloved Mary lives. As he approaches he notices the following:

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!

The narrator at first thinks that Mary's elderly grandfather has died, but...

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!"

(I'm going to pause a moment because I have something in my eye. I shouldn't write about sad topics when I'm tired!)

The tradition of telling the bees came to New England from old England, where it was a common practice. I don't think anyone still does it now, but the ritual was remembered here until the early 20th century. For example, some of the people interviewed for Eva Speare's New Hampshire Folk Tales (1932) claimed their grandparents would tell the bees about deaths in the family.

It was generally believed that if a member of the family died where bees were kept that some other member of the family must go out to the hives and explain the matter to the bees or they were likely to leave the hives and not return. Something black must also be hung upon the hives...

A man who owned several swarms of bees died; the bees ceased working. One of the family went out and told them their master was dead, and read a chapter of the Bible.

The bees went to work.

If at all seems rather gloomy, you'll be happy to know there was a parallel but less common practice of telling the bees when someone got married. In the 1893 April/June issue of The Journal of American Folklore, Pamela MacArthur Cole of East Bridgewater, Massachusetts notes the following:

The little workers were to be informed of the event, and receive a bit of wedding-cake. As members of the family they were entitled to such attentions, and were supposed to resent the neglect of them. 
I started writing about funerals and ended writing about weddings. It sounds like a good way to start the week!

1 comment:

Tamara Harbar said...

I really enjoyed reading about this old tradition of telling the bees about special family events. Nice sources and really enjoyed the writing, too. Thanks! :-)