Thursday, December 10, 2015

Telling the Bees

Artwork by Rima Staines

I'm always talking about "a Conversant World", a conversation that includes all living beings we interact with, not just humans.  (With cellphones, I'm beginning to wonder about our capacity to interact with humans either, but, oops, sorry about that.)  Here's a wonderful practice, still done in some rural areas of England, called "telling the bees".  I was glad, when I learned about this, that my tendency to talk to bees has historical precedence. 

Bees have always been magical creatures throughout many cultures.  In ancient Greece there were Bee Priestesses - who no doubt were also bee keepers - called the "Mellisae", and many myths of the Goddess include bees, the Queen Bee, and the creation of honey.  Also the Semitic name "Deborah" or "Devorah" means "Bee", and its origins may also go back to a time when there were women who were Bee priestesses.  

Bronze Age Bee Goddess
Reciprocity, the sense of intimacy with all the other lives and evolutions and intrinsic Spirits of Place  all around us..........I loved the movie "THE SECRET  LIFE OF BEES", where Queen Latifah explains to her young apprentice that it's important to just love the bees.  That "everyone needs love".  As the founders of  Findhorn demonstrated - there's a sacred collaboration that is going on all the time, or can be.

In New England there has long been a tradition called  "Telling the Bees", in which a death in a family farm, or among beekeepers,  is "told to the bees" so they will not be upset by the loss, or can participate, perhaps, in the remembrance, a folk custom that remembers as well that bees are "part of the family".

 According to Wikipedia:

"The telling of the bees is a traditional English custom, in which bees would be told of important events in their keeper's lives, such as births, marriages, or departures and returns in the household. The bees were most commonly told of deaths in their master's family. The custom was prevalent all over England, as well as in a few places in Ireland and Wales but not in Scotland.If the custom was omitted or forgotten then it was believed a penalty would be paid, that the bees might leave their hive, stop producing honey, or die.
To inform the bees of a death their hive might be hung with a black cloth, while a "doleful tune" is sung.  Another method of "telling the bees" would be for their master to approach the hive and knock gently upon it. The house key might also be used to knock on the hive. When the master of the house had the attention of the bees they would tell the bees the name of the person that had died.  Food and drink from a beekeeper's funeral would also be left by the hive for the bees, including the funeral biscuits and wine. The hive would also be lifted a few inches and put down again at the same time as the coffin.The hive might also be rotated to face the funeral procession, and draped with mourning cloth. If a wedding occurred in the household, the hive might be decorated, and a slice of wedding cake left by their hive. The decoration of hives appears to date to the early 19th century.  The custom spread with European immigration to the United States in the 19th century. "

Telling the Bees

 by Deborah Digges  (1950 - 2009)

It fell to me to tell the bees, 
though I had wanted another duty—
to be the scribbler at his death, 
there chart the third day’s quickening. 
But fate said no, it falls to you 
to tell the bees, the middle daughter. 
So it was written at your birth. 
I wanted to keep the fire, working 
the constant arranging and shifting 
of the coals blown flaring, 
my cheeks flushed red, 
my bed laid down before the fire, 
myself anonymous among the strangers
there who’d come and go. 
But destiny said no. It falls 
to you to tell the bees, it said. 
I wanted to be the one to wash his linens, 
boiling the death-soiled sheets, 
using the waters for my tea. 
I might have been the one to seal 
his solitude with mud and thatch and string, 
the webs he parted every morning, 
the hounds’ hair combed from brushes, 
the dust swept into piles with sparrows’ feathers. 
Who makes the laws that live 
inside the brick and mortar of a name, 
selects the seeds, garden or wild, 
brings forth the foliage grown up around it 
through drought or blight or blossom,
the honey darkening in the bitter years,
the combs like funeral lace or wedding veils 
steeped in oak gall and rainwater, 
sequined of rent wings. 
And so arrayed I set out, this once
obedient, toward the hives’ domed skeps 
on evening’s hill, five tombs alight. 
I thought I heard the thrash and moaning 
of confinement, beyond the century, 
a calling across dreams, 
as if asked to make haste just out of sleep. 
I knelt and waited. 
The voice that found me gave the news. 
Up flew the bees toward his orchards.


** There is also a wonderful folk group from the UK called "Telling the Bees"..... I couldn't resist posting them here now as well.  (Many thanks to Valerianna for all of this!)



Trish and Rob MacGregor said...


Valerianna said...

By the way, the artwork in the top photo is by Rima Staines from the UK and the album cover is the amazingly wonderful group, Telling the Bees, who describe themselves as making darkly crafted folk music. Its wonderful. I have both of their CD's. Did you know the origins of that image? Do you know the group? I first learned about the telling the bees tradition from their liner notes and Andy's blog...

Lauren Raine said...

No, I didn't know........I found the image when searching, and there wasn't any credit for it, so I kind of assumed it was an old illustration of some kind. Will now make the proper credit and note your additional info............

Thanks again!

Valerianna said...

Ahhh, you picked one of my favorite songs to post... isn't it so beautiful???