Diana Gabaldon‘s new anticipated book is called “GO TELL THE BEES THAT I AM GONE ” which I thought was a cute title but puzzled over the title meaning. So, I did some research after hearing it again while watching an episode of Midsummer Murders, The Killings at Badgers Drift. A villager stated to the detective she must go tell about the death of the beehive owner to the bees….”Yes, I must go tell it to the bees.”
This is what I discovered….
Folk Lore custom in England, and Europe too, to tell the bees about births, deaths, and marriages. Specifically deaths…the superstition was if you didn’t move the bee hive a bit after the death of the owner, the bees would die too.
This is a relic of a custom which was practised in modern times, certainly within the last 25 years or so and perhaps more recently. The practice was widespread in rural areas and was based on the belief that one’s hive of bees must be told about all the major events within their keeper’s family.
The most important duty, of course, was to ensure the bees were told of the death of their keeper. If this was not done, it was believed the bees would leave the hive and go elsewhere.
The responsibility for telling the bees rested upon either the keeper’s widow or his eldest child and they had to approach the hive or hives, strike each one three times with an iron key and announce: “The master is dead.”
If this was not done then either the bees would fly away for ever, or they might even die. If this happened, then some other misfortune was also likely.
Having told the bees, the hives were then draped with black crepe to indicate they were in a period of mourning, but I have no indication how long the crepe was left there. In Victorian times, the period of mourning lasted an entire year.
In some places, when the funeral cortege or perhaps the body was leaving the house, the hives were turned around to face the opposite direction or moved temporarily to another location. Afterwards the bees were rewarded with items from the funeral tea, such as sugar or biscuits soaked in wine.
In one Yorkshire case, the widow of the deceased beekeeper made sure the bees were given a small piece of everything owned by him. This included his clay pipes, which were ground into powder and mixed with his tobacco.
In her words, the bees ate every piece. “Bacca, pipes an’ all, Ah seed it for mysen,” she said.
In addition to informing the bees of a death in the family, it was also important they were told about other major events such as weddings and births, or indeed any other kind of success or even a serious sadness, perhaps the loss of a faithful dog or theft of a precious belonging.
It seems this custom was also practised with rooks. If there was a rookery on anyone’s land and the landowner died, the new owner would stand beneath the trees and tell the birds about the death.
In addition, he would promise that only he and his invited friends would be allowed to shoot the birds! It was believed that if a new landowner failed to undertake this task, then the birds would vacate that rookery.
That was considered a bad omen because it was thought that if rooks left a rookery, it was a sign that the land would be lost or the family would dissolve into poverty.
I believe this custom was also practised with other pets and even cage birds or plants! I’ve heard of caged birds being told of their owner’s death, with the cage then being draped in black for the period of mourning, and in some instances favourite plants were even told, with black flags being placed in the ground at their side.
It is difficult to know how or why this custom began, although it might have links with a very ancient belief that the human soul took the form of a bee soon after death, although in some areas it was thought the soul became a butterfly.
This link between bees and human death goes a little further because it was also thought that if bees deserted a hive for no apparent reason, it heralded the death of their keeper.
If they swarmed in the dead wood of a tree, for example, this was also a warning of the impending death of their keeper – or indeed the sign of approaching death for the person who witnessed the event! There is a story of a man and wife out walking. She noticed some bees swarming on dead wood and immediately told her husband she would soon die. And so she did, with her husband saying he’d expected her death from the moment she witnessed that event.
So far as swarming bees are concerned, I have come across a curious belief that if one’s bees swarmed and settled on someone else’s land, the keeper could enter that other person’s land to retrieve them and never be accused of trespass. Go tell that to the bees!
Now I wonder if Diana Gabaldon will be ending the lives of Jamie & Claire in her 9th Outlander book. In book 8 “Written in My Own Heart’s Blood“, Jamie & Claire are grandparents & guesstimate their ages at mid 40’s. The average life expectancy in 1750 to 1800 was 36.