There are many beliefs and superstitions associated with bees.They often relate to bees dying, or leaving the hive, luck and money. Over time beekeepers have tried to understand bee behaviour to ensure that their colonies survive and if possible to prevent the bees swarming and leaving the hive. Whilst we know a great deal more about bee behaviour than our ancestors we cannot control these fascinating wild creatures. It is easy to see how myths grew up around the interactions of bees and people.
Bees in the house
There is a superstition that if a bumblebee buzzes at the window it is a sign of a coming visitor. If the bee has a red tail it will be a man and if it as a white tail it will be a lady.
If a single bee enters your house it is said to be a sign of good luck on the way, usually in the form of wealth.I like this belief as it is likely to ensure that the bee is not killed.
The Welsh used to believe that a bee buzzing around a sleeping child would mean it would have a happy life.
There is a legend that as a baby St Ambrose of Milan was found asleep with bees on his face. One bee had deposited a drop of honey on the baby's tongue which his father took to be a sign of future eloquence. St Ambrose is the patron saint of beekeepers. The Feast of St Ambrose is on 7th December.
Bees and the demeanour of the beekeeper
Tradition has it that if the bees hear you quarrelling, or swearing they will leave so you must talk to them in a gentle manner. It is true that bees need calm, gentle handling and can be disturbed by the vibration of noise.
Bees and women
It is alleged that bees cannot tolerate the presence of a woman of loose morals, or one that is menstruating and they will sting her and drive her away. However, it was believed that a virgin could safely walk through a swarm of bees. These are very odd beliefs and say more about the prejudices of people than bees’ behaviour.
‘Tanging’ the bees
In the past when bees swarmed, the women and children of the household had to follow them, making a noise with pots and pans. This was supposed to make the bees settle, or maybe it was really just to warn people to get out of the way? It was accepted that in these circumstances you could follow them onto someone else’s land without being accused of trespassing. Some beekeepers still believe that loud noise creates a vibration that can be used to capture a swarm. Today you cannot follow your bees onto another person's property unless they invite you and as bees are wild creatures the owner of the land may claim them. In reality most people are only too glad that somebody removes them quickly and safely. There is a charming description of bee tanging in Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson.
Ancient Irish Laws relating to bees
The Irish Brehon Law was that bees taking nectar from plants growing on a neighbour's land were guilty of grazing trespass in the same way a cow, or sheep would be if they were on your neighbours land. They could even be accused of leaping trespass in the same way as poultry. The way this law was observed was that a beekeeper was allowed three years of freedom during which time the bees were allowed to roam freely, on the fourth year the first swarm to issue from the hive had to be given to a neighbour as payment. On the following years other swarms were given in turn to other neighbours, in this way everyone was happy. It seems to have worked but I am not sure that the neighbours of modern beekeepers would be grateful for the present of a swarm – better to stick to giving away jars of honey.
The Bechbretha (Law governing bees) related to bee stings. As long as the victim swore s/he had not retaliated by killing the bee s/he would be entitled to a meal of honey from the bee keeper. However, if the unfortunate person died from a sting then two hives had to be paid in compensation to their family.Unfortunately when a worker honeybee stings a person this results in the lower part of her abdomen being torn away with the sting so the death of the bee is inevitable.The death of the person who has been stung is far less likely.
Bees and Death
Folklore tells us how easily the bees take offence and this will cause them to cease producing honey, desert their hives and die. Tradition is that bees must be treated as you would treat a member of your own family. They must be told all the news, in particular births, deaths and marriages. In the event of a death their hive must be adorned with a black cloth, or ribbon and they must be given their share of the funeral food. You may then hear them gently hum in contentment and they will stay with you. It is easy to see that a bee colony that is not being nurtured by a beekeeper will swarm or die out.The tradition of ‘telling the bees’ means that nobody will forget that there is a hive to look after.
It was a bad omen if a swarm settled on a dead branch for it meant death for someone in the bee keeper’s family, or for the person who witnessed the swarm settling.
Bee stings and health
There is a popular belief that bee stings aide in the relief of arthritis and rheumatism in much the same way as nettle stings. Bee venom has been investigated as a possible treatment for multiple sclerosis. There are beekeepers who suffer from arthritis but there may yet be medical uses for bee venom.
Messengers of the Gods
In Celtic myth, bees were regarded as beings of great wisdom and as spirit messengers between worlds. Honey was treated as a magical substance and used in many rituals. It was made into mead and was considered to have prophetic powers and it may have been this that was called ‘nectar of the gods’. No doubt after a few glasses of this alcoholic brew many people thought that they had reached a state of enlightenment.
“Telling the Bees” was extremely important, whether good news or bad, or just everyday gossip. As stated earlier you had to tell the bees about a death in the family or the bees would die too. Bad news was given before sunrise of the following day for all to be well. You may even formally invite the bees to attend the funeral or you could turn the beehives round as the coffin was carried out of the house and past the hives. In ancient European folklore, bees were regarded as messengers of the gods and so the custom of “Telling the Bees” may be a throwback to the idea of keeping the gods informed of human affairs.
The Ancient Egyptians believed that bees were formed from the tears of the sun god Ra. Honey had a significant role in funerary rituals of important people. Honey found in the tombs of the Pharoahs was still edible after 3,000 years.
There is a belief that bees should never be bought with normal money, only with gold coin although you may obtain them through gift, loan or barter. This is obviously not the view of the modern bee husbandry industry!