Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bees: Funerals Interrupted and Death Superstitions


This entry is divided into two parts: the first being accounts of funerals disturbed by agitated bees and the second part about "telling the bees," a superstition observed in order to protect or preserve a hive following a death in its owner's household.

The Sun [NY] 19 Apr. 1894
 During an 1894 funeral people noticed a number of bees at the windows and along the walls of the church, finally making their way into the room where the service was taking place. The mourners' anxiety grew as they fanned away the bees, contemplating walking out of the service to avoid being stung. A pall bearer was stung on his neck and an undertaker "was attacked in a vicious manner." When the procession headed for the graveyard, the bees followed. Later they discovered a large quantity of honey in the church's rafters and walls, which explained the bees' presence.

In 1901, an Indiana child's graveside service turned into a scene of panic when the mourners were attacked by thousands of bees as the coffin or casket was lowered. Everyone left immediately, probably ending the service abruptly. The grave wasn't filled until that night when it was safe for someone to return to the graveyard. 

Margaret Culp's funeral in 1916 ran behind schedule when the farmers scheduled to dig the grave waited until the last minute and then disturbed two nests. It took two hours to clear the bees and both farmers were "stung severely."  

The Minneapolis Journal 6 July 1901

The Washington Herald 9 Aug. 1916













Looking for articles on bee-interrupted funerals I learned about an old but interesting superstition involving bees and their keepers, a practice referred to as "telling the bees." This folklore was practiced in America during the 19th century, but most likely had European roots.1 Its name is fairly self-explanatory: when a member of a beekeeping family dies, someone must inform the hive of the news. (Bees were also "told" of other significant events in the household-marriages, moving, etc.) The consequences of not observing the superstition were the deaths of all of the bees or the abandonment of the hive. Bees were a valuable commodity to those who tended them, so naturally people wanted to protect their hives. 

In addition to someone verbally informing the bees of the death, the hive was draped with a mourning crepe and funeral cake or wine left out for the bees to enjoy. In some villages a handwritten "invitation" to the funeral was pinned to the hive as well. Another practice associated with telling the bees was to lift and turn the hive at the same time that the coffin was lifted to be removed from the house.2    

The Bemidji Daily Pioneer 8 Nov. 1912
Arizona Republican 21 Nov. 1907

















         
Danville Bee 4 June 1956






1 Horn, Tammy. Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation.
2 Radford, E. and M. Radford. Encyclopedia of Superstitions 1949.

5 comments:

  1. Fascinating Piece. At a recent Association of Natural Burial Grounds Meeting we discussed the pros and cons of having Bee Hives in Natural Burial Grounds to help with the UK bee problem. We sought advice from various bee bods and decided against it.

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  2. I live in england and I remember my father, who came from rural Buckinghamshire, telling me that bees had to be told of any momentous occasion in the household of the keeper, from celebrations, births and weddings to illness and deaths in the family. If the bees were not told, they might leave their hives or die. I have never heard of their connection with graveyards, though, so thankyou for this extra piece of the puzzle.

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  3. I had bees at my old home in Minnesota - they never stung me and I worked amongst them - talking to them and caring for the flowers and plants along the house's foundation where they lived. Had I known this - I would have told them I was leaving. But perhaps they sensed it. I hope, as that yard was chock a block full of flowers, and wonderful plants to share them with - I never cut any flowers if rarely - as I preferred the bees get the benefit of their beauty. In the spring I hope my son can check where they are - as they do emerge sooner than their northern European counterparts that are boldly colored yellow and black and so fuzzy ... in comparison to these amber colored beauties ... I am hoping he can tell them that I am ok, and not to worry ... and I will be glad to see they are fine, in retrospect.

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  4. Although, it is not possible to forget the sorrow of the death of a family member, but you will have to get over with the emotions and perform the last rites, and collect the part of ashes from the funeral ground in a cremation urn, and keep it safety at a sacred place.

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