I recently came across evidence of a charming rural custom being practised locally. Although it is very apparent that the writer did not appreciate the old ways.
Though not generally known in more enlightened districts, it is a fact worthy of note throughout the Marsh, that little industrious insect the “Bee” is supposed to possess a knowledge of human affairs; as an instance about two years ago , a well to do farmer died in a village not many miles from Alford. I had occasion to visit his house the night after his decease, and in passing through the garden was astonished to find some of the domestics at the bee-house. On inquiring of their errand, I was told they were informing the bees of the death of their master, otherwise they stated the bees would all die. I inquired if they received an answer , when they replied the bees gave a “solemn hum” a certain sign that they understood the message. Of course none of the bees died. I was very much amused at the circumstance and tried to convince them of their ignorance. About a month ago, another farmer died and – fatal mistake – the bees are all dead, the ceremony of informing them of their master’s death having been omitted – never once thinking that the ungenial summer and the late severe winter has been the death of the contents of hundreds of hives. The last case of course , is another proof in the opinion of these superstitious sages of the almost human instinct of their idolised bee. And surely it is another proof of the necessity of greater exertions in the spreading of sound education and common sense amongst the rising generation of the Marsh. Louth and North Lincs Advertiser: 1861
The custom of telling the bees is well documented, with many variations connecting the Bees to the spirit of their keepers and the house had a duty to inform the hive of key events, particularly the death of their keeper.
Failure to do so was believed to lead to the loss of the bees in one form or another.
The bees would be informed by a gentle tap on the hive prior to delivering the news, the hives may be shrouded in black crepe, funeral cake or biscuits soaked in the chosen drink were sometimes offered to ensure their inclusion in the feast.
Other areas of the country record the hives being turned or lifted at the time of the funeral procession.
Similar activities were undertaken by some households for a family wedding.
The custom is widely documented across Europe and American Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier ensured an awareness of the tradition in New England with his poem ” Telling the Bees” in 1858, an excerpt is below :
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!
And the song she was singing ever since
In my ear sounds on:—
“Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
Mistress Mary is dead and gone!”
Personally I find these tales reminiscent of Flora Thompson’s character “Old Queenie” familiar to many of us from the BBC adaptation Larkrise to Candleford, based on an old neighbour.
Alford’s past is littered with so many marvellous characters.