The destination for history

Telling the bees: Ancient bee customs now have royal approval


Mark Norman author of Telling the Bees and Other Customs: The Folklore of Rural Crafts talks about the ancient bee custom of ‘telling the bees’ and its connection to royalty.

When the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, passed away the world was naturally watching the news. As the world watched, many of those observers were surprised by news that the royal beekeeper had visited all of the Queen’s hives to inform their inhabitants about the death of their owner. A number thought that it was a piece of quirky British behaviour. Others thought it downright odd. A lot had no idea that the traditional is deep-rooted amongst beekeepers and has been for a long time.

As the author of a book taking its title from the practice of ‘telling the bees’ and with that book containing a title on bees and beekeeping amongst its other discussions of folklore and rural crafts, the soon to become international news about the Queen’s bees led to an interesting period of time. First the New York Times, and then Canadian news, American radio and Irish broadcasters amongst others began getting in touch for interviews and more information. I found myself discussing bee folklore at odd times of the night from my car whilst trying to travel home from other bookings, on Zoom from my lounge across Canada and on the telephone with radio hosts while the Queen’s funeral coverage played out on the television.

One of my favourite stories from the bee chapter of the book records not the telling to the bees of a death, but what the bees did next. It happened in 1961 and was recorded in a piece in the British newspaper, The Shrewsbury Chronicle.

‘Sam Rogers, who died suddenly six weeks after his retirement as Myddle’s postman, a job he held for forty-one years, was devoted to his bees. At his death his children carried out the old traditional custom of walking round the fourteen hives ‘telling the bees’, to stop them, as legend has it, flying away. On the day after his funeral a memorial service was being held in the church when it was noticed that swarm after swarm of bees were coming from the direction of Sam Rogers’s home in Lower Road, Myddle, a mile and a half as the crow flies. They settled in a great swarm all over the flowers on the grave to the astonishment of the congregation when they came out from the service. They thought it was fantastic.’

The rector of the church at the time, the Reverend J.C. Ayling wondered whether the flowers on the grave might have attracted the bees. But experts were not so sure, as it happened at a time of the year where bees are normally sluggish and do not tend to stray from their hives.

The times that bees swarmed gave rise to some proverbs. One well-known one told that:

‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay, but a swarm in July is not worth a fly.

William Ellis, a resident of the county of Herefordshire who farmed at Little Gaddesden, recorded a local variation on this in his 1750 book Modern Husbandman:

‘A swarm of bees in May is worth a cow and her calf, and a load of hay

Bees were obviously even more valuable in that area. This particular proverb is very well-travelled. As well as being found across England, it has also been recorded in New York State in America, where it evidently migrated at some point in history. There, as in many other places, it also included the line:

‘A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon

There is a mention in the Bible of a swarm of bees which has a direct connection to something that you may well have in your kitchen cupboard, and never looked that closely at. Judges 14 tells the story of Sampson and the bees. Samson kills a lion and when he later returns to the body, he discovers that a swarm of bees has settled in the carcass and produced honey. He collects the honey and later recalls the event in the form of a riddle:

‘Out of the eater, something to eat;
Out of the strong, something sweet

If you go to your kitchen cupboard and it contains a tin of Tate & Lyle Golden Syrup, take a close look at the labelling on the front. You will notice, between the lettering, an illustration of a lion which looks it is maybe taking a nap. It isn’t! It is most definitely dead, and around its body flies a swarm of bees.

This image has been on the side of your syrup for a long time. Record compilers Guinness confirm that the Tate & Lyle tin is the world’s oldest unchanged brand packaging. Abram Tate was a very religious man and it was he who chose to include the visual representation of the Samson tale in order to illustrate a quote which tied in with the product. You will notice that the phrase, out of the strong came forth sweetness appears alongside the image of the lion on the side of the tin.

By Mark Norman

You might also be interested in:

Sign up for our newsletter

show more books