Caoimhe Pendred is a multimedia Artist Living and working in West Cork. Her work is concerned with folklore, myth and how we use story to make sense of our reality.
Telling the Bees
Telling the Bees is a body of work born during the pandemic, a tumultuous time where universal fear and apocalyptic notions abounded.
The lives of bees and humans have always been linked; they are barometer of our relationship with nature. For centuries, we’ve projected stories and beliefs onto these strange, familiar creatures, seeing them as messengers between this world and the next.
Perhaps it’s time to Listen to the Bees…
The Adorable Custom of ‘Telling The Bees’
There was a time when almost every rural family who kept bees followed a strange tradition. Whenever there was a death in the family, someone had to go out to the hives and tell the bees of the terrible loss that had befallen the family. Failing to do so often resulted in further losses such as the bees leaving the hive, or not producing enough honey or even dying. Traditionally, the bees were kept abreast of not only deaths but of all Important family matters including births, marriages, and long absence due to journeys. If the bees were not told, all sorts of calamities were thought to happen. This peculiar custom is known as “telling the bees”.
Humans have always had a special connection with bees. In medieval Europe, bees were highly prized for their honey and wax. Honey was used as food, to make mead—possibly the world’s oldest fermented beverage—and as medicine to treat burns, cough, indigestion and other ailments. Candles made from beeswax burned brighter, longer and cleaner than other wax candles. Bees were often kept at monasteries and manor houses, where they were tended with the greatest respect and considered part of the family or community. It was considered rude, for example, to quarrel in front of bees.
The practice of telling the bees may have its origins in Celtic mythology that held that bees were the link between our world and the spirit world. So if you had any message that you wished to pass to someone who was dead, all you had to do was tell the bees and they would pass along the message.
The typical way to tell the bees was for the head of the household, or “goodwife of the house” to go out to the hives, knock gently to get the attention of the bees, and then softly murmur in a doleful tune the solemn news. In case of deaths, the beekeeper also wrapped the top of the hive with a piece of black fabric or crepe. If there was a wedding in the family, the hives were decorated and pieces of cake left outside so that the bees too could partake in the festivities. Newly wed couples introduced themselves to the bees of the house, otherwise their married life was bound to be miserable.
If the bees were not “put into mourning”, terrible misfortunes befell the family and to the person who bought the hive. Victorian biologist, Margaret Warner Morley, in her bookThe Honey Makers (1899), cites a case in Norfolk where a man purchased a hive of bees that had belonged to a man who had died. The previous owner had failed to put the bees into mourning when their master died, causing the bees to fall sick. When the new owner draped the hive with a black cloth, the bees regained their health. In another tale, an Oxfordshire family had seventeen hives when their keeper died. Because nobody told them about the death, every bee died. There are plenty of such tales in Morley’s book.
The intimate relationship between bees and their keepers have led to all sorts of folklore. According to one it was bad luck to buy or sell hives, because when you sell one, you sell your luck with your bees. Instead, bees were bartered for or given as gifts. If bees flew into a house, a stranger would soon call. If they rested on a roof, good luck was on its way.
But the relationship between bees and humans goes beyond superstition. It’s a fact, that bees help humans survive. 70 of the top 100 crop species that feed 90% of the human population rely on bees for pollination. Without them, these plants would cease to exist and with it all animals that eat those plants. This can have a cascading effect that would ripple catastrophically up the food chain. Losing a beehive is much worse than losing a supply of honey. The consequences are life threatening. The act of telling the bees emphasizes this deep connection humans share with the insect.
HOPE masks (Herbal Olfactory Protective Equipment)
Valerian is most commonly used for sleep disorders, especially the inability to sleep. It is also used for anxiety and psychological stress,
Yarrow has been used to induce sweating and to stop wound bleeding. It also has been reported to reduce heavy menstrual bleeding and pain. It has been used to relieve GI ailments, for cerebral and coronary thromboses, to lower high blood pressure, to improve circulation, and to tone varicose veins. People chew the fresh leaves to relieve toothache.
Rue can be used for breathing problems including pain and coughing due to swelling around the lungs. Rue is used for other painful conditions including headache, arthritis, cramps, and muscle spasms; and for nervous system problems including nervousness, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and Bell’s palsy.
Borage seed oil is an effective treatment for various degenerative diseases. It’s believed that it may be used for therapeutic and preventative medicines for acute respiratory distress, rheumatoid arthritis, and menopausal-related symptoms.
Rosemary is traditionally used to help alleviate muscle pain, improve memory, boost the immune and circulatory system, and promote hair growth.
St. John‘s Wort is used for a variety of conditions, including kidney and lung ailments, insomnia, and depression, and to aid wound healing.
Feverfew used for the treatment of fevers, migraine headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, stomach aches, toothaches, insect bites, infertility, and problems with menstruation and labour during childbirth.
Mint mint leaves are anti-inflammatory in nature which helps in reducing any inflammation in your stomach. Mint leaves also relieve indigestion. Its leaves are rich in phosphorus, calcium and vitamins C, D, E and A which improve the body’s immune system.
Thyme is known to have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant effects that may be useful in treating everything from intestinal infections to skin conditions.
Jasmine has been used for liver disease, and abdominal pain. It is also used to prevent stroke, to cause relaxation, to heighten sexual desire, and also in cancer treatment.
Chamomile is commonly used for many human ailments such as hay fever, inflammation, muscle spasms, menstrual disorders, insomnia, ulcers, wounds, gastrointestinal disorders, rheumatic pain, and haemorrhoids. And as a sedative.
Lemon balm is considered a calming herb. It was used as far back as the Middle Ages to reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep, improve appetite, and ease pain and discomfort from indigestion. It is very attractive to bees.
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