Telling The Bees & Other Bee Folklore

Folklore about bees

Yesterday’s post about news bees brought up other bee folklore-specifically honey bee folklore like this:

*If a bee owner dies, the bees must be told of the death and moved or they will leave the hive.

Pap never had bees when I was growing up, but since I’ve been grown I’ve wished more than once that I did and I hope to fulfill my dream of being a bee keeper someday.

I was familiar with the tradition of telling bees their owner had died before Sheryl mentioned it yesterday.

I jumped over to The Frank C. Brown Collection of NC Folklore to see what it had to say about honey bee folklore. In addition to the one above the book also had these tidbits:

*The success of swarming bees can be told in the following verse: Swarm in May worth a load of hay; Swarm in June worth a silver spoon; Swarm in July not worth a fly.

*Rob your bees during the new of the moon and they’ll produce more honey next time.

*Its bad luck to sell bees. (maybe this means someone will give me theirs!)

*If you sell your bees and receive payment into your hand you have sold your luck with your bees. To sell bees you must have the buyer lay the payment on a rock and refrain from picking up the money until the bees are gone with their new owner.

*When a member of the family dies the bee hives must be draped in black cloth to make sure they don’t leave.

*If you fail to move your bees when a family member dies all the bees will die as well.

A few other pieces of bee folklore I’ve heard:

*If a bee flies in and out of the house it brings good luck.

*Bees should be told of any major change in the owner’s family, weddings, births, etc. or they will leave.

Going back to the first piece of folklore mentioned I found a wonderful old poem about telling 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’errun,

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 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 settlers long ago.



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  • Reply
    November 8, 2021 at 6:36 pm

    I took my granddaughter to a doctor for her allergies. The doctor asked if she had ever had hives. I said, “No. She’s never had hives.” My granddaughter was five and she looked very confused. She said, “Nanny you know that’s not true. We have three hives in the back yard.”

    • Reply
      November 9, 2021 at 6:25 am

      Doreen-that story is too cute! Thank you for sharing it!

  • Reply
    Don Byers
    June 13, 2019 at 5:33 pm

    My cousin, the late F.C. Moore(next door to Shook’s Auto Parts) taught me some amazing things about bees.

  • Reply
    Vera Guthrie
    June 13, 2019 at 12:41 pm

    My Mama told of someone dying in the family that was a Bee Keeper. She said when he passed the honey bees were landing on everyone and swarming, an aunt told them to “settle down” “the master is gone”, after that they returned to the hives.

  • Reply
    July 4, 2012 at 8:55 am

    All this bee talk is inspiring me to check on “my” girls and get ready for a new-moon harvest…should be in about two weeks or so, which is perfect for Piedmont NC. We had a mild winter, so I put an extra super on in early spring so I don’t have to rob too much of the liquid gold…just enough to support my habit and give a few gifts. Tipper, I think you should start with three hives, one for you, one for Chitter and one for Chatter. By the way, I resemble Jim Casada’s remark! : )

  • Reply
    July 1, 2012 at 8:31 am

    My grandparents had honey bees. It’s where I first fell in love with the taste of honey and chewing on the honey comb.

  • Reply
    June 30, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    John Greenleaf Whittier brings back memories! I memorized part of one poem – “Snowbound” – when I was about 6. I don’t think the words could have made much sense to me at that age; someone must have taught it to me like teaching a dog to walk on two legs!
    I’ve always thought “telling the bees” goes back to Ireland or other places (and times past). You see bees represented in all sorts of ancient architecture and family crests and such.

  • Reply
    Peggy Lambert
    June 29, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    Tipper we have had bees when we first married and then we entered the military and retired after 21yrs.We came back home to our beautiful Mts. We had 40+ hives and then the mite come along and we got down to 30 or so they keep dieing and now we only have ten hives. Our 8yr.old put on his little bee bonnet and out fit and got his smoker and gloves and put up his first hive. His mother did a video of this and he took it to Show & Tell at school.He was also was beating on a dish pan to make them go in. That little boy is now 18yrs old and in college and this week he helped his Pap-Paw fix the supers to put on the hives for the sour wood honey in July. Pap always gives him half the honey to sale. My husband talks to his bees. He calls them his little ladies. We go all around them because they are use to our scent. A man come after a hive one day and George told him not to go to the hive he would get stung, he didn’t listen THEY STARTED STINGING HIM. They know George’s after shave and under arm deoderant. Made believer out of him.
    Like all you write about. Thanks
    “Hillside Walking”

  • Reply
    Madge @ The View From Right Here
    June 29, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    Interesting.. I’ve always thought raining some bees would be a fun thing to do…

  • Reply
    susie swanson
    June 29, 2012 at 8:05 pm

    I’ve never heard this before, but I don’t know much about them..My brother keeps them all the time..Loved the poem..

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 29, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Ken-you said ole Henry. Did you mean O. Henry? He wasn’t a poet. He wrote some pretty good stories though and made a awful good candy bar. B. Ruth made a good candy bar too but the only thing he wrote was his autograph. Both candy bars are as nutty as their namesakes. The B. is for Babe not Beverly, but if the shoe fits….

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    June 29, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    B. Ruth–Thanks for resurrecting what was obviously a vague memory. We had the “Authors” card game and played it quite a bit. Longfellow’s portrait on the card showed a man with a wonderful head of hair, as I recall. I’m passin’ familiar with most major American poets, although my preferences lean distinctly in the direction of those whose words rhyme. Robert Service is a particular favorite, and I think I could recite most of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” from memory.
    Incidentally, old Same was from Peachtree, but it was the one in Tennessee, not the one over close to Tipper’s neck of the woods.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    June 29, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    My Granny had bees and folks said she could charm them. I remember sitting out with her while she banged on a dishpan to “settle” the hive which was ready to swarm. Then we watched as the swarm flew out and right into the new hive she had just put out. At seven, I was sure she could charm the bees. (and I still think she did)

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    You know B.Ruth, now you’ve got me wondering what it was Grandpaw used in that smoke thingy to calm down them bees. I wonder if Grandpaw might have been inhaling some of it too. Did Grandpaw grow that stuff he put in that smoke making thingy? Maybe Grandpaw just couldn’t feel the bee stings.
    Don’t nobody tell that Bill Burnett about it. He’ll put on his guns and badges and Grandpaw will be in deep dodo.

  • Reply
    Karen Larsen
    June 29, 2012 at 10:41 am

    I love bees and bee lore. Thanks, Tipper!! Good post!

  • Reply
    Mrs. K
    June 29, 2012 at 10:29 am

    Lots of great folklore. Thanks, Tipper!

  • Reply
    Jim Casada
    June 29, 2012 at 10:20 am

    Tipper–Most everyone has heard the old phrase about “a bee in her bonnet,” but I simply can’t resist sharing a tale about a bee in a different place. One of your regular readers is a good friend who also hapens to be a beekeeper. She will remain nameless to protect the innocent, although I don’t imagine she would actually be offended should I reveal her identity.
    At any rate, one hot summer day she was out checking her hives and was accompanied by a nephew who was 14 or 15 and his buddy of the same age. It being so warm, she was wearing a T-shirt and no bra. Somehow some bees got inside her shirt and began stinging the bejeebers out of her. She had to have some relief, and there was nothing for it but to shuck her shirt. Preparing to do that, she said to the boys: “You need to turn your heads so I can take my shirt off.” The answer she got from her nephew’s buddy was a classic both in terms of its simplicity and as an index to the impact of teenage testosterone. He said: “Which way?”
    I reckon that would be a case of a bee in a bosom rather than a bonnet.
    Jim Casada

  • Reply
    June 29, 2012 at 9:29 am

    I remember an old Moonshiner up at
    Topton who had bees. Him and his
    wife took me fishin’ alot, and I
    showed him a bee tree way up on
    our mountain. It wasn’t long till
    the tree was down and he was sellin’ mountain honey right out
    of his store.
    And B. Ruth, I remember ole Henry
    W. too…Ken

  • Reply
    Tulsa Jack
    June 29, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Be brave!

  • Reply
    dolores barton
    June 29, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Very interesting! I have a neighbor who raises bees; I find them hanging around my numberous flowers. Aside from being allergic to their sting, I enjoy watching them do their work.

  • Reply
    B. ruth
    June 29, 2012 at 8:47 am

    My Granpa had bee hives, on the hill where he lived above Marshall…He rarely wore anything when he went to the hives but his face thingy mask…Sorry, I don’t know what that thing was..but he didn’t suit up, etc…He did use his smoker if he was pulling honey, I think he called it…to help settle the bees…He never wanted us around his bees and actually ran a wire fence from the mill around the area to keep anything from bothering them…He would sometimes give us a bit of comb to chew on..I remember that as a treat and very sweet…Please don’t see me a dead bee in it though…ewwwww…
    I love bees…and we also would love the have hives…R.s Dad had hives and would have to suit up like a astronaut I don’t think they liked him much…LOL
    Does anyone remember the card game “Authors”…Long Feller (lol), Whitman, Whittier and Bryant..etc..
    How many children today, use that game to help remember American poets…
    Thanks, Tipper I’ll BEE around agin! Wonderful humming post…praise to the bees…

  • Reply
    June 29, 2012 at 8:39 am

    I recently traveled to a Eastern KY and stopped at the country stores along the way looking for HTF twine mops. I found some of the old time stick candy. I asked the elderly owner if the cream flavor was good. He said, “It shore is, but I can’t keep it long enough to sell to eat, cause a bunch of people always buys it up to feed to their bees.”
    We lost most of our bees years ago when the bee mite was at it’s worse. I heard on the national news that pink stuff on seed corn is killing them, too. There is supposed to be enough on one kernel to kill several hundred bees. That’s scary!

  • Reply
    June 29, 2012 at 8:38 am

    no sacred bees for me, mine are scary bees and if i can figure out how i will ship the ones in our back yard up to you. LOL

  • Reply
    Kimberly Burnette
    June 29, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Honey bees supposedly hum Christmas hymns on Christmas Eve too. But if you hear them, you will die within the next year.

  • Reply
    Mary Shipman
    June 29, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Ed Ammons. Pop kept bees in a hollow log, he called it a bee gum. Those who kept them in boxes had bee hives.

  • Reply
    Ethelene Dyer Jones
    June 29, 2012 at 7:20 am

    Thanks for the bee folklore!
    Some I had heard, some not. I can’t help but believe there’s much to these “ways with bees.” Our ancestors who were close to nature and life in general would not have followed these practices if there had not been significant meaning behind them. Thanks! And the new player is GOOD! Thanks for it, and for the list of choices of the old songs!

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 29, 2012 at 6:09 am

    What’s the difference in a bee hive and a bee gum?

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    June 29, 2012 at 6:06 am

    I enjoyed the poem. It was pretty good. That Whittier dude ought to write some more;)
    I ‘member the one about the bee flying in and out being good luck.
    We had several hives of bees when I was a child but never had a lot of luck with them. I remember the very last one. We double dared Sister to climb up and pee on it. So if you are double dared you gotta do it, right. Well, them little critters either died or moved on to a more friendly environment. No more bees at the Ammons homestead!
    Oh, and I used to catch bees. Between my toes! Ouchies!

  • Reply
    June 29, 2012 at 6:00 am

    I have heard that there are people that bees just don’t sting. I think my grandpa was one. He always kept bees but when he went to get honey he never wore the bee suits like my uncle did. He said his bees liked him and wouldn’t sting him because he talked to them and you shouldn’t take too much honey and that was why Elmer always got stung. He pretty much let me tag along any where he went but never to his bee hives.

  • Reply
    Gorges Smythe
    June 29, 2012 at 4:25 am

    I used to have bees, but had never heard that!

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