The strange world of bee etiquette

Treat these complex insects with the respect they require and they will reward you with an abundance of honey. At least, that’s what the superstitions would have you believe…

Image courtesy of freeimages.com

Image courtesy of freeimages.com

When an otherwise amenable honey bee harpoons you before tumbling to the earth in her death throes, it’s commonly accepted that you must have done something to deserve it. Wasps are vindictive sods, horseflies are stealthy vampires, and hornets are psychopaths jacked up on insect steroids, but most of us have a vague notion that bees are honourable little souls who don’t sting unless offended somehow.

Delve into British and international folk culture, and you soon realise there are an awful lot of ways to offend a bee. My well-thumbed The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (Steve Roud, 2003) contains five pages on the subject, opening with the observation that “the key characteristic of bees [...] is that they are very sensitive and censorious creatures. ” They object to bad manners and domestic discord, they like to be introduced to visitors, and there are formal protocols in place for major events, such as weddings and funerals.

If it seems odd to behave so deferentially towards such miniscule creatures, consider that bees have commanded respect for thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians believed bees were formed from the tears of Ra, while on Minoan Crete and in Phrygia they were associated with the great mother goddess. Greek philosophers admired their industry, and Virgil waxed lyrical about their moral character in The Georgics, noting that “beneath the shelter of majestic laws they live”. Germanic warriors likened them to tiny Valkyries who would bring them luck in battle, while Arabic writers in the 11th and 12th centuries valued their fastidious and loyal nature.

Bee respectful

Rulers throughout the ages have often felt kinship with the regal bee, and in some Norse, Celtic and Saxon cultures, honey or mead was considered valuable enough to be presented as royal tribute. The 5th-century Frankish king Childeric I was buried in a ceremonial cloak studded with 300 golden bees, and Napoleon adopted the same motif for his coronation robe. The 17th-century English apiarist William Butler sawbee society as a model for the perfect ‘Amazonian’ commonwealth, gushing that “they work for all, they watch for all, they fight for all [...] and all this under the government of one Monarch. ”

Humans have kept bees for millennia, and perhaps the abundance of bee-related etiquette is an attempt to understand the seemingly irrational intricacies of insect behaviour in our own terms. If your bees abandon their hive, it’s not really because you forgot to introduce a house guest. If they sting you, it’s not retaliation for a careless obscenity, and if they die off inexplicably, they haven’t done it out of spite because you didn’t bring them a bit of your communion wafer one Sunday. Bees swarm, sting or perish based on complicated environmental and internal factors that make little sense to all but the most knowledgeable entomologists. Much easier to think of a bee as a sort of kamikaze Jiminy Cricket, who will lay down her life without hesitation just to teach you a thing or two about good conduct.

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Putting hives in mourning

One of the most complicated portions of beehive etiquette concerns inheriting a colony of bees. Bees must be officially informed of the death of their previous owner, and must be formally put in mourning. Often the new owners are required to make a speech introducing themselves, and to present the bees with offerings of food. Flaunt these rules, and the bees are apt to leave the hives and follow their former master into the afterlife.

Writing in the 1890s, a country parson called J. C. Atkinson recounted one such episode from his boyhood in Essex, when the local rector died and the whole family trooped out to the beehives with “weird solemnity”. Each hive was bound with a strip of black ribbon, then tapped three times with the house key and informed that the master was dead. This sort of practice was once widespread, both in the UK and further afield. France and Switzerland had parallel traditions, and there was a rather fine variant from Guernsey, where it was an encouraging sign if the bees answered with a buzz when you knocked on the hive.

Ever-sensitive to change, bees also demanded certain formalities on wedding days. In Lancashire,
a simple marriage announcement to the bees would suffice, while in Brittany, newlyweds had to festoon the hives with red ribbon. In some areas of Croatia, meanwhile, a bride’s first job on entering her new home was to dab honey on the door lintels as a gesture of friendliness towards her new insect comrades.

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Sacred rituals

A 13th-century Welsh legal document called the Gwentian Code claims grandly that “The origin of bees is from Paradise and because of the sin of man they came thence, and God conferred His grace on them”.

As you might expect for creatures straight out of Eden, bees are especially hot on matters of religious observance, and they will soon abandon an owner who isn’t devout enough. Various British and European traditions over the years advised giving the bees a consecrated communion wafer every now and again, and more imaginative beekeepers would sometimes recount opening up the hive to find their bees reverently building ornate wax altars on which to place the sacred host.

Significant occasions in the church calendar often merited more elaborate offerings. In some parts of Germany, bees were provided with a special meal on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, and were treated to a sprinkling of holy water and a waft of incense on Epiphany and Christmas Eve. In northern England, the bees seem to have participated more exuberantly during the festive season. As early as 1794, the lawyer and historian William Hutchinson recorded that Cumbrian bees in Bootle were “heard to sing” on Christmas Eve, while William Henderson’s Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1879) mentions Northumbrian bees assembling promptly at midnight to “hum a Christmas hymn”.

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Bad behaviour

“It is a very general belief,” writes Hilda Ransome in The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (1937), “that you must not swear at bees. They will either die or sting those who use bad language”.

Bees expect the highest levels of conduct from their owners. They will not stay in a quarrelsome home, nor will they tolerate avarice or promiscuity, often going on strike in protest. In his early beekeeping volume, The Feminine Monarchie (1609), Charles Butler advises that “thou must not be unchaste and uncleanly; for inpuritie and sluttishness [...] they utterly abhor”. Bees are especially attuned to ‘inpuritie’, and there are stories of canny country girls walking their boyfriends past the beehives, knowing that bees will attack a cheater.

Bees value scrupulous fairness and generosity in their owners. They appreciate morsels from your table on special occasions, and there’s an old British custom that when you harvest the honey from your hive, you’re supposed to give some to your neighbours, since the bees have undoubtedly plundered nectar from their flowers.

Even many modern apiarists are convinced that bees pick up on the characteristics of their human companions. My mother boasts about how tidy her honey bees keep their hive, while an acquaintance attributes his ‘chilled out’ bees to his own even temper. To my delight, I was once informed at a village fair that bees from my native Yorkshire are hardier and more industrious than the slothful Italian bees imported by some rookie beekeepers.

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Acquiring bees

Another of the most common bee superstitions is that they don’t like to be bought or sold like domestic animals. In some parts of the UK you can trade bees for gold or barter them for chickens or whatever, but buying a colony for actual money is a big no-no. One Victorian source from the Dartmoor area suggests half a sack of wheat as a reasonable trade, urging that “bees must not be bought, [for] they would thrive as ill as if they were stolen. ” It goes without saying, of course, that no good can come of stealing bees, and they will usually express their outrage by dying en masse.

The best way to acquire bees is to inherit them, or even better, to have a swarm deliberately decide to take up residence with you. The sight of a swarm without a home has always been an exciting prospect for a beekeeper, and there are all kinds of elaborate charms for encouraging passing clouds of bees to stay. In Roman times, people attempted to attract itinerant swarms with bells and tiny cymbals, believing that they found the sound appealing. Somehow, this refined practice evolved into the rather rowdier British custom of ‘tanging’ bees, in which villagers chased a swarm down the street banging pots and pans. It’s not clear whether this was to announce the presence of the swarm, to attract it, or to lay claim to it, but whatever the case, it must have been fun.

Words: Joly Braime

This article originally featured in issue 8 of Ernest Journal, on sale now

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