Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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If you tell the bees, will they listen?

Beehive photo by Marlin Rice

For thousands of years humans have taken advantage of what has been called the “food of the gods.” We’re talking about honey. Honey is a sugar-laden substance produced by a few species of bees as their food. And somewhere in our history ancient humans got a taste of honey, and we have been eating it ever since.

Of course, bees don’t willingly share their food stores with humans – or other animals for that matter. So the first honey eaters had to resort to stealing from the bees. And such pilferage wasn’t a pleasant thing because, as Shakespeare wrote, bees are “armed in their stings.”

Nonetheless, first as honey gatherers and then as beekeepers, humans and bees have forged a close association. As testimony to this enduring relationship, bee-related folklore is common.  Consider the following:  “Where there is honey, there are bees.” “He who would gather the honey must bear the sting of the bees.” “The bee from his industry in the summer eats honey all the winter.”

Folklore about bees includes the practice of “telling the bees” that, in a nutshell, held that colonies of honey bees must be “told” when their keeper had died. The origin of this activity is obscure but certainly existed in England during the Middle Ages and was brought to North America by the early European settlers.

A plausible explanation for this belief is rooted in the fact that ancient people did not fully understand the biology of honey bees and created ideas consistent with religious beliefs or other notions prevalent at the time.  For instance, ancient people believed that honey bees originated from the carcass of an ox. Later, the concept arose that baby bees were gathered from flowers. 

In spite of these and many other misconceptions regarding the biology of the honey bee, humans admired and respected the creatures. Consequently, peasant farmers began to equate human characteristics to the bee. So sharing human feelings and emotions with bees was commonplace. Announcements regarding important family happenings such as marriages, births and deaths were warranted. Certainly, a death in the family was something that should be shared, especially if it were the keeper of the bees who had died.

bee graphic
Telling the Bees album cover

The practice became known as “telling the bees.” It might be as simple as tapping on the hive and announcing that your master is dead and saying the name of the person who would become the new owner. The idea was that sensitive bees would be assured that they would be cared for and would not leave the hive. 

As part of the activity, some people held that the hives had to be turned so the bees would not witness the funeral procession as it moved from the home of the deceased to the burial site. Sometimes an additional aspect of the ritual would be to drape the hives in black cloth, just as the human mourners would adorn themselves in black clothing.

America’s “Quaker poet,” John Greenleaf Whittier, wrote a poem about this tradition and titled it appropriately, “Telling the Bees.”  Whittier’s poem is the story about a man going to visit his girlfriend – a beekeeper – who lived with her father at “Fernside Farm.”  The following three stanzas from the poem capture the process and the reason for telling the bees.

“Just the same as the 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!”

The biological reality of “telling the bees” has long ago been proven baseless. But today a museum exhibit called “Tell the Bees” at the Los Angeles Museum of Jurassic Technology, or an acoustic British band called “Telling the Bees,” perpetuate the idea. 

My questions! If we tell the bees will they listen?  Are there any bee whisperers out there?


Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox