Telling the Bees

Text and photo by Virginia Parker Staat

“Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!”
~ John Greenleaf Whittier, 1858

Our beehive is draped in black. While my rendition of this time-honored tradition may be a little backwards, the sentiment is much the same. The custom of “telling the bees” is believed to have come from Celtic folklore when beehives were an intricate part of a family’s existence. Bees were informed of major events in a beekeeper’s life, including births and deaths. Some would even provide a slice of wedding cake for the colony if the beekeeper married. John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1858 poem, Telling the Bees, immortalized the tradition by relaying the story of the narrator overhearing a chore girl talking about him, whispering to the bees about his true love’s death.

Beehive; mourning; draped in black
Hive draped in Mourning Black © Virginia P. Staat

We recently lost our urban beehive to robber bees. This colony was a swarm that chose to make our property home in 2018. Slow to develop, over the years they combed out two brood boxes and filled it with honey, pollen, and baby bees. The colony managed to survive last winter’s dreadful freezing temperatures. This spring, the bees finally completely combed out a honey super (a box placed on top of the brood boxes for the bees to store excess honey). We inspected the hive in early November and were delighted to find capped honey ready for harvesting.

By evening, however, the bees were in a frenzy. We quickly recognized the colony was under attack by robber bees. We donned our bee suits and began closing off every opening, using duct tape, wet sheets, and a misting spray of water. The carnage was horrific. Bees fought at the entrance, at every box seam, and the ground was littered with dead bees.

The bees and we fought valiantly for three days, trying to deter the robbers. Finally, they disappeared. A week later when we reopened the box, not a single one of our bees had survived. Not a drop of honey remained. The comb was tattered and shredded. So damaged was the hive that small hive beetles had quickly moved in to finish decimating the comb. We had to destroy most of the hive boxes and foundation. All that remains of our once vibrant colony is the empty honey super.

Shortly after we lost the hive, I found the tradition of “telling the bees.” Whittier’s poem tells us that during periods of mourning, hives were often draped in black. It is a romantic and soothing idea for a time such as this.

Folklore and mythology have long interconnected humans and the natural world, explaining, teaching, and helping us cope with the realities of life. In Rosenberg and Baker’s Mythology and You: Classical Mythology and Its Relevance to Today’s World, we learn: “Far from being merely fantastic or cultish, myths are a treasure of realities—a kaleidoscope which, depending upon the age and experience of the reader, reflects and illuminates his experiences, fantasies, hopes, and fears.” The book continues, “Artists and writers constantly allude to them and recreate them as they explore the relationships between man and man, man and society, and man and God.”

As writers, we want to tug at our reader’s emotions. We connect with them through shared feelings and values. By incorporating myth and folklore into our work, we can bring life to an otherwise technical piece, we can illustrate truths and motives, we can use them to set mood and promote action. As an added bonus, folklore and myths are not copyrighted, so a writer can feel free to utilize them to enrich their own stories. 

Our yard continues to feel empty without the bees. It was my morning ritual to stroll out to the hive, cup of coffee in hand, and watch the girls come and go with their tiny packages of nectar and pollen. Not to be deterred, we already have a new hive on order, although we can’t pick it up until late April. Until then, I have no bees to whisper to, no bees to tell life stories to. And until that changes, the hive will remain draped in black.