‘Telling the Bees’

[Ralph Tomaselli: ]

By Lorraine Connelly

Of all the mourning rituals that have followed in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, none is as fascinating — or as obscure — as the folkloric tradition of “Telling the Bees.”

Consider this headline that appeared in The Daily Mail: “The royal beekeeper has informed the Queen’s bees that the Queen has died.” Within the gardens of Buckingham Palace there are five hives, each containing about 20,000 bees. In keeping with tradition, the royal beekeeper notified the bees of the Queen’s death and tied black ribbons around the hives in her memory.

The practice of notifying the bees of a death in a household harkens back to Celtic mythology where the presence of a bee after a death was said to have signified the soul leaving the body. The delivery of this vital information to the bees suggests that our ancestors recognized a mutual link between the natural world and the human. Not only were bees notified of deaths, marriages and births warranted this invocation as well. Not telling the bees could result in a string of bad luck, like a crop failure, or a doomed marriage. Man’s symbiosis with nature was portentous, mirroring the quality of the relationship between human society and the natural world. The beehive itself was a metaphor for an ordered world, emphasizing the stability and the interest of society above those of its individual members.

Science tells us if we choose to ignore the bees, it is surely at our own peril. After all, pollinators, like bees, are directly or indirectly responsible for 75% of the food supply in the world. I asked Wallingford resident Aili McKeen, who learned the techniques of beekeeping at Bee School, sponsored by the Connecticut Beekeepers Association, to weigh in on the role of bees.

McKeen’s interest in beekeeping began six years ago with one hive — “a mellow colony that required no gear.” The next year, she added a second hive. She notes, “A bee colony gets use to their beekeeper; the way a beekeeper moves and handles the hive.” She and her husband now maintain nine hives in total, at her home and at a nearby farm.

“For millennia,” notes McKeen, “beekeeping traditions, founded in science and observation, have been in place.” Bees provide high-quality food — honey, royal jelly, and pollen — and other products such as beeswax; propolis, a resin-like substance which was thought to fight infections and heal wounds; and of course, adds McKeen, “Bees provided mead for the Vikings!” Beeswax, she says, also has distinctive fatty acid profiles that are healthy for human consumption.

Bees have long been a part of the biodiversity upon which our survival depends. When the health of bees is at risk, it is oftentimes due to a lack of proper environmental stewardship. A report from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations noted: “Bee populations have been declining globally over recent decades due to habitat loss, intensive farming practices, changes in weather patterns and the excessive use of agrochemicals such as pesticides. This in turn poses a threat to a variety of plants critical to human well-being and livelihoods.”

There are signs of hope, however. Bees have become a rallying point for environmentalists and may finally be getting the critical attention they deserve. Since 2017, UConn has been certified as a Bee Campus and has established a pollinator habitat, and currently offers courses on pollinator conservation.

Last summer Tracy Zarrillo, an entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, reported the reappearance of the black-and-gold bumblebee, Bombus Auricomus, an insect that hadn’t been seen in Connecticut in more than a century. An expert on native bee populations, Zarrillo notes that the recent Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) of honeybee hives brought attention to the fact that “we do not have a handle on the status of the other species of bees that pollinate our crops and wild plants.” She adds, “There are over 4,000 native species of bees documented in America north of Mexico, over 20,000 species worldwide, and 378 species documented in Connecticut.”

“Bees are just one part of the complex ecological networks on the planet that keep natural systems healthy and functional,” says Zarrillo. With the steady onslaught of droughts, wildfires, and the increasing hot temperatures across the planet and increasing storm intensity, we would do well to pay attention to what the bees are telling us.

Bee health attests to the state of an environment for which we are all responsible, and of which we are both dependents and beneficiaries. Folklore or fact, it’s clear that our fate is inexorably linked to that of the bees. If they were to depart, our own exodus would not be far behind.

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime Wallingford resident.


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