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When the Queen Died, Someone Had to Tell the Bees

LONDON — As news of Queen Elizabeth II’s death reverberated through the world, a headline over the weekend stunned many on social media: Exclusive to The Daily Mail that the “royal beekeeper has informed the queen’s bees that the queen has passed away.”

Did bees need to be told about human affairs? Would they have an opinion on that?

But some beekeepers, backed by folkloric historians, say that “telling the bees” is a standard practice dating back centuries, with potentially dire consequences if not followed.

“It’s a very old and well-established tradition, but not something very well known,” said Mark Norman, a folklorist and the author of “Telling the Bees and Other Customs: The Folklore of Rural Crafts.”

The tradition holds that bees, as members of the family, should be informed about important life events in the family, especially births and deaths. Beekeepers knocked on each hive, bringing the news and possibly covering the hive with a black cloth during a period of mourning. The practice is more widely known in Britain but is also found in the United States and other parts of Europe, Mr Norman said.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was believed that failure to tell the bees could lead to various mishaps, including their death or departure, or failure to make honey. Today, beekeepers may be less likely to believe they’re risking bad luck, but they can continue to follow the tradition as “a mark of respect,” Mr Norman said.

Stephen Fleming, a 25-year-old beekeeper and co-editor of BeeCraft, a British beekeepers’ magazine, said he carried on the tradition once after a friend died. He went to the friend’s bees, knocked softly on the hives and told them the news, he said.

“It was just something I thought my boyfriend would enjoy,” he added.

After BeeCraft published an article about telling the bees in 2019, several people wrote their own stories about doing the job. A reader, addressing someone else’s bees, spoke in rhyme to tell them that their master had died: “Honeybees, honeybees, hear what I say. your master [name] is now deceased.”

Buckingham Palace beekeeper John Chapple declined to comment. The Daily Mail reported that he had tied black ribbons in bows on the beehives before telling them in hushed tones that the Queen had died and that they would be given a new master.

Mr Fleming said most beekeepers would probably be aware of the tradition, but not many would practice it.

“It’s generally thought to be a good and fun thing to do,” he said.