The Folklore of Bees
It’s been known for a very long time that humans and bees have a symbiotic relationship, so it’s not to be wondered at that we have developed a rich mythology around these insects.
“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”
This is widely attributed to Albert Einstein but is more likely a rewording of a statement made by Charles Darwin in the Origin of the Species.
Telling the Bees
For centuries, beekeepers have known that any major event in the family must be communicated to the bees. The custom of “Telling the Bees” was seen as vitally important, especially in the case of a death.
If the beekeeper died the job of telling the colony was up to the surviving spouse or oldest son. Carrying the house key, she or he would knock on the hive three times and say something to the effect “Little bee, our lord is dead; Leave not while we are in distress.”
The bees had to be asked to stay even though their owner was gone, and would be told the name of the new master or mistress. Without this ritual, the insects would leave or go into mourning and die.
Marriages also had to be announced. The bride would go to the hive, tell the bees, and leave a piece of wedding cake for them. The birth of children was also often told to the bees.
The custom started in England and spread to America. It is referred to in Sue Monk Kidd’s wonderful 2003 novel The Secret Life of Bees.
A Poem for Bees
The 19th century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a semi-autobiographically verse about the death of a love. He wrote about draping black cloth over the beehives and ended with:
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!”
Quick Facts about Bee Mythology
- Bees are depicted in Paleolithic rock art in Spain dating back about 2.5 million years ago.
- Five thousand years ago, the honeybee was given the status of a royal symbol by the Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs.
- Deities from several religions are associated with bees, among them: Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love; Ra, the Egyptian Sun god; the Hindu god Vishnu; and, the Roman mother goddess, Cybele.
- 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.
- In Central Europe there was a custom in which brides-to-be walked their betrothed past a hive or nest. If he was stung it meant he would be unfaithful in the future and the marriage would fail.
- Folklorist Ceri Norman writes that “According to Irish and British folklore, you must never buy bees with normal money, only with gold coins, although, if possible, it is best to barter over them, so as not to offend them, or to receive them as a gift, so that no money changes hands at all.”
- Ms. Norman also notes that “Bees have long been associated with witches and witchcraft: one Lincolnshire witch was said to have a bumblebee as her familiar animal, another witch from Scotland allegedly poisoned a child in the form of a bee, and in Nova Scotia a male witch was accused of killing a cow by sending a white bumblebee to land on it.”
Bees and Omens
- Bees are often seen as good luck symbols. One landing on your hand means money is coming your way.
- A bee flying into a house means a visitor is coming with good news unless, that is, the bee is killed. In which case, the visitor brings only bad news.
- Bees swarm when an old queen leaves to start a new colony and she takes as much as 60 percent of the hive with her. Swarming is often considered a bad omen especially if the swarm lands on a dead or dying tree; there is likely to be a death in the family on whose land the tree stands.
- The earlier in the year that bees swarm the better because it gives them more time to collect pollen and nectar. Here’s a 17th century rhyme that tells the story, at least as far as the northern hemisphere is concerned:
A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon
A swarm of bees in July is not worth a fly.
- Bees have been thought to be able to predict the weather. If they stay close to their hive then storms are on the way.
- A child will live a long, healthy, and prosperous life if a bee buzzes over it while it sleeps. And, according to Greek folklore, if a bee touches a child’s lips it will grow up to be a great poet.
“Busy as a Bee.” You bet. A worker bee might travel as much as 16 km (10 miles) a day in search of nectar and pollen. A kilo of honey (2.2 pounds) may involve the collection of nectar from four million plants.
When a bee has collected a load of nectar and pollen it carries it back to the hive in sacks on its legs; hence, the expression “bee’s knees” to describe something of great value. It would be nice for the purpose of this article if that was true, but it likely isn’t. The origin of bee’s knees is obscure. It might be a corruption of business, or a reference to the American dancer who popularized the Charleston, Bee Jackson, or something else entirely.
Nobody wants a “bee in their bonnet” because of the fact that a confined bee is likely to sting, paradoxically, a bee on the head is thought to bring good fortune. The first citation for the phrase is the late 18th century and describes someone who is obsessed with something.
When a bee finds a good source of food it goes back to its hive and does a “waggle dance.” This communicates to the other insects where the nectar is and they fly directly to it, or, as the phrase goes, they “make a bee line” for it.
Dumbledore is an old English word for bumblebee. Author J.K. Rowling gave the headmaster of Hogwarts School the name Albus Dumbledore in her Harry Potter books. She did so because her character was always “wandering around the castle humming to himself” rather like a bee might.
Honeybees have an acute sense of smell and they are being trained to find unexploded landmines in Bosnia that are relics of the 1990s Balkan Wars.
There are about 20,000 known species of bee of which only a small number make honey.
By covering themselves with the pheromones of the queen people are able to attract swarms onto their bodies. In 1669, Michel Wiscionsky was elected King of Poland, to some extent because bees had settled on him.
“The safety of England depends on the number of cats she keeps ... Without the aid of bumble-bees the red clover could not be fertilized. Bumble-bees make their nests on the ground, where they are the prey of mice. Cats destroy the mice and give the bees a chance to live. Hence ... no cats, many mice; many mice, no bumble-bees; no bees, no clover; no clover, no cattle; no cattle, no beef; and without beef where would the Englishman be?”
Professor W. W. Cooke
- “Telling the Bees.” John Greenleaf Whittier, The Poetry Foundation.
- “The Folklore of ‘Telling the Bees.’ ” Great Lakes Bee Supply, May 25, 2017
- “Legends and Lore of Bees.” Patti Wigington, Learn Religions, November 25, 2017
- “The Bee in Folklore & Mythology.” Ceri Norman, Bumblebee Conservation Trust, 2014.
- The Phrase Finder.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor