(from Poets and Etchers Portfolio)
Makers: Bellows, Albert Fitch
Culture: American (1829-1883)
Date Made: copyright 1881
Measurements: sheet: 15 11/16 in x 12 in; 39.9 cm x 30.5 cm; plate: 8 in x 5 7/8 in; 20.3 cm x 14.9 cm; image: 7 1/4 in x 5 3/16 in; 18.4 cm x 13.2 cm
Accession Number: AC 1982.29.16
Credit Line: Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Gellhorn
In 1858, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem called, “Telling the Bees.” The poem opens with a young man returning to his sweetheart’s home after an absence of a year. As he approaches, he notices the house is clean and well kept, as usual. The trees around the house are strong and tall, as always. Everything is in good order.
Then his attention is drawn to the far corner of the garden, near the stone wall. It is there he sees a small servant girl near the beehives, singing a mournful song. The young man cannot make out all the words, but realizes the girl is telling the bees about someone from the house who has gone on the journey we all must one day travel.
As she sings, she partially covers the hives with black cloth. Someone has died. Sadly, he will find out it is his sweetheart.
What the servant girl in Whittier’s poem is doing remains a centuries-old custom from Western Europe and the British Isles called “Telling the Bees.” In Whittier’s time, once a week someone from the household would sit by the hives and tell the bees everything going on in the household.
If someone got a new dress, the bees would have to know first. If someone got new books, the bees would have to know first. If there was a wedding or a major holiday, not only would the bees need to know, they must be brought cake!
Honeybees are extremely important to the survival of mankind. Einstein has been attributed as saying, “If the bees disappeared from the face of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.”
Even before science was a concept, people knew how important honeybees were. The Ancient Egyptians said that when Ra, the Sun God cried, his tears became honeybees and one of their jobs was to bring messages from the Gods to humans. The people of Ancient Greece and Rome also believed honeybees were messengers of the Gods. Honeybees are mentioned in the Torah, the Koran, the Bible and the Upanishads.
Honey is a great sweetener, of course, but honey also has medicinal and antiseptic properties. Beeswax was and is used in everything from cosmetics to candles, but probably the most important job of honeybees is pollination. Honeybees pollinate 80% of the crops grown in the United States.
Everything originates someplace; honeybees originated in Africa at the dawn of history. They migrated to Asia, the Near East, into Western Europe and the British Isles. Every culture realized their importance.
However, honeybees did not migrate everywhere.
In May 1607, Captain John Smith and a group of English Colonists arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. That first year they missed the planting season; the next year the colonists planted their seeds. The soil and weather in Virginia are great for growing anything, but the English crops were stunted and not producing. When the colonists really looked around, they realized the indigenous bees of this country, of which we have many, did not know what to do with English crops.
Honeybees had to be brought to this country from England. The first group of honeybees arrived in Virginia in 1622. This year, 2022, is the 400th anniversary of honeybees coming to Virginia. With the coming of the bees came the age-old tradition of ‘Telling the Bees.” John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1858 poem shows this custom lasted for a long time.
But somehow, we forgot. Today we buy honey in glass jars from the Farmer’s Market and from grocery stores in little plastic squeeze-bottle bears. I have also noticed that when bees get near people, they tend to swat at them — at best to drive them away, at worst to kill them. No more are they known as the messengers of the Gods.
I am guilty of this too. A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my deck in the late afternoon, writing, when a bee started buzzing around me. I swatted him away but he kept coming back. When I finally took a good look at the bee, I realized he wasn’t buzzing me; he wanted some of the watered-down soda in my glass. I poured some on the table, the bee took a long drink, then came back several times. When I looked it up, I found out that on hot dry days bees will take in water, go back to the hive and pour it over the baby bees to keep them cool.
On September 8, 2022 Queen Elizabeth II died. She could be considered the Queen Bee of a worldwide Commonwealth.
The people of her realm needed to know quickly. One of the first things that happened was that the bells of Westminster Abbey started to ring, and rang for an hour. The major TV networks went blank for five or six minutes, giving the commentators enough time to change into their black mourning clothes. There were cannon and rifle salutes, processions and lots of flowers.
But if you knew where to look you would have seen, in the garden of Buckingham Palace, in a corner by the brick wall, the Royal Beekeeper John Chapple keeping the centuries-old tradition of “Telling the Bees.”
In a world where money and power seem to be all that matters, it was beautiful to see that the most important yet humble of creatures were honored.