Telling the Bees of Death
In common with many other areas it was thought that bees should be told of a beekeepers death. The Stamford Mercury, April 15, 1870 ran a story on this topic. Whilst staying a short time at Stallingboro' (a Marsh village) some thirty years ago [I was] present at a full observance of the superstition. . . .
It was a few days after the death of a cottager, when a woman staying with the bereaved family asked the widow, ' Have the bees been told? ' The reply being no, she at once took some spice cake and some sugar in a dish, and proceeding to the hives, placed the sweets before them ; then, rattling a bunch of small keys (I suppose to attract the attention of the indwellers), she repeated this formula :
Honey bees! honey bees! hear what I say!
Your master, J. A., has passed away.
But his wife now begs you will freely stay,
And still gather honey for many a day.
Bonny bees, bonny bees, hear what I say.
The story elicited the following response.
Being at a neighbour's house about a month ago, the conversation turned upon the death of a mutual acquaintance a short time prior to my visit. A venerable old lady present asked, with great earnestness of manner, ' Whether Mr. R.'s bees had been informed of his death ? '
(Our friend R. had been a great bee-keeper.) No one appeared to be able to answer the old lady's question satisfactorily, whereat she was much concerned, and said : ' Well, if the bees were not told of Mr. R.'s death they would leave their hives, and never return. Some people give them a piece of the funeral cake ; I don't think that is absolutely necessary, but certainly it is better to tell them of the death.' Being shortly afterwards in the neighbourhood of my deceased friend's residence, I went a little out of my way to inquire after the bees. Upon walking up the garden I saw the industrious little colony at full work. I learned, upon inquiring of the house- keeper, that the bees had been properly informed of Mr, R.'s death.
I found that in my own family, upon the death of my mother, some five-and-twenty years ago, the bees were duly informed of the event. A lady friend also told me that, twenty years ago, when she was at school, the father of her school-mistress died, and on that occasion the bees were made acquainted with his death, and regaled with some of the funeral cake.