If you’re a pet owner, this stat likely won’t surprise you. But if you don’t have a fur baby, you might want to take a seat before continuing. According to a recent study, most Americans talk to their pets. Fifty-five percent, to be exact. Moreover, 48 percent confess to having imparted a secret to their domestic animal that no one else knows. Talk about man’s (and woman’s) best friend! But a couple hundred years ago, carrying on conversations extended much further than housebound mammals.

In fact, bees ranked at the top of everyone’s list. When big pieces of news hit a family, whether involving a death or a wedding, the family’s honeybee colonies were among the first to know. Keep reading to learn more about this bizarre practice and the dangerous fate that awaited those who failed to confide in their residential hives.

Bees and Humans Go Together Like Honey and Bread

Canines have been hanging out with human beings for a really long time. Archaeological evidence suggests they’ve been our companions for at least 30,000 years! That’s 20,000 more years than other domesticated animals like horses, sheep, and cattle.

As for honeybees, archaeologists believe humans have actively domesticated them for at least 9,000 years. Ancient pottery hailing from North Africa, the Near East, and Europe support this timeline, containing traces of beeswax. These finds illustrate how long humans and members of the Apidae family have collaborated.

With such a long history between humans and bees, it’s little wonder that superstitions surrounding beekeeping have popped up over the centuries. One of the most colorful examples remains the traditional practice of “telling the bees.”

The Intangible Magic of “Telling the Bees”

When families go through life changing events like death or marriage today, insurance companies, Social Security, and the DMV rank at the top of the list for notifications. But two centuries ago, the family beehives were the first place many family members went. There, they notified the hives they maintained so that they could share in the mourning or celebration.

'The Bee Friend’ by Hans Thoma.

‘The Bee Friend’ by Hans Thoma. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Some historical accounts even mention leaving a piece of wedding cake or a funeral biscuit for the six-legged critters. Other traditions associated with “telling the bees” include covering the hives with black crepe and knocking once on each one before relaying the family’s news. Other regions of the country recommended singing this news to the little honey-makers, and still others suggested the information be delivered precisely at midnight.

Forgetting the Practice Could Lead to Dangerous Consequences

The practice of “ricking” also took place in some locations. This involved having the oldest son in a family move the hives to the right, symbolizing a change within the human home. Some people also pointed their hives toward the family residence. This proved especially popular when families prepared for a wake within their home.

Of course, this historical hubbub begs the question: What happened when families failed to relay important information to their bees? Some historical accounts point to odd happenings. For example, the Associated Press noted that in 1956 a bee swarm showed up at the funeral of an apiarist named John Zepka. According to the account, the bees hung out on the funeral tent’s ceiling and floral sprays without bothering anybody. And other reports speak of whole bee colonies getting sick and even dying when families failed to tell them about recent deaths.

The bottom line? People once assumed a shared sympathy between bees and humans and went to great lengths to honor it. In a time when the very existence of bees is threatened, some researchers believe it’s time to reforge the intimate relationship once enjoyed between humans and these hardworking insects. This hearkens back to a famed statement by Einstein that may be far more prescient than we once realized, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, [humans] would only have four years to live.”

By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com


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