Bees in Folklore

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A bee on a lavender flower (Matthew Smith via Flickr)

This article appeared in the North Clare Local in November. 

A quote widely attributed to Albert Einstein states, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live”. Whether Einstein ever said such a thing, we may never know, but it is true that we depend on bees to fertilise our crops, thereby feeding ourselves and our livestock. The decline of bees is a worldwide concern and the EU have recently banned certain pesticides in order to protect the insects.

Our ancestors certainly recognised the importance of bees. Considered messengers of the divine, the Greeks worshipped them. In the early Bronze Age, a goddess addressed by the title “Potnia” (mistress) was sometimes referred to as “The Pure Mother Bee” and her priestesses were given the name “Melissa” (bee). When the Delphi oracle was later given over to worship of Apollo, the priestesses retained the title of Melissa. Bronze Age Greek tombs were shaped like hives.

The Greeks were not alone in their reverence for the humble bee. The ancient Egyptians believed that they were the product of the sun god Ra’s tears. Bees were among the insignia of royalty in Egypt, and later on in France. Humans have long loved the taste of honey, and the Bible’s description of paradise as the “land of milk and honey” is part of our vernacular.

Bees, with their complex social structure, were seen as more intelligent than many other creatures. This is reflected in the wealth of superstitions centred on their place in the household.

The first, and best-known, is the custom of “telling the bees”. This originated in England, but also occurred in Ireland, and spread to America. Bees, being important to the successful running of a farm or household, should always be informed of human affairs. Bees should always be told of births, weddings, and deaths. Women who were about to get married should go to the hive themselves to tell the bees, and a piece of wedding cake should be left out for them. While births and weddings could be left slide, it was vital that the bees were told of deaths, especially the death of their master or mistress. This duty was left to the eldest son or widowed spouse. They had to request the bees to stay with the family now that their owner was gone. If the bees were not “told”, they would leave their hives, or simply die.

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Medieval beekeeping art (via medievalists.net)

Another custom was the placing of black crepe on the hive when there was a death in the family.

As you may have gathered, bees were thought to be sensitive. They took offence easily, and so people must never quarrel or swear in front of them. They also did not like the concept of being bought or sold. Bees should either be bought for a token amount of gold coins, or bartered for other items.

A bee flying into the house was thought to symbolise good luck, but should a bee die in the home, ill fortune was on its way. Killing a bee was unlucky. However a bee flying into a person’s hand meant they would receive money. A single bee landing on your head means you are destined for success.

Swarms are more ambiguous. A swarm of bees settling on a tree branch meant the owner of the tree was soon to die. However, a German belief states that if you use the branch (presumably once the bees have moved on) to direct your cattle to a fair, you will get a good price for them.

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Honeycomb (Merdal via Wikimedia Commons)

An old custom meant that mead was given to newlyweds, leading to the word “honeymoon” or in Irish “mí na meala” (the month of honey). Bees were also said to sense purity; they would not sting virgins (clearly nonsense). If a woman wanted to find out if her husband had been unfaithful, she could lead him past a hive of bees; he would only be stung if he had been untrue.

Bees were also valued in Christian tradition. Several saints are associated with bees, such as the 6th century Irish saint, Gobnait. Her name is translated in English as the Hebrew “Deborah” which also means “bee”. Gobnait was a Clare woman, but left home after a family feud. An angel appeared to her and told her to look for a place where nine white deer grazed. She found this in Ballyvourney in Cork. She is a patron saint of bees, and used her hive’s honey to protect the village people from plague. Brigands raided the area and she sent a swarm of bees to ward them off.

These industrious little insects have long been a friend to humankind. WB Yeats’s words about the “bee loud glade” spring to mind. Hopefully we will enjoy their gentle humming for centuries to come.

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