The Stories We Tell: Exploring the Folklore of Bees in an Age of Extinction

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Editor’s Note: This is the sixth post in the Ghost Light: Folkloric NonHumanity on the Environmental Stage series edited by Caroline CE Abbott. The series aims to illuminate the relationships between non-human, or other-than-human beings, folklore, and the environmental humanities and to encourage intersectional conversation.


Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022, a curious news story was circulated. This story reported that, following the Queen’s death, the royal beekeeper had paid an official visit to the hives at Buckingham Palace to inform the honeybees of her passing.1 Whilst to the average reader this may have seemed relatively bizarre, this is a custom that will likely be familiar to anyone with even the slightest interest in bee folklore. It is a long-standing tradition, particularly across European cultures, that one must tell the honeybees about important events, including when their beekeeper has died or a new family member has been born.2 Per the tradition, if the honeybees are not informed of these events, those who neglected to inform them will experience ill fortune. In 1937, for example, bee folklorist Hilda Ransome wrote about how, not so long before she had published her work, a woman in Sussex had blamed the death of her baby on herself: she had neglected to tell the honeybees of the infant’s arrival.3

The tradition is just one example of bees’ veneration and mythification in folklore. In 1876, for instance, the Scottish geologist and folklorist Hugh Miller published a folk story concerning a young man named William Fiddler who, after attending the funeral of a friend, dreamt about a bee.4 As the tale goes, this bee contained the soul of Fiddler’s friend. In the dream, the bee led Fiddler to drink from a spring of fresh water which helped him to recover from a serious illness. Similar references to bees as “beings” beyond the bee — and particularly, as physical manifestations of human souls — are widespread in bee folklore. Ransome writes a different, but similar story: of two travellers who, weary from their journey, stop to take some time to rest against a wall. As one of the travellers falls asleep, the other observes a bee as it crawls into a hole in the wall. The traveller proceeds to rest his staff against the hole, trapping the bee inside. When he later tried to wake his companion, he found he was unable to do so — right up until the moment that he moved his staff and the bee flew out. Upon waking, the companion relayed that he had dreamt of his friend shutting him up in a dark cave. The narrator of Ransome’s story, too, believed a man’s soul to be inside the bee.5

Fig. 1. Bombus lucorum, the white-tailed bumblebee, seen here rising from the petals of a peony. Holland Park, SW London, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Abbott, used with permission.

Further inquiry into folkloric stories connected with bees brings to light a rich tapestry of tales which cast bees in an enchanted light: bees have been imagined as the messengers of Gods; as one of the few animal species offered entry to heaven; and as creatures who hold influence over the fates of humans.6 Yet, whilst the folklore surrounding bees extends far beyond the few stories I have shared, even a modest foray into bee folklore reveals how the insects have captured the human imagination and indeed, are entangled with the deific and supernatural.

The wonder attached to bees lies in contrast to their status as insects who, through their association with unhygienic spaces and disease, and coupled with their lack of human-like features, are often viewed by humans as a class of species which are unlovable or undesirable.7 Indeed, if the relationship between humans and animals is impeded by an unbridgeable gap (Haraway, 2008) then the relationship between humans and insects is impeded by a gaping chasm: the gap between the train and the platform edge versus that of the Grand Canyon.

Fig.2. The remnants of a wasp nest which did not survive the winter (no flying buzzing creatures were harmed in the making of this photograph). Eastern Connecticut, United States of America. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Abbott.

Bees, however, remain a rare exception to this rule. This is not to suggest that the presence of bees causes only delight, for it is not uncommon for people to fear being stung. Rather, it is to recognise that bees have long been a creature of fascination to humans, and have thus commanded our attention and respect.8  Historically, the human capacity to look past bees’ insect natures may have spared the fates of the many other insect species who regularly come into less-enchanted contact with humans. Today, however, this has far wider implications for their capacity to survive and thrive. The current era is one defined by the mass extinction of more-than-human species. Insects have not escaped this tough reality, and we have entered into a period of time famously dubbed the “insect apocalypse.”9 Bees are no exception to the challenges facing insects, and a great number of bee species are facing increasing stressors.10

Fig. 3. A hoverfly, one of several insects classified colloquially as “false bees,” perches on a tulip. This insect is likely Epistrophe eligans, but could be another member of the Syrphidae family. Per a 11 October 2022 press release from the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, “thirty-seven per cent of all hoverfly species in Europe are threatened with extinction, according to the first continent-wide assessment of this essential pollinator group.” SW7, London, United Kingdom, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Abbott, used with permission.

Yet bees stand out here, too. Across the vast landscape of works and writings responding to the mass processes of extinction underway today, their plight has commanded public attention and imagination.11 Indeed, research around the decline of insect species reveals the extent to which we draw focus to the challenges faced by varying bee species: Monbiot’s writing on ecological breakdown, Carrington’s article on insect decline, and Leahy’s work on insect losses in the United States all feature honeybees as the headline image.12 Still more, McGrath’s article on the complexity of the ‘insect apocalypse’ shares an image of a European orchard bee; and Goulson’s examination of the importance of insects includes an image of a leafcutter bee.13 Bees’ legacy as one of nature’s wonders is made visible through a public willingness to care, fear and mourn for bees.14 The initial platforming of the bees’ plight in extinction narratives (which I previously examined for its correlation with the dramatic nature of the colony collapse disorder crisis in the mid-2000s) is sustained by people’s typical acceptance of bees as a group of species — a group whose absence represents catastrophe and invites sorrow.15

Moreover, in addition to influencing how news of their potential loss is received, bees’ folkloric legacy can also be witnessed through how humans have responded to their decline. As Colleen English writes, in recent years society has “returned to a morbid intimacy with bees.”16 English details an event in Paris where beekeepers from across France held a symbolic funeral for bees, exemplifying this act both as testament to the legacy of customs which involve bees in human death rituals, and as a reminder of how bees’ lives are enmeshed with our own.

Fig. 4. A “Two-Spotted Bumble Bee” (Bombus bimaculatus), common to the Eastern United States, feeds on a garden’s Lamb’s Ear or Woolly Hedgenettle (Stachys byzantina). Eastern Connecticut, United States of America, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Abbott, used with permission.

Whilst bee species’ peculiar place in the human imagination may not have protected them from processes of ecological harm, it has energised moves towards narrating, lamenting, and challenging their decline. Through these stories we come to see that our cultural histories do not remain static, confined to the past, but permeate into imaginings and actions of the present. As we are reminded by Thom van Dooren: “how we tell the past, as well as which pasts we tell, plays a powerful role in structuring what is nurtured into the future, and what is allowed or required to slip away.”17


Fig. 5. A Bumble Bee scatters pollen through the air as it flies from catkin to catkin. Wellfleet, MA. United States of America, April 2021. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Abbott.

This work is inspired by Rosamund Portus’ PhD work, funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities.


Notes

1 Saman Javed, “Royal beekeeper informs Buckingham Palace bees that the Queen has died,” The Independent. September 10, 2022, https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/royal-family/royal-beekeeper-bees-queen-death-b2164345.html; Jack Hobbs, “Royal beekeeper tasked with informing queen’s bees of her death,” New York Post, September 15, 2022, https://nypost.com/2022/09/15/royal-beekeeper-tasked-to-inform-queens-bees-of-her-death/.
2 John Burnside, “Apiculture: Telling the bees.” Nature 521, (2015): 29-30.
3 Hilda M. Ransome, The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937).
4 Hugh Miller, Scenes and legends of the north of Scotland; or, The traditional history of Cromarty. 14th edn. (London and Edinburgh: William P Nimmo, 1876), 339-341.
5 Hilda M. Ransome, The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1937).
6 Mark Norman, Telling the Bees and Other Customs: The Folklore of Rural Crafts (Cheltenham: The History Press, 2020); Claire Preston, Bee (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), 80; Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
7 Thor Hanson, Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees (New York: Basic Books, 2018); Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut, Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (New York and London: New York University Press, 2013), 86; Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London and New York: Routledge, 1966), 36.
8 Bee Wilson, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us (New York: Thomas Dunne Book, 2004); Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee (London: George Allen, 1901), 8.
9 Dave Goulson, “The insect apocalypse, and why it matters,” Current Biology 29, no. 19 (2019): R967 – R971, doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.06.069; Damian Carrington, “‘Insect apocalypse’ poses risk to all life on Earth, conservationists warn,” The Guardian, November 13, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/13/insect-apocalypse-poses-risk-to-all-life-on-earth-conservationists-warn.
10 Dave Goulson, Elizabeth Nicholls, Cristina Botías. and Ellen L. Rotheray, “Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers,” Science 347, no. 6229 (2015): 1255957-1-1255957-10, doi: 10.1126/science.1255957; Günther Hauk, Towards Saving the Honeybee (United States of America: The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, Inc, 2002).
11 Rosamund Portus, “An Ecological Whodunit: The Story of Colony Collapse Disorder,” Society & Animals, (2020): 1-9, doi: 10.1163/15685306-BJA10026; Lisa Jean Moore and Mary Kosut, Buzz: Urban Beekeeping and the Power of the Bee (New York and London: New York University Press, 2013).
12 George Monbiot, “Insectageddon: farming is more catastrophic than climate breakdown,” The Guardian, Oct 20, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/20/insectageddon-farming-catastrophe-climate-breakdown-insect-populations; Damian Carrington, “‘Insect apocalypse’ poses risk to all life on Earth, conservationists warn,” The Guardian, November 13, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/13/insect-apocalypse-poses-risk-to-all-life-on-earth-conservationists-warn; Stephen Leahy, “Insect ‘apocalypse’ in U.S. driven by 50x increase in toxic pesticides,” National Geographic, 06 August 06, 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/insect-apocalypse-under-way-toxic-pesticides-agriculture.
13 Matt McGrath, “Nature crisis: ‘Insect apocalypse’ more complicated than thought,” BBC, April 23, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-52399373; Dave Goulson, “The insect apocalypse: ‘Our world will grind to a halt without them’,” The Guardian, July 25, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jul/25/the-insect-apocalypse-our-world-will-grind-to-a-halt-without-them?mc_cid=01d5cff467&mc_eid=5777f6f041.
14 Bee Wilson, The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us (New York: Thomas Dunne Book, 2004).
15 Rosamund Portus, “An Ecological Whodunit: The Story of Colony Collapse Disorder,” Society & Animals, (2020): 1-9, doi: 10.1163/15685306-BJA10026; Freya Mathews, “Planetary Collapse Disorder: The Honeybee as Portent of the Limits of the Ethical,” Environmental Ethics 32, no. 04 (2010): 353-367, doi: 10.5840/enviroethics201032440.
16 Colleen English, “Telling the Bees,” JSTOR Daily, September 05, 2018, https://daily.jstor.org/telling-the-bees/.
17 Thom van Dooren, “Spectral Crows in Hawai’i: Conservation and the Work of Inheritance,” in Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death and Generations, ed. Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren and Matthew Chrulew (New York and Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2017), 196.

Header Image: A domestic honeybee and a Bombus lucorum, or white-tailed bumblebee, feed on a pink peony. Holland Park, SW London, 2018. Photograph courtesy of Caroline Abbott.
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