Appalachia Folklore

Tell the Bees


Telling The Bees written by John Greenleaf Whittier 1894

Here is the place; right over the hill Runs the path I took; You can see the gap in the old wall still, And the stepping-stones in the shallow brook.

There is the house, with the gate red-barred, And the poplars tall; And the barn’s brown length, and the cattle-yard, And the white horns tossing above the wall.

There are the beehives ranged in the sun; And down by the brink Of the brook are her poor flowers, weed-o’er run,

Pansy and daffodil, rose and pink.

A year has gone, as the tortoise goes, Heavy and slow; And the same rose blows, and the same sun glows, And the same brook sings of a year ago.

There’s the same sweet clover-smell in the breeze; And the June sun warm Tangles his wings of fire in the trees, Setting, as then, over Fernside farm.

I mind me how with a lover’s care From my Sunday coat I brushed off the burrs, and smoothed my hair, And cooled at the brookside my brow and throat.

Since we parted, a month had passed, To love, a year; Down through the beeches I looked at last On the little red gate and the well-sweep near.

I can see it all now, the slantwise rain Of light through the leaves,The sundown’s blaze on her window-pane, The bloom of her roses under the eaves.

Just the same as a month before, The house and the trees, The barn’s brown gable, the vine by the door, Nothing changed but the hives of bees.

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!

Then I said to myself, “My Mary weeps For the dead to-day:  Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps The fret and the pain of his age away.”

But her dog whined low; on the doorway sill, With his cane to his chin, The old man sat; and the chore-girl still Sung to the bees stealing out and in.

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!”


You can go here: The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore to read an excerpt about the ritual of telling the bees when their master died being wide spread throughout the British Isles. The page also tells that honey bees will not do well in a quarrelsome family nor do honey bees like to hear bad language-they prefer to be talked to politely and quietly.

Seems the bee folklore is like much of the other folklore from Appalachia, it came across the big pond with those first settlers so long ago.


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  • Reply
    June 7, 2018 at 10:07 am

    What a beautiful poem. I just read Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton Porter, author of Freckles & Limberlost. She always put such fascinating nature facts in her books. The small black bees are Germans, the more golden ones Italians & the Germans are more aggressive; at any rate you need a scent that’s just right.

  • Reply
    Lee Mears
    June 6, 2018 at 2:19 pm

    Love this. Thanks for finding these stories and tales. I was excited when the Rhododendron bloomed this year because I was sure I saw 3 honey bees on the flowers . I stood and looked for longest and I really think they were. I haven’t seen a honey bee in years (in three states) and I’m pretty sure thats not a good thing. (Honey is the only sugar my doctor approves of..) I supposed everyone knows this but I’ll mention it again just to be sure. As wonderful as all honey is and our local honeys are very nice, Tupelo honey is my favorite and it never turns to sugar, for we hoarders. I order it by 1/2 gal, yes am hoarding it. I love amber molasses too but it goes to sugar faster than I can eat a pint.
    I had a bird box fall off a tree during the winter and I walked up and retrieved it and just sat it on my brick wall. Well, its still there of course and as I was pulling weeds the other day (between the rain storms) I keep hearing an odd noise so finally picked up my bird box and bumble bees flew out. Its apparently now a nursery for a swarm of bumble bees, so I just left it right there. I didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother me. Everything needs a home. I’m going to assume they will help pollinate my flowers..

  • Reply
    Brian P.T. Blake
    June 6, 2018 at 11:46 am

    Sherlock Holmes retired to the country to keep bees.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    June 6, 2018 at 11:42 am

    Yesterday, I was starring out the glass door and noticed a 20 to 30 foot Tulip Poplar tree not far from the one I had cut down. I recon everything has a way of replacing itself. I’m so glad.

    The British Isles Writer was a good writer. When I was about 10, I remember a neighbor, Hub Holloway. I fished with him and his wife, and they had Bees in behind their store. He made liquor and kept the bees close to the door. But he had us boys to stay on the Railroad, so we wouldn’t get stung. If the law came snooping around, those bees would pepper them good. Hub and Lori was good folks, never bothered a sole, and they adopted two boys, older than us. I knew Nick and Bob, but they never paid much attention to us. Lori cut my hair, when I needed it for $.50 cents. Daddy cared nothing about Bees, so when my brother, Harold, and I found a bee tree on our property, we told Hub. In just a few days we noticed the tree was cut. Old Hub not only got the Honey, he got the Queen Bee also and all the bees too. He was smart and showed us his new hive
    near the back door of his store. Hub had cut a dead oak tree, got the bees and most of the honey,
    and had a sign in his Store: Fresh Sourwood Honey From the Mountains. …Ken

  • Reply
    Ann Applegarth
    June 6, 2018 at 11:39 am


  • Reply
    June 6, 2018 at 11:39 am

    When I was in elementary school we were required to memorize a poem to recite in front of the class. I read “Telling The Bees” while searching for something I thought I could learn. I didn’t understand it at the time and it was way to long so I settled for “The Village Blacksmith” by Longfellow instead. It was pretty long too but had a more interesting subject to me.
    We recited our poems in alphabetical order by our last name which made me go first. I got through it without too many glitches then settle back to listen to the rest. Most of the kids recited “Roses Are Red” or some other four line poem. A couple of the girls recited real poetry but my mine was almost as long as all the rest put together.
    When Dusty was in elementary school his class performed a play about the discovery of America. He got to be Christopher Columbus which was more than half the speaking part and was on stage for all the play. He memorized the whole play and prompted the other kids who had lines to recite. The teacher was off to the left behind the curtain following along with her copy of the play but didn’t have to help any of the actors. Dusty did though. He ran the show like a pro. I was never any more proud!!

  • Reply
    Eldonna Ashley
    June 6, 2018 at 10:22 am

    This is a real treasure. Thank you for finding it, sharing it, and giving it a chance to live on.

  • Reply
    June 6, 2018 at 9:20 am

    We had John Greenleaf Whittier in our Literature classes. The name immediately brought back memories of long lines of seats and the smell of chalk boards. A very pleasant tiny Mrs. Toothman was overseeing the class. What wonderful teachers we had in those days teaching a class of Appalachian children about good literature.

    Many folks kept honey bees back in those days, and honey bees and our bare feet didn’t mix. I couldn’t even eat the honey because for some reason I was allergic to the raw honey. Children were constantly getting their feet stung. At least we were aware they could only sting you once and then they would die. That gave us some consolation as we went right back to playing without missing a beat. I have pulled many stingers out of my own feet. It is rare nowadays for a child to get stung, and some of them are terrified when they see a bee or bug.

    Much has changed, as I never see a honey bee anymore. Teachers seem so much more rushed and stressed these days. It is just a different world! Today your post has made me so grateful for all those and years of wonderful genteel and kind teachers. They encouraged my love of learning, and I still love to learn. Hmm, one exception was starting first grade with a mean ole teacher who popped knuckles with a ruler when a little boy made a hole in his paper attempting his very first 8. That scared me worse than a hundred honey bees, because I was fairly close to making a hole in my own thin sheet of tablet paper. Thank goodness we moved shortly, and I gained a wonderful teacher named Mrs. Gent who taught us so many wonderful things. I never saw a child get a paddling from her, but instead we learned about al the wonders of starting education. Making clay ashtrays was a favorite part of her class. Just reminiscing over coffee and reading my favorite blog. Thanks Tipper.

  • Reply
    June 6, 2018 at 9:04 am

    My daughter and son-in-law are new beekeepers. He has read and researched every article he could find on how to get started. After two years, the farm was swarming with the little workers. Then the farmer next door sprayed his field with some sort of chemical and killed every lasting bee they had. Hopefully, the folklore article will tell us how the dead bees get revenge on an old farmer from their place in Bee Heaven.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    June 6, 2018 at 8:15 am

    Bees recognize their usual keeper and also strangers. Agitated people agitate them. They do react to calm. But hives do vary. Some are more aggressive than others. Where I grew up the small black bees were considered mean. The larger more golden bees were considered gentle.

    Incidentally I read somewhere that Native Americans called them ‘the white man’s fly’ because they were not native to North America. There are many species like that, so long naturalized we think they are native.

    Off the subject but ….my white half runner beans are making all vine and very little bloom. Never had that problem before. I’m wondering if it is because of the rain. Anybody else seen this?

    • Reply
      Lee Mears
      June 6, 2018 at 2:24 pm

      Ron, I have a huge potted lime tree and it bloomed nicely but I’m pretty sure the hard rains beat all the would-be limes off the tree. Its only growing new leaves. There’s no sign of the usual little fruits.
      Maybe the rain beat the beans and vegetables also??? Just a thought….

  • Reply
    lynn legge
    June 6, 2018 at 7:58 am

    tipper I so love these stories, and can imagine hearing them frim a beloved pass onto your children and grandchildren….the Good Lord sure did bless us with so much…thanks for sharing with us…sending love and big ladybug hugs

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