Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Telling the bees...

When I was growing up, I can remember my maternal grandmother telling me about a family in Reidsville, a family that kept bees, and a bizarre custom they observed called "telling the bees" when something happened. According to my grandmother, it usually involved a death in the family.

I used to laugh because I though she was making it up to entertain me. After all, who would spend their time going out to bee hives and talking to the bees about the news of the day? It just seemed a little odd and maybe some type of urban legend. And besides, what family in Reidsville would admit to doing such a thing?

But as I got older, I did some research and found out that my grandmother was indeed telling me the truth about people "telling the bees" of tragic news. Apparently it had been happening for a good long time.

Check around the Internet and you'll find that the custom of "telling the bees" that someone had passed on to the great beyond was practiced in both North America and Europe throughout the 1800s. Matter of fact, John Greenleaf Whittier (1807 - 1892), who was America's great Quaker poet of the nineteenth century, put the story in words in 1858.


Here is the place; right over the hill
Runs the path I took;
You can see the gap in the old wall still,
And the stepping-stones in the shallow brook.
There is the house, with the gate red-barred,
And the poplars tall;
And the barn's brown length, and the cattle-yard,
And the white horns tossing above the wall.
There are the beehives ranged in the sun;
And down by the brink
Of the brook are her poor flowers, weed-o'errun,
Pansy and daffodil, rose and pink.
A year has gone, as the tortoise goes,
Heavy and slow;
And the same rose blows, and the same sun glows,
And the same brook sings of a year ago.
There 's the same sweet clover-smell in the breeze;
And the June sun warm
Tangles his wings of fire in the trees,
Setting, as then, over Fernside farm.
I mind me how with a lover's care
From my Sunday coat I brushed off the burrs, and smoothed my hair,
And cooled at the brookside my brow and throat.
Since we parted, a month had passed,--
To love, a year;
Down through the beeches I looked at last
On the little red gate and the well-sweep near.
I can see it all now, the slantwise rain
Of light through the leaves,
The sundown's blaze on her window-pane,
The bloom of her roses under the eaves.
Just the same as a month before,--
The house and the trees,
The barn's brown gable, the vine by the door,--
Nothing changed but the hives of bees.
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!
Then I said to myself, "My Mary weeps
For the dead to-day:
Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps
The fret and the pain of his age away."
But her dog whined low; on the doorway sill,
With his cane to his chin,
The old man sat; and the chore-girl still
Sung to the bees stealing out and in.
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!"


  1. Yes, telling the bees is an old time custom. I read about it in a children's mystery book.

  2. It's a beautiful legend and the poem is haunting, in a good way. I've been known to talk to a lot of things in my garden. Just today I cussed, once again, the chipmunk who ate the roots of my parsley.



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