Telling the bees

In nineteenth-century New England, it was held to be essential to whisper to beehives of a loved one’s death.


While most common in the nineteenth century, the practice of “telling the bees” about significant life events endures, albeit in a different form, to the present day. The most pervasive and affecting depiction of this tradition can be found in the New England Quaker writer John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1858 poem “Telling the Bees.”

An unnamed speaker returns to his lover’s abode after a year’s absence. He describes his previous visit there in careful detail before noting that nothing had changed, not the house or the trees, save the family beehives. The speaker’s attention is drawn to these objects by the movements of a “chore-girl small” who sings a mournful tune as she drapes the hives with “shred of black.” It is apparent from the actions of the chore-girl that something is very wrong here. This is a house in mourning, a realization that sends a wintry chill through the speaker, who then begins to listen intently to the girl’s lachrymose tune. He becomes aware that “she was telling the bees of one / Gone on the journey we all must go!”

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