Telling the Bees – Rob Barnes


Whilst researching local history to start up a guided tour company to celebrate all things Sussex, it occurred to me, as I spoke to many people, that there are so many rich folk tales and customs that are in danger of being lost in time in our fast-paced technological driven times.

When I recently met Fiona (Arts Editor) in the Pevensey Community Library and she offered me the chance to write a tale or two for the Eastbourne Voice.

So without further ado here we go:

Now back in the day, there were many a home that had their own hive.  It was said the bees must be treated like one of the family and kept informed of family news, particularly births and deaths.  The family would need to tap politely and inform the bees; if they were not told of a family death then another death would occur soon.

Others said they would pine and then die after a family death. The death of the beekeeper was especially important.  This required the new beekeeper to introduce themselves formally as their new owner and ask for their acceptance as their new master/mistress. It was said that not doing this would encourage the bees to desert the hive, or the colony to stop producing honey or even die.  This tradition is encouraged for new beekeepers even today.

A man living in East Dean in the 1950’s came upon this belief when his father died, when a neighbour asked him if his father’s bees had been told of his death.  The man replied no and the neighbour then said ‘’I was going to buy them, but I shan’t now as they won’t be any good”.  The story goes then that all the bees did indeed die soon after that.

In Celtic mythology, honeybees were regarded as messengers between our world and the spirit world, and were associated with wisdom reaped from the otherworld.

Folklore related to the telling of the bees persisted through to modern times, with folk tales in Scotland and England stating that bees would hum loudly at midnight on Christmas Day.

Apparently when the new Gregorian calendar was adopted in the 18th Century, 11 days were removed and the fact that the bees could not be heard humming on the new Christmas Day was taken as a sign of God’s displeasure at the changes!

For centuries beekeepers across Sussex, and indeed a large swathe of Europe, have kept up this incredibly ancient tradition of honeybees being messengers through “telling the bees”.

Beekeepers should treat their bees as extended members of their own family and keep informed of any family news in the household. The need to speak with these wise creatures in calm voices and never using severe words for fear of upsetting the bees is essential.

Hope you enjoyed the story and if you have any local stories please let me know.