Telling the Bees

A Sweet Movie

“Hide from your neighbors as much as you please, for everything that happens you must tell to the bees” - The Bee-Boy’s Song

This poem comes from the new movie called “Tell It to the Bees”, that is based on old folklore that even traces back to classical times, documented in Greek Anthology and the Middle Ages. Since bees can be considered part of the family, it is believed that if the owner of bees passes away, the family must tell the bees of the death so they are allowed to grieve, or the bees will fly away or die as well. This practice can extend even further to telling the bees about any death in the family, birth, marriage, or secrets. 

The Widow by Charles Napier

The Widow by Charles Napier

The movie was based mainly on telling the bees your secrets, but when I saw there was a movie coming out with this title and premise, I was thrilled. And, it did not disappoint. 

Based on the story with the same title written by Fiona Shaw, it takes place in 1952 Scotland. Anna Paquin plays the main character, who is a doctor that comes back to her hometown to take over her father’s practice, and his bees. I was nervous there would be very little honeybee screen time, reference, or correct information about whom I considered the star of the show, but the movie did the bees justice! 

There were multiple, beautiful close-up shots of the bees, inside and outside of the hives. The little boy in the movie has an immediate bond with the bees, and is the one who tells the bees all his secrets. It does an amazing job of showing the relationship between human and honeybees, while highlighting interesting and accurate facts about the hive.

My favorite was how they noted that bees can learn to recognize voices and sometimes even footsteps based on the vibrations. This is why it is important to talk to your bees, for they will begin to know you. The first time I worked with bees, the beekeeper sang to her bees, and I have seen documentaries where the beekeeper always whistles. I’ve personally benefited from using all of these practices when working with bees.

A sweet scene is when the little boy is told he can tap on the hive, and the bees will respond with the same number of hums. His face just lights up when his three taps are returned with three pronounced hums from the hive. I dream of the day when I have my own bees to share this kind of relationship. 

The movie deals with some heavy topics: death, rape, abortion, an abusive relationship, an interracial relationship, and a homosexual relationship. But through it all, the bees provide solace, and in the end provide resolution. Giving honeybees the hero role in a film, to me, makes it the best movie I’ve ever seen! 

Some Sweet History

Many of my honeybee books have mentionings about “telling the bees.” In the book “Bees” by Candace Savage, she includes a poem by Katharine Tynan from 1918: 

Tell it to the bees, lest they

Umbrage take and fly away, 

That the dearest boy is dead, 

Who went singing, blithe, and dear, 

By the golden hives last year. 

Curly-head, ah, curly head!

Tell them that the summer’s over, 

Over mignonette and clover;

Oh, speak low and very low!

Say that he was blithe and bonny, 

Good as gold and sweet as honey, 

All too late the roses blow!

Say he will not come again, 

Not in any sun or rain, 

Heart’s delight, ah, heart’s delight!

Tell them that the boy they knew

Sleeps out under rain and dew

In the night, ah, in the night!

Image from page 79 of "The monitions of the unseen, and poems of love and childhood" (1871)

Image from page 79 of "The monitions of the unseen, and poems of love and childhood" (1871)

The book “The Sacred Bee” by Hilda Ransome says: “It may be that the custom of telling the bees of a death originated in the idea that the bees were “souls,” or that they were creatures who could fly up into the heaves from whence they had come.” While they book “Sweetness and Light” by Hattie Ellis is more practical and explains, “This superstition has a modicum of sense: when a beekeeper died, his skills went with him; how the insects were treated would perhaps indicate future fortunes.”

The 1858 poem with the title “Telling the Bees” by John Greenfield Whitter describes this practice. And, I looked up the poem “The Bee-Boy’s Song” that was in the movie and it looks like it has more versus, written by Rudyard Kipling in 1906 from the book Puck of Pook's Hill. There is a beautiful sung rendition if you click here

Lastly, I found this epic footage from Holland circa. 1926 of an old beekeeper telling his bees:  

If you have your own hives, and haven’t begun this practice yet, I encourage you to. If you don’t have your own hives, your quest is to sit among the flowers until a honeybee arrives, and share your secrets then. I believe this practice can bring peace and good fortune to anyone. 

Happy World Bee Day!