“Telling the bees” is real beekeeping, not a royal tradition

When the royal beekeeper informed the queen bees of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, he was practicing a beekeeping tradition of updating the hives with family news.

A few days after the death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, the Daily Mail published an article with the headline: “The Royal Beekeeper has informed the Queen’s bees that the Queen has died and that King Charles is their new patron in a bizarre tradition that dates back centuries. ”

In response to the storya the person on Twitter said they needed to check if a parody account had posted the article, “because it’s just sensational.” Another Twitter user refers to the practice as an example of “hysteria” over the death of the monarch.


Is “telling the bees” a real tradition?


  • JSTOR Daily, which uses searches from JSTOR’s academic journal database to provide context for current events
  • Debra Shutika, Ph.D, folklorist and beekeeper
  • Mark Norman, author and folk researcher
  • Floyd Shockley, Ph.D, entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History


Yes, “telling the bees” is a real tradition, and it’s not just for news about monarchs or death.


The practice of “telling the bees” is a tradition in which a beekeeper informs his bees of major events in the beekeeper’s life, such as a death or marriage. It has always been most common in the United States and Western Europe.

“It’s definitely not a royal tradition,” said Mark Norman, author and folklore researcher. “It’s not something that would only be done by beekeepers who kept swarms for the royal family or other members of that household.”

Instead, Norman said, it’s a very old custom that was practiced by ordinary people who kept bees for their own purposes.

“The idea here is that when there is major news, good or bad, whether someone is dying or moving house, or there are babies being born, etc., you share the new to bees because they are part of your family and community,” said Debra Shutika, folklorist and beekeeper.

News shared by beekeepers who practice this tradition varies from place to place, but notifying bees of a noticeable death is common wherever it is practiced, according to a 2018 article in JSTOR Daily, which uses research of its academic journal database to provide context to current events. .

Some beekeepers will knock on their hives and tell the bees the news, Shutika said, while other beekeepers might just walk up to the hives and talk to them.

Norman said there was a version of the tradition in New Hampshire where beekeepers had to sing the news to the bees in rhyming verse.

In the event of death, tradition usually requires the beekeeper to tie a black cloth around the hives or to wrap the bees in some kind of black cloth. Photos from the Daily Mail article show the royal beekeeper tied a black cloth around the queen’s hives.

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Norman and Floyd Shockley, an entomologist at the National Museum of Natural History, said the tradition likely dates back to ancient Celtic mythology, though its exact origins aren’t known for certain.

But the practice became more common in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was believed that keeping bees out of the loop would bring bad luck, Norman said.

“If you didn’t, the bees might get very sick and stop producing honey, or they might leave the hives altogether because they weren’t told about it,” Norman said. “It obviously comes from a time when superstition was much stronger than it is now, because without the scientific evidence behind it, people would look for obvious reasons why bad things would happen and then try to put them down. avoid in the future so that the crops don’t fail, so that the animals don’t get sick, and so on.

Shockley said, perhaps unsurprisingly, that there is no scientific evidence that bees actually react to what they are told. But he suggested that beekeepers might still be able to communicate information to their bees when telling them family news.

“Bees and many other social insects respond to tone, volume of sound,” Shockley said. “Most of the time people tell the bees they’re whispering to the bees because if you’re too aggressive the bees will react to the tone, volume, maybe even the smell – because your physiology changes when you are angry or sad.”

Shutika said she thinks it’s likely that former royal beekeepers informed the bees of the death of former monarchs whenever it happened because “usually that’s what a beekeeper will do. “.

“They are living creatures, and we decided to take responsibility for them,” Shutika said of the beekeepers. “So I think it’s a very common thing for a human, when you spend so much time looking after, in this case, an insect or a colony of insects, that you develop a great affection for And it would make sense in those contexts to share your life with them, especially important news.

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