Telling the Bees

There’s one insect that humans, since ancient times, have entrusted with death.
art
The Beekeepers and the Birdnester. Pen and ink drawing by Pieter Bruegel, c. 1568.Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

Early last fall, in the days after Queen Elizabeth died, a story emerged in the British press about the Royal Beekeeper, a 79-year-old man named John Chapple, performing a peculiar ritual in the Buckingham Palace Gardens. Chapple, according to the report, donned his white beekeeping suit and crossed to the small island in the garden lake, where he tended five beehives on behalf of the royal family. Over the top of each hive he draped a black sash. Then he gave a gentle rap on each hive’s side, as though calling the residents’ attention, and told the bees of the Queen’s death.

“Telling the bees,” as this ceremony is known, calls for a beekeeper to notify his hives of a death in the family. According to tradition, bees that are “put into mourning” help shepherd the dead into the afterlife, as well as reward their stewards with a generous honey harvest. Bees who are not properly informed, on the other hand, are said to cease producing honey, or abscond the hive, or even undergo a collective death. 

“The mistress has died,“ Chapple whispered to the bees, “but don’t you go. Your master will be a good master to you.”

*

I began contemplating our relationship to bees after an encounter some years ago with a beekeeper in Greece. I was on a research trip for a project about caves and had been hopscotching through the islands, exploring caverns where the Greeks performed religious rituals in antiquity. My central question regarded a belief, often referenced by ancient writers, which held that caves were portals to Hades—places where, by climbing through a hole in the ground, one could commune with the spirits of the dead. Each time I visited a sacred cave, I found myself increasingly taken with the idea of a natural world that held such points of mystery, where, if one looked carefully enough, any landscape could become an instrument of transcendence.

While visiting one such cave with an archaeologist in Crete, I came across a peculiar story. According to a rusted-over placard by the entrance, the cave—a religious sanctuary going back to 2000 BC—had once housed a colony of sacred bees. The bees, which were said to have nourished the gods with enchanted honey, gave rise to a kind of cult, where people venerated the insects as they might a deity. When I expressed my bewilderment over the sacred bee cult to the archaeologist, she said the subject was beyond her ken, but that if my curiosity persisted, I might visit a man who ran an apiary in Thessaloniki. 

I found Andreas on the outskirts of the city, in a sun-drenched building encircled by row upon row of beehives. A wiry, bespectacled man in his sixties, he greeted me in his office, where jars of honey on the windowsill cast a glow over stacks of apiculture research journals. The apiary, I understood, was a university research facility, but had become a hub for the local community, encompassing an apiculture lab, a school for local beekeepers, and an apitherapy clinic, where Andreas treated patients with medicinal bee venom. The apiary’s neighbors regarded Andreas as a kind of honeybee mystice, and, indeed, there was something monk-like about him: a gentleness in his voice, an almost beatific stillness in his eyes. When I began to explain my visit to the Diktaean Cave and the strange story of the sacred bees, Andreas smiled. 

“They convert sunlight into honey,” he said. “Is this not sacred enough?”

Out among the hives, we waded through the high feathery grass, bees tracing lazy spirals over our heads. Andreas said he began each new beekeeping class by asking the students what they wanted from the course. If anyone said they wanted to sell honey, he dismissed them. “First,” he told me, “they must learn to love bees.” 

“They convert sunlight into honey,” he said. “Is this not sacred enough?”

Andreas had inherited his sensitivity to bees from his grandfather, with whom he’d tended hives as a boy in Cyprus. Even before he was aware of it, his grandfather had instilled in him a sense that bees were honorable, that they possessed a power that had been known since the days of the old gods. Zeus was said to have been raised by bees and was sometimes called Melissaios, or “bee man.” Bees had fed nectar to Dionysus and bestowed upon Apollo the gift of prophecy. Especially aligned with bees was Demeter, goddess of the harvest, who went everywhere with an entourage of priestesses known as the Melissae, the “bee-maidens.”

Andreas removed the cover of a hive, lifting a wooden frame shimmering with a mass of tiny furry, iridescent winged bodies. He wore no protective suit, allowed the bees to crawl over his bare hands, and spoke to them in buzz-like susurrations. He introduced me to the slender giantess of a queen, to the nurse bees who cared for larvae, the guard bees who protected the hive entrance, the undertaker bees who cleared out the carcasses of fallen comrades. Then he pointed to a field bee, who flew far and wide on foraging missions, then returned to the hive with pollen in her leg baskets. This forager was moving in an odd, frenzied pattern: whirling in circles, vibrating her black-and-gold-striped abdomen. She was performing what is known as the “waggle dance,” which a field bee uses to communicate the location of a rich pollen source to the rest of the colony. The choreography of the dance, researchers have determined, belies a symbolic language, where the angle of the bee’s rotations indicate the direction of the flower patch, and the frequency of her waggles convey the distance.

When the first descriptions of the waggle dance were published in the 1920s, they stirred the curiosity of a small band of classicists who specialized in an enigmatic cult of Demeter and her daughter Persephone. The cult revolved around a secretive initiation ritual—performed for almost a thousand years, beginning around the seventh century BC—known as The Mysteries. Each year, the followers of Demeter—a flock of thousands, larger than almost any other Greek cult—would follow the priestesses, the Melissae, to a hidden place in the wilderness, where they would perform the rites. Upon completing the ceremony, initiates took an oath of silence, vowing never to speak of the ceremony to outsiders. Two thousand years later, the oath—reportedly enforced under threat of death—had left classicists almost completely in the dark. They had ascertained, in a bare-bones way, that the ritual simulated the story of Persephone, her descent into Hades and subsequent return to the living, such that initiates were guided through their own death and resurrection. Beyond that, though, they had only a scatter of cryptic fragments. It was in one of those fragments that scholars found this detail: as Demeter’s “bee-maidens” guided the initiates into the otherworld, they performed a dance. It was described as a sequence of frenzied whirls, with much flitting of arms and shaking of hips. 

Alongside Andreas, I peered down on the dancing bee, now encircled by other foragers, evidently gleaning from her movements the coordinates of a fresh pollen source. To the disciples of Demeter, I marveled, this choreography of tiny waggles was a dance of transcendence, a code to enter the land of the dead. 

*

When John Chapple informed the bees of the Queen’s death in the Palace Gardens, he was acting on a belief that runs deep and wide through human history. Bees and their honey, wrote the English scholar Hilda G. Ransome in her 1937 book The Sacred Bee, “belong to the earliest cults, those of the spirits of the dead.” An 8,000-year-old painting of men gathering honey in a cave in Spain has been taken as evidence of honey’s early use as a religious offering. The ancient Egyptians employed beeswax and honey in mummification rites and likened the hum of bees to the voices of spirits in the underworld. The Yucatec Maya, too, worshiped bees as the embodied souls of the dead, as did the Celts, and the people of Timor, who honored them in funerals for fallen warriors. In cultures all over the world, bees were regarded as the winged couriers to the otherworld—to send a message to the dead, one told the bees.

The first mention of “telling the bees,” as performed by Chapple, appears in England in the sixteenth century and was subsequently practiced for centuries throughout the western world. According to a characteristic account from 1840, following the death of a man in Lincolnshire, a neighbor asked his widow, “Have the bees been told?” The reply being in the negative, the neighbor rushed out to the hives, gave a knock on each one, and delivered this formula:

Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say!

Your Master has passed away.

But his wife now begs you will freely stay,

And still gather honey for many a day.

Bonny bees, bonny bees, hear what I say!

The ceremony varied from one community to the next, each following its own distinct protocol. Some demanded that a black ribbon be draped over the hive, others that the bees be addressed with a jingle of the household keys. The British beekeeper and clergyman Charles Fitzgerald Gambier Jenyns, in his 1886 A Book About Bees, stipulated that news of a death be delivered to the bees at midnight; a Worcestershire woman, meanwhile, only approached the family bees after donning formal dress, including gloves. The French would bury a piece of the deceased’s clothing in front of the hive and serve the bees cake from the funeral. According to Tammy Horn’s Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation, communities in New England insisted that news of a death be sung to the bees in rhyming verse. In some communities, “telling the bees” was accompanied by a ceremony called “ricking”: as the body of the deceased was carried from the family home, the eldest son would turn all of the hives so the entrances faced the procession, as though allowing the bees to accompany the dead.

All communities, though, understood the consequences of betraying our bond with bees. People whispered of families who withheld news from the hive only to find that their bees had swarmed and stung the children. In a case recorded by Ransome, a Sussex woman who lost her baby believed it was retribution for failing to communicate with the family bees. Those who did confide in their hives, on the other hand, were uncannily rewarded. One such story appears in a 1956 newspaper report on the death of a Massachusetts man, John Zepka, “who raised, worked with and loved bees and was widely known as a man who ‘had a way with them.’” At Zepka’s funeral, according to the report, as the cortege reached the grave, the mourners found swarms of bees clustering on the ceiling of the tent and “clinging to the profuse floral sprays.” The bees “made no attempt to annoy the mourners, just remained almost immobile.” Those who witnessed the spectacle understood that Zepka’s bees had taken “their own way of paying a final tribute.”

In cultures all over the world, bees were regarded as the winged couriers to the otherworld—to send a message to the dead, one told the bees.

Today, our mortal bond with bees has taken on a new urgency, as global honeybee populations are in the throes of collapse. Biologists record honeybees poisoned by toxic pesticides and air pollution, ravaged by drought and habitat loss. Beekeepers report hives mysteriously abandoned overnight, as though their bees have been taken in rapture. Almost all of the food we grow depends on pollination by honeybees—according to one estimate, 70 of the 100 crops that feed 90% of the world are pollinated by bees—which is to say, our fate is tied to that of the bee. If they go, we will follow.

In 2018, at a protest in Paris against the use of industrial pesticides, a group of beekeepers gathered at Les Invalides to host a mock funeral. Donning white beekeeping suits and veiled hats, they stood with heads bowed over beehives that had been fashioned as gravestones, mourning the downfall of bees as well as our own. 

*

When my wife and I moved from Brooklyn to a small town on the coast of Maine, I began keeping bees in our backyard. I set up the hive on a pile of wooden pallets in a corner of our garden overlooking Penobscot Bay. I bought the bees—a queen and 15,000 workers—from a local beekeeper named Marjorie, who tends some 20 hives in the hills outside of town. The first few times I opened my hive—during the warm months, a beekeeper is meant to perform a weekly inspection—the sight of so many seething bodies intimidated me, an unease which the bees seemed to sense. When I kept the hive open for too long, or I fumbled with a frame, the colony would let loose an infuriated high-pitched whine.

Over time, though, I grew more comfortable with my bees, or they with me. Marjorie took me on as a kind of mentee, teaching me how to listen to my hive, to identify the plaintive wail of a hive that has lost their queen, to recognize the restlessness of a colony preparing to swarm and leave. Each time I opened my hive, I’d linger just a little longer over the queen. I’d follow the work of the undertakers as they cleared out the colony’s dead and watch my field bees perform the waggle dance. I’d spend whole afternoons at the side of the hive, watching foragers return from flower patches, leg baskets stuffed with morsels of pollen: orange, red and yellow, as bright as gemstones.

“Bees don’t have ears,” Marjorie told me one afternoon. “But I talk to mine constantly.” She’d kept her first hive years ago when she was living on the island of Monhegan, a small crag of rock 11 miles off the Maine coast. Life on the island was quiet—only a few dozen residents live there year-round—and as she spent time with the hive, Marjorie found herself talking to the bees, telling them stories, then watching for their responses, as she slowly learned their hidden rhythms.

*

The morning after John Chapple told the bees in the Palace Gardens, I was reading over breakfast when my mother called to tell me my grandmother had died. The call was not a surprise. Carol—she forbade grandmotherly pet names, which she found mawkish—was 94 years old. She had been slipping away for years. I’d watched her move into a nursing home, then drift through a sequence of care facilities, each seemingly more removed from the world than the last, as though she were moving through chambers in a cave. 

On our last visit, my wife and I spent part of an afternoon in Carol’s room, which overlooked the Seekonk River in Providence. She flickered in and out of clarity. One moment, she recollected a distant Christmas Eve when we threw carrots on the roof to feed the reindeer. The next, she asked about the war, if I had news from the front. Her eyesight was nearly gone, she told us, but she could still hear, and in the evenings she liked to sing to herself. In our last moments together, she turned to the window and told us she was looking forward to summer, when she could finally go swimming in the river. 

It was late afternoon when I made my way down to the back of the garden, where the bay was just visible between the maple trees. I pulled up a chair next to the hive and watched the bustle at the entrance: the miniature opera of quivering abdomens, twitching antennae, flitting wings. I gave a gentle knock on the side of the hive, which elicited a spasm of buzzing from within, and I told my bees about the death in the family. I asked them to stay here with the hive and reassured them that life would go on. ♦

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