Telling the Bees

A HIKE through the English lake country had taken me to a land of peace and plenty, dotted with thatched cots set in fertile acres that had been tilled since Cæsar’s galleys scraped the sands of Dover. In old, timbered inns I awoke to the cawing of rooks and the humming of bees in gardens where dim sundials told off the centuries; and after a long day’s walk I sat in taprooms black with age and smoke and listened to the gaffers as they leisurely drank bitter beer, home-brewed, from blackjacks Noah might have carried on his ark.

The dialects of the county had fused into what was to me almost a foreign tongue. My own Yankee idiom was equally queer to these countryfolk, and yet in some fashion, as strangers will, we managed to communicate such idle thoughts as one has in old, sleepy inns at twilight, which in England lingers so long and lovingly.

It was the bees that interested me most; for hereabout men had kept bees so many generations that a hiveless garden was unthinkable. And to the old beekeepers they were endowed with a strange, uncanny intelligence that was somehow psychic, and hence had risen the ancient rite of ‘telling the bees’ — which, I discovered, meant that whatever event closely touched the domestic life must be disclosed to the bees. Birth, marriage, and death were bonds that knit men and the bees they tended, so that if, through oversight, the news was not whispered to the bees, they would be deeply offended, would in fact stop making honey, and would form a new swarm and abandon their ancestral hives.

I suppose that this is merely superstition — folklore that is followed because it always has been followed, but believed only halfheartedly by the farm folk themselves. They cannot bring themselves to abandon a habit their grandsires observed, back to a past so dim the origins have been lost.

It was a very old man who told me about bees and their curious lore. He had kept bees all his life, until rheumatism laid him on the shelf. Now, cared for by his great-grandchildren, he sat in the inn of an evening, slowly quaffing his bitter beer, and trying without too much success to keep a clay pipestem where once his teeth had been.

‘Oh, aye,’ he said. ‘A body must allus mind to tell his bees! As a bairn, I was carried out to the hives that the bees might know a new young one was come to house. Sting? No; no bee would sting any of the household. Ne’er heard of aught like that. Bees knows their own! Do ye ken how much labor goes into the makin’ of e’en a sup o’ honey? My grandsire once worked it all out. He sat all day watchin’ the bees as they flew to and fro a field a matter of a mile away. Each time a single wee drap o’ honey; no more. And Grandsire measured; it took no less than fifty draps to fill a spoon. So that when a body downs a single spoonful o’ honey, which is little enow, it has taken the bees a hunnerd mile o’ flyin’ to fetch it, let alone the makin’ and storin’ of it in the comb. Oh, aye; no wonder the sma’ beasties works theirselves to death so soon!

‘ So we respects their feelings, so to say, and tells our bees. The young lassies, soon as they ’re cried in church, puts on their wedding veil and ring and new shoon, and shows theirselves to the bees. It has always been so. And when death comes, bits o’ black crape maun be tied to the hives till after the burying in churchyard. I canna say what they bees thinks in their little heads; they go right on about their affair, which is making honey. But if they are not told, then they fly away; and a new swarm maun be boughten. Many’s the time I’ve seen it with these eyes o’ mine!

’And now I come to a strange thing indeed, and Gospel-true. A farmer I well knew — worked for him, I did, when I were a nipper — was known for the richest man o’ these parts. Like all of us, he kept bees, and ne’er failed to tell them of births and deaths and suchlike. And his honey were the best of any; made from a great field of sage flowers, with a bit gathered from his peach orchard every spring. He had a fine, handsome darter; no prettier anywhere. And a grand cook she were, too; many’s the rook pie and gooseberry fool I set down to at their table, and wonnerful home-smoked hams, and suchlike. And in due course she got hersel’ engaged to marry. He were n’t one of our kind, but a stranger. From Liverpool, or maybe Sheffield. A fine, handsome chap, wi’ grand clothes, and book talk. Now the neighbors mistrusted him from the start; it was nowt one could put his tongue to, but he was not our sort. Too smooth-spoken, and given to lookin’ down his nose at simple folk. I don’t mean unpolite; it was the look in his eye, and his tongue in his cheek, as the saying goes. There were plenty of whisperin’ and mutterin’ in inglenooks and across hedges, but it was plain to see that the girl was fair taken wi’ him; and so was her father. The mother — God rest her — had died three year afore.

‘Now, as it fell out, we were right about Nance’s young bucko; it proved that he was a wrong one, who had thrown away what money he heired, and were lookin’ for a wife wi’ a dowry. Worse yet, he already had a wife living somewheres in foreign parts, and he had abandoned her and changed his own name. But all this come out later; at the time we had no proof — nowt but our suspicions. And so plans for the wedding went ahead, and when Nance got her fine weddin’ gown made she put it on her, with the veil her mother had been wedded in, and her grandmother, too; and on her head she wore real orange blossoms, and long white gloves on the arms of her. And so she went out into the garden where the hives was, to tell the bees — according to old custom. And her father and brothers and the neighbors lookin’ on from a distance; for the bride maun go by hersel’ to tell the bees. And pretty as a rose she were, as I well remember!

‘Now I have said how her young man was scornful of all the old ways of the village folk. To him we were simple ones, believing old wives’ tales and silly stories fit only for children. So when that day they telled him how that Nance had put on her fine church clothes and gone out to tell the bees, he was scornful like, and laughed in a nasty sort o’ way; and he said that he too must go out in his wedding clothes, and let the bees see what sort o’ a son-in-law the old man was bein’ blessed with. At that there was a great taking; for the groom ne’er did such a thing, being no blood kin to the family. The bees might feel insulted like; anyhow they would no be interested. But nowt would do but Nance’s young spark maun deck himsel’ in his new clothes, all made by some grand draper in the city. I mind him well; a tail coat he had, an’ gray trousers, spats and cane and a topper, an’ gray gloves. And us all standin’ apart and lookin’ on, an’ scowlin’; but not bein’ able to do aught about it, it bein’ none of our affair. I can see him now, as he strutted down through the garden to where the hives stood in a long row, a kind o’ nasty smile on his face. Nance’s father were none too well pleased, but did n’t know what to do about it. But they bees — they knowed!’

The patriarch took another long pull at his beer, and knocked the dottle from his pipe against the heavy table top; and somehow the sound reminded me of the knocking at the gate in Macbeth, as described by De Quincey.

‘Oh, aye! They bees knowed. For, sir, they stinged him to death, then and there!’

I cried out involuntarily. ‘No! But how awful — and what a terrible death to die! ’

The gaffer carefully repacked his long churchwarden.

‘ It were no so bad as ye’d think! I seed it all. The young man stumblin’ back through the garden, and looking like a blackamoor, the bees were that thick on his face; and then he fell unconscious. The bee poison were that powerful it struck right to his heart. Old doctor said so. If he suffered, it were but for a minute or so.’

‘And Nance — the girl? Must have been an awful shock to her! ’

The old one nodded solemnly.

‘Belike it were, just at first. But right away the truth come out. It got noised about what a rascal her young man were, and how he cared for nowt but her dowry. And that cured her, I dunno. Our girls are proud and decent, and many’s the time she must of blessed her bees, that well knowed what we had only guessed. It were a good riddance — so everybody thought. And Nance must of got well over it, for come Michaelmas she married my youngest boy. ’T is their darter drew the very beer I’m finishin’ this minute. My own grandchild — and Nance be her name!’