Bee Superstitions


Superstitions likely to gather around Bees—Unlucky to Buy Bees—Ill Omen for a Swarm to Settle on a Dry Stick—”Have the Bees been told?”—Turning Hives on the Death of the Owner—Probable Origin of these Errors.

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On a priori grounds it is only to be expected that various superstitions would arise at different times and in various countries with regard to bees. Insects displaying such marvellous instincts, such apparent adaptation of means to ends, such indications of reasoning and special intelligence, were sure to be credited with powers beyond those generally recognised in them. Hence we may account for some of the curious ideas about bees which have prevailed in certain localities.

There are other notions, however, the origin of which is more difficult to discover. Such, for instance, is the prejudice among ignorant bee-keepers against selling for coin swarms or stocks. A purchase thus made is supposed to be likely to lead to misfortune for one of the two parties concerned. By some occult process, lying outside the range of reason or imagination, ill luck is thought to be attracted by bargains of this sort.

A correspondent of the Journal of Horticulture thus narrates the following incidents: “Last August I purchased a swarm, for which I paid ten shillings. So far as I could judge from my limited experience with bees, for the first fortnight they appeared to be doing well, but one night, about eight o’clock, I found they had deserted the hive, and were on the ground in a cluster the size of a large plate.

I gently lifted the hive and placed it over the cluster. About ten o’clock I found most of the bees had gone up into the hive, which I then returned to its stand. For a short time the bees appeared to work, but one day, thinking they appeared very quiet, I lifted the hive, and discovered that it was quite empty of bees. There were three nice pieces of empty comb. I think the bees were teased by wasps.

Our parishioners tell me I did two things wrong, and that in consequence my bees could not thrive. One was to give money for them, which is always unlucky; the other was, that I did not have them at the right time of the year. I ought to have had them on Old Christmas Day. Is there anything in these ideas?”

The correspondent signed herself “A Clergyman’s Wife,” and the explanation of her want of success was not far to seek. She had been taken in by the vendor of her bees. A poor swarm had been palmed off upon her, and one so manifestly weak, and having, so late in the comb-making and honey-gathering time as August, only three small combs, was doomed to perish with cold and starvation. The poor insects, as a forlorn hope, had deserted their hive for what they trusted might be better quarters.

The fallacy of the coin having had anything to do with their destruction, takes rank with the disinclination of some people to accept from a friend the present of a pocket-knife, unless the donor will take a halfpenny in exchange; or with the old saying “Helping to salt is helping to sorrow.” We can hardly suppose that the kindly sort of freemasonry, which now exists among bee-keepers, has ever proceeded so far as to make any one always willing to give his swarms or stocks to another.

If so, the benevolence once current has degenerated into a willingness, even among the devotees to the superstition of which we are speaking, to accept full value in the way of barter if not in cash. Whatever its origin, we feel satisfied the days of this prejudice are numbered. With the immense spread of apiculture now taking place experience and common sense will sweep away this psychological cobweb, as so many others have been made to disappear under the same powerful agencies.

As to the other superstition about “Old Christmas Day” being the proper time for procuring a stock, the probability is that seasons sacred to the memory of events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ would have special attributes of good fortune attributed to them. But the actual reason why stocks purchased at the above-named period would be pretty sure to do well is, that by Old Christmas Day they would have passed the perils of early winter, and would be hardly likely to find a buyer unless their weight indicated that they had food supplies sufficient to last till the flowers came again.

A second notion of this kind is, that if a swarm settles on a dry stick or dead tree, the bees will not long survive. Doubtless, many persons could be found to state that in their own apiaries they had seen instances in which the one event had followed the other. We, indeed, have had one such coincidence—a case in which a swarm settled on a stake supporting an espalier apple-tree, and died during the ensuing winter.

Still, we are unable to believe that there is any real connection between the incidents. Living trees offer so many inducements to a swarm on the wing for settling—the benefit of shade above all—that it is not to be wondered at that branches with foliage are, if accessible, almost always chosen by the insects for alighting on. It is just possible that an old and feeble queen may occasionally, when heading a swarm, be unable to fly farther than a very short distance, and, through fatigue, may settle on a post or other leafless wood.

Of course such a queen would be likely to die within a few months at most, and thus involve the loss of the colony during the next winter. Hence the idea we are speaking of may have arisen.

We come now to a notion more widely prevalent than either of the preceding, and perhaps even more absurd. We allude to the supposed necessity of informing the bees of the death of their owner or of any member of his family. So strongly is this fallacy held, that in many country districts, especially among the cottagers, the question after a decease in the household “Have the bees been told?” is almost as much a matter of course as an inquiry whether the undertaker has been sent for.

Even in the depth of winter, it is thought by believers in this superstition needful to “wake the bees,” albeit we know that they are not asleep, and tell them of the sad event, in which they are supposed to have so profound an interest. In Maude’s Antiquities we read of the following case in point: “A gentleman at a dinner table happened to mention that he was surprised, on the death of a relative, by his servant inquiring whether his master would inform the bees of the event, or whether he should do so.

On asking the meaning of so strange a question, the servant assured him that bees ought always to be informed of a death in the family, or they would resent the neglect by deserting the hive. This gentleman resides in the Isle of Ely, and the anecdote was told in Suffolk. One of the party present, a few days afterwards took the opportunity of testing the prevalence of this strange notion, by inquiring of a cottager, who had lately lost a relative, and happened to complain of the loss of her bees, whether she had told them all she ought to do.

She immediately replied, ‘Oh! yes, when my aunt died I told every skep myself, and put them into mourning.’ I have since ascertained the existence of the same superstition in Cornwall, Devonshire, Gloucestershire (where I have seen black crape put round the hive or on a small stick by its side), and Yorkshire. There are many other singular notions afloat as to these insects. In Oxfordshire I was told that, if man and wife quarrelled, the bees would leave them.

“In the Living Librairie, Englished by John Molle, 1621, page 283, we read, ‘Who would beleeve without superstition (if experience did not make it credible) that most commonly all the bees die in their hives if the master or mistress of the house chance to die, except the hives be presently removed into some other place?

And yet I know this hath hapned to folke no way stained with superstition.’ A vulgar prejudice prevails in many places of England that, when bees remove or go away from their hives, the owner of them will die soon after.”

A correspondent of The Bee Journal writes under the head of “Norfolk Bee-Superstition”: “A neighbour of mine had bought a hive of bees at an auction of the goods of a farmer, who had recently died. The bees seemed very sickly, and not likely to thrive; when my neighbour’s servant bethought him they had never been put in mourning for their late master. On this he got a piece of crape and tied it to a stick, which he fastened to a hive.

After this the bees recovered; and when I saw them they were in a very flourishing state—a result which was unhesitatingly attributed to their having been put into mourning.”

It is more difficult to suggest the possible origin of these curious fancies than to explain those previously mentioned. We may, perhaps, be on the right track in supposing that it has often happened, when the master or mistress of the bees has been ill or has died, the insects have missed, especially in autumn or early spring, the attention required for their welfare, and have, in consequence, perished.

Then other persons of the household, unacquainted with the actual connection—in many instances a vital connection—between the bees and their owner, have attributed to them a bond not actually existing; and so, being led to the silly notion of the insects grieving, or needing to be informed, and to have their hive put in mourning, they have easily diffused a superstition in which each favouring coincidence would tell widely for its extended belief.

In the Norfolk case, narrated in The Bee Journal, several possible explanations suggest themselves. In the first place, if the deceased farmer was an inhabitant of the same village as the buyer of his bees, and the hives were removed to a new home near their old one, most of the bees which had previously flown would return to their accustomed spot, and perish, not knowing their way to their changed abode.

Then, in the course of a fortnight or three weeks, a good number of freshly-hatched insects would have strengthened the community, and these, naturally, would return with their supplies to the fresh domicile, and soon put matters into a flourishing condition.

Again, if dull gloomy weather followed the purchase of the bees, and was succeeded by brighter days, coincidently with the fastening of the stick and crape to the hives, the improved appearances would, of course, be due to warmer temperature and sunnier hours, without any change in the feelings of the insects from their abode being duly adorned with the emblems of mourning.

Lastly, the explanation may be simply that, when the stock was bought it was in poor condition, but that in two or three weeks, by the hatching of brood in the natural course of events, a greatly improved condition of affairs had come about. The first of these explanations, however, is probably the correct one.

One more superstitious custom is said to prevail in Devonshire, viz., at the funeral of a deceased bee keeper, the turning round of every hive that belonged to the departed, and this just at the moment the corpse is being carried out of the house. We do not pretend to explain this curious fancy. It may have originated in an experiment to avert the supposed disastrous connection between the bees and the death of their owner. Anything would seem to do for a charm to minds imbued with superstition.

Borlase, in his Antiquities of Cornwall, mentions one other superstition of apiarians of that county. He says: “The Cornish to this day invoke the spirit Browny when their bees swarm; and think that their crying ‘Browny, Browny,’ will prevent their returning to their former hive, and make them pitch and form a new colony.”

It is not wonderful that the many extraordinary facts connected with bees, coming at various times under human observation, should have led to notions of marvels, founded, not on observation, but on fancy. There is a strong tendency in the human mind to desire explanations of phenomena, and where there has been no scientific training in observation, false deductions are easily arrived at, or guesses as to causes are made, which have no foundation in fact.

Bee-keeping has, for the most part, till in quite recent times, been chiefly in the hands of people of the more ignorant classes, among whom wonderful stories easily arise, are rapidly propagated, and tenaciously believed. Any circumstances seeming to support a previously established fancy would serve to increase the strength of superstition; while any number of instances not corroborating prevailing ideas would be disregarded. But, when once the spirit of sound investigation is applied to these vulgar errors, they become so manifestly absurd, that the marvel is how they can possibly have arisen.

Without doubt, there are many extraordinary facts connected with bees still awaiting the observation and the explanation of explorers in this department of natural history. Problems connected with the working of mind in the lower animals; the relations between reason and instinct; the functions of particular organs in these and other insects; the transmission of faculties not possessed by either parent in particular races; the direction and variation in the working of inherent faculties, through the agency of man, are subjects opening up most interesting fields of inquiry, which we would point out to those who have the inclination, leisure, and opportunities for pursuing investigations.

We are satisfied that efforts and time thus devoted will be well repaid by the pleasure which springs from knowledge, and will lead in all devout minds to enlarged admiration of the wisdom and beneficence of Him, from whose creative power the varied structures of animal life have come, and from whose infinite resources have been bestowed all those faculties which call forth our astonishment and delight as we study the facts of insect life. The deepest impression on mind and heart will be that embodied in the exclamation of the ancient Hebrew poet, “O Lord, how manifold are Thy works: in wisdom hast Thou made them all.”

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