‘Telling the bees’ is real beekeeping, not a royal tradition

When the royal beekeeper told the Queen’s bees about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, he practiced a beekeeping tradition of updating the hives with family news.

A few days after Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8, the Daily Mail published an article with the headline: “Royal beekeeper has informed the Queen’s bees that the Queen has passed away and that King Charles is their new boss in a bizarre tradition that goes back centuries. ”

In response to the storya person on Twitter said to check to see if a parody account had posted the article, “because this is just sensational stuff.” Another Twitter user referred to the practice as an example of “hysteria” over the monarch’s death.

THE QUESTION

Is ‘telling the bees’ a real tradition?

THE SOURCES

  • JSTOR Daily, which uses research from JSTOR’s scientific journal database to provide context for current events
  • Debra Shutika, Ph.D, folklorist and beekeeper
  • Mark Norman, author and researcher of folklore
  • Floyd Shockley, Ph.D, entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History

THE ANSWER

Yes, “telling the bees” is a real tradition, and it’s not just reserved for news of monarchs or death.

WHAT WE FOUND

The practice of “telling the bees” is a tradition in which a beekeeper informs his honeybees about important events in the beekeeper’s life, such as a death or marriage. It has traditionally been most common in the US and Western Europe.

“It’s certainly not a royal tradition,” said Mark Norman, a folklore author and researcher. “It’s not something that would only be done by beekeepers who kept swarms for the royal family or other members of that household.”

Instead, Norman said, this is a very old custom practiced by commoners who kept bees for their own purposes.

“The idea here is that when there is important news, both good and bad, or someone dies or leaves, or babies are born, etc., you share the news with the bees because they are part of your family and community. ”, says Debra Shutika, a folklorist and beekeeper.

The news shared by beekeepers practicing this tradition varies from place to place, but informing bees of a remarkable death is common everywhere it’s practiced, says a 2018 article in JSTOR Daily, which researched from its academic journal database. used to provide context for current events.

Some beekeepers knock on their hives and tell the bees the news, Shutika said, while other beekeepers just walk up to the hives and talk to them.

Norman said there was a version of the tradition in New Hampshire where beekeepers had to sing the news to the bees in rhyming verses.

In the event of a death, tradition usually calls for the beekeeper to tie a black cloth around the hives or to wrap the bees in some sort of black material. Photos in the Daily Mail article show the royal beekeeper tying a black cloth around the queen’s beehives.

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Both Norman and Floyd Shockley, an entomologist with the National Museum of Natural History, said the tradition likely dates back to ancient Celtic mythology, though its exact origins aren’t known for certain.

But the practice became most common in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was believed that holding back the bees would lead to bad luck, Norman said.

“If you didn’t do this, the bees could potentially get very sick and stop producing honey, or they would leave the hives completely because they weren’t notified,” Norman said. “This clearly comes from a time when the superstition was much stronger than it is now, because without the scientific evidence behind it, people would look for obvious reasons why bad things would happen, and would try to avoid them in the future, so that crops don’t fail, so that the animals don’t get sick, and so on.”

Shockley said, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there is no scientific evidence that bees actually respond to what they are told. But he suggested that beekeepers might still be able to relay information to their bees when they tell them the family news.

“Bees and many other social insects respond to tone, volume of sound,” Shockley said. “Often people tell the bees to whisper to the bees, because if you’re overly aggressive, the bees will respond to tone, volume, maybe even scent — because your physiology changes when you’re angry or sad.”

Shutika said she thinks it’s likely former royal beekeepers told the bees about the deaths of previous monarchs when that happened, because “generally, this is what a beekeeper will do.”

“These are living creatures and we have decided to be responsible for them,” Shutika said of beekeepers. “So I think it’s very common for a human being to spend so much time tending, in this case, an insect or a colony of insects, that you develop great affection for them. And in that context, it would make sense to share your life with them, especially important news.”

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