In medieval, Elizabethan, and Stuart times, bees were regarded as mysterious, intelligent, and holy; their wax was used in church *candles, honey was a biblical image for God's grace and the joys of heaven, poets praised the hive as a model for the perfect society, grouped around its 'king' (it was only in the 1740s that English naturalists admitted the large bee was female). Something of this awe remains in a nursery riddle from the 16th century, with the answer 'a bee':
   Little bird of Paradise, She works her work both neat and nice; She pleases God, she pleases man, She does the work that no man can.
   (Opie and Opie, 1951: 82-3)
   Folk tradition about bees stresses how easily they might take offence, in which case they would cease to give honey, desert their hives, or die. They had to be treated as members of the household; in particular, they must be told about deaths, births, and marriages in the family, their hives must be appropriately adorned, and they must be given their share of the festive or funereal food. They would then hum, to show they consented to remain.
   The *funeral custom is frequently described throughout the 19th century:
   My mother, who passed most of her youth in the village of Bakewell in Northamptonshire, tells me that the belief in the necessity of telling the bees everything was very strong there. At the death of a sister of hers, some of the cake and wine which was served to the mourners at the funeral was placed inside each hive, in addition to the crape put upon each. At her own wedding in 1849 a small piece of wedding cake was put into each hive. (Folk-Lore 3 (1892), 138)
   The ceremony of informing bees of their owner's death is in full force in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, Hin-ton, Wilts, and even in the highly intellectual city of Oxford. The ceremony is the same in all these places. Three taps are made on the hive with the house-key, while the informant repeats, 'Bees, bees, bees, your master is dead, and you must work for ', naming the future owner. A piece of black crape is then fastened to the hive. Many bee owners think it politic to inform the bees of the death of a relation; but in this case they never give the name, but the degree of relationship, as 'your master's brother, sister, aunt &c. is dead'. On weddings the bees expect to be informed of the auspicious event, and to have their hive decorated with a wedding favour. (N&Q 1s:4 (1851), 308)
   Such observations could be paralleled from virtually every part of England; many references will be found in Folklore and N&Q, besides regional books of folklore. Some localities add minor details; in Shropshire and Somerset, for instance, hives had to be lifted or turned as the coffin left the house, while in some Yorkshire villages bees were formally invited to funerals.
   Other common beliefs were that quarreling and swearing would drive bees away, and that they must be spoken to in soft tones. They could not tolerate the presence of an unchaste woman, or one who was *menstruating, but would sting her. In the north of England, it was said they could be heard humming hymns on Christmas Eve (Henderson, 1879: 311). Bees must never be bought with ordinary money, only with a gold coin; they can, however, be safely acquired by gift, loan, or barter. A single bee or bumblebee entering a house means good luck, probably in the form of money.
   When bees swarmed, it was usual for the women and children of the household to follow them, making a clatter with pots and pans, which was supposed to induce them to settle, and also let everyone know what was happening; it was accepted that in these circumstances one could go on to someone else's land without being charged with trespassing. It was a bad *omen if the swarm settled on a dead branch, meaning death for someone in the owner's family, or for the person seeing the swarm there.
   ■ Hilda M. Ransome, The Sacred Bee (1937; reprint, 1986), 211-32; Radford, Radford, and Hole, 1961: 38-40; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 17-21.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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