‘Telling the Bees,’ A Springtime Prayer

Photo Credit: Pixabay.com

It is finally Spring!!! Join me in the outdoors wandering under Flowering Dogwoods, Magnolias, and the breath-taking Forest Pansy Redwood. Laugh with the dancing daffodils, mischievous lilac bushes, play hide-and-seek with the shy violets. I admire some of my sisters in Cincinnati who are experts on the wildflowers glorifying our woods and wild property near the Motherhouse grounds. Spring promises new life and a glorious summer to come.

I thought of this last week as we received news of a beloved sister’s death: a springtime of faith realized. If Sister Helen, one of two Sisters with whom I live, were still raising bees, she would have had to perform a ceremony with the hives in our yard upon news of her dear and lifelong friend’s death. She would have had to tell them of Sr. Irene’s death. When Queen Elizabeth died last fall, John Chapple, the Royal Beekeeper, dutifully went to the Queen’s hives in Buckingham Gardens and held the ceremony between himself and the bees. This tradition, known as ‘telling the bees,’ has been around for many centuries in Europe and the British Isles “involving notifying the insects of a death in the family so the bees could share in the mourning.” The beekeeper drapes each hive with black crepe and then knocks on the hive and announces the death saying, “Little brownies, little brownies your master/mistress is dead but don’t you go, your new master will be good to you.” 

While this sounds cultic, it is true that many hives have been recorded as decimated or abandoned after the death of a human family member connected to their keeper when they had not been told. They sense the grief and will swarm away from what appears dangerous to them unless they are reassured. Human care and consoling words have a profound effect on bees who sense the disruption of harmony over the death of someone close to the keeper and the family. If the person who dies is the owner of the hives and not necessarily the keeper, the bees will instantly mourn. Bees are amazingly connected to all that happens in the universe acting as if “in Him, through Him and with Him,” a revered prayer exhorting us to live this way in Christ as Catholics. This connection is mutual; bees are referred to throughout scripture and their wax is required for candles used in Catholic liturgies. Check this out: papal tiaras were designed as beehives and some sported carved bees as symbols. The thinking was that Popes were “King bees,” until we learned that no male bee could ever ascend to royalty! When we got smarter in biology, the Queen Bee took over! I find it very interesting that in 1948, Pope Pius XII gave a presentation titled, An Address on Bees in which he concluded, “Bees are models of social life and activity—if we learn to do by intelligence and wisdom what bees do by instinct, how much better the world would be.” Another writer added, “The bee is a sacred being because it made sacred wax, and wax is holy because the bee is holy.”

I got to reflecting on bees while enjoying spring when they begin their feverish foraging which will last until fall. I miss Sister Helen’s bees which riveted my attention on warm summer afternoons pressed by a relentless sun drawing out all the sweetness of nearby flowers. (Sister had to retire from beekeeping because her helper’s wife became very ill and Helen herself turned 90.) Another inspiration for my prayer and reflection were the words I came across, once again, of John Chapple, the royal beekeeper. It seems John was a bit worried with all the hoopla of the coronation, some of it happening in the Buckingham Gardens where the bees are kept. He was not allowed to tend to the bees until all the parties and noise, the drums, and cheers, were over. In an interview he said he will be ‘telling the bees’ that their new master will be good to them. And why wouldn’t he said Chapple, pointing out that as a boy, Charles would talk to plants in the palace and in the yards. “He was ahead of his time,” added the 80-year-old beekeeper who expects that such an environmentally au courant King will certainly be friendly to his bees.


Death, resurrection, promise of summer, even a coronation—all center on the metaphor of the bee. One writer suggested that the bee is a humble insect. No matter the clamor or pandemonium surrounding the bee, it only wants to quietly go about its business silently dipping into the nectar, bringing home the food to keep the nursery alive and healthy. Watching a bee working like this is like seeing a prayer forming itself and slowly spiraling in praise toward the sky. Just simple business that is holy.

Maybe we can ask for the grace to be more humble, more dedicated to good work, happier with what we’ve been given and more generous to share with others. That would be a good way to honor Spring. A thought from the poet Mary Oliver seems appropriate here: “And if you have no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach the actuality of faith, or even a morsel of life except vaguely?” 

Pray for an openness to the fullness of life—like the bee.

Quotes are from:

Mary Oliver, Long Life, De Capo Press, 2004, p.11.

John Chapple, Google on Royal Beekeeper

Pius XII, Google Search on Religion and Beekeeping

2 thoughts on “‘Telling the Bees,’ A Springtime Prayer

Add yours

  1. Dear Sister Mary Ann
    I love this story about the bees. May the wings of bees lift the soul of Sister Irene as she greets her Lord.
    Your sweet words related to the lifelong friendship of
    Sister Helen and Sister Irene have touched me deeply.
    I cherish your weekly blog.
    I thank God for your word skills and story telling.
    May blessings follow you all your days.
    Your faithful reader
    Betty Hickle


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