Having always been a gardener, the idea of communicating with plants seemed pretty normal. It’s hard to imagine how could anyone bypass a newly-opened iris or rose and not stand there saying out loud “beautiful.” So the notion of speaking to plants seems normal. But recently, I checked out a site for speaking to bees. Yep, bees. And oddly enough, artists recorded the act of bee communication.
In a time when many average folk kept bees, having a skep outside was considered normal, their “keepers” would be familiar with their humming sounds and sweet-scented honey. But telling them secrets? Well, that was a new one.
We’ve all swatted mosquitoes, flies and gnats, and some people swat hornets and other stinging insects, only to be sorry for it later. But bees? Logging onto a site called “Amusing Planet,” a writer named Kaushik in April posted a story about talking to bees.
Three photos of paintings/illustrations were included.: “The Bee Friend,” by Hans Thomas, “Telling the Bees,” by Albert Fitch Bellows,” and “A Widow and Son Telling Bees of the Death in the Family.” All showed someone telling the family’s bees about a death in their keeper’s life.
During the Victorian era in Britain, it was commonplace (and essential for a strong bee colony) to talk to the bees about changes in the lives of the beekeeper’s family. Failure to do so meant the likelihood of a colony’s failure (or the beekeeper's family), and for people in the 19th century, having bees, like today, meant crop success and the sweet sideline: honey.
In 1899, Victorian biologist Margaret Morely penned a book “ The Honey Makers,” about the lore surrounding bees and honey. She included the superstitions as well as the importance of bees in the country’s food industries and British economy. Even then, bees were considered valuable due to their role in pollination. She also addressed the Celtic beliefs that bees were a direct spiritual connection with the Heavens, and as such, needed to be included in any change to the family.
In the case of a marriage, the couple introduced themselves to the entire apiary. Failure to include the bees might mean failure in the marriage. To convince the bees they should bring good spirits to the newlyweds, the couple would leave sweets for the bees to enjoy.
If there was a death in the family, a black cloth was placed over the skep (a basket-like dome made to house the bees and honey-combs). The bees would know before being told in person that the owners were in mourning. The bees would convey the sadness to the spirits, and the family would be comforted and the honey-producers would not swarm and leave and would work hard to produce an excess of the sweet nectar to show concern.
Included in Morely’s book was this poem telling bees about the loss of a loved one:
“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!
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!"
When I kept bees, I never told them secrets. It wonders me now if Jamestown area beekeepers speak to their hives when family changes take place. With dwindling bee numbers wiping out many colonies, perhaps a return to the old ways is in order. Worth a try.
If anyone has an item for this column, please contact Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.