Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Telling the Bees

Telling the Bees, Charles Napier Hemy
English folklore believes that when a member of a village dies, the bees must be told or they will desert the local hive.  As Peter Stanford explains in How to Read a Graveyard, “The origins [of the belief] are obscure: some say bees are traditional symbols of fertility, and so instinctively flee death, others that they used to have a role in some cultures carrying souls into the afterlife, while their honey was a symbol of the divine, or even heaven” (164).  There are various customs for telling the bees; these include hanging black crepe about the hive so that the bees join in the mourning ceremonies, inviting the bees to the funeral, or visiting the hive and whispering the names of the dead. 

Irish writer Katharine Tynan dedicated her poem “Telling the Bees” to nineteen-year-old Edward Tennant, known to his family and friends as “Bim,” just one of the nearly 100,000 British men killed during the four-month Battle of the Somme.  During the summer of 1916, the English countryside must have echoed with confessions of grief whispered beside the hives of honeybees.

Telling the Bees 
(for Edward Tennant)

Edward Tennant
Tell it to the bees, lest they
Umbrage take and fly away,
That the dearest boy is dead,
Who went singing, blithe and dear,
By the golden hives last year.
Curly-head, ah, curly-head!

Tell them that the summer's over,
Over mignonette and clover;
Oh, speak low and very low!
Say that he was blithe and bonny,
Good as gold and sweet as honey,
All too late the roses blow!

Say he will not come again,
Not in any sun or rain,
Heart's delight, ah, heart's delight!
Tell them that the boy they knew
Sleeps out under rain and dew
In the night, ah, in the night! 
              --by Katharine Tynan

While the act of telling the bees underscores the deep connections that exist between humans and the natural world, the poem uses the folk custom to draw our attention to the ways in which the war has ruptured that connection.  The joy of last year’s curly-headed youth who “went singing, blithe and dear” by the golden hives seems a lifetime away – and indeed it is, now that “the dearest boy is dead.”  Edward Tennant, dead at nineteen, “will not come again,/Not in any sun or rain.”  The tranquility of the golden hives, the fragrance of clover, and the sweetness of honey are lost on the dead boy who “sleeps out under rain and dew/In the night,” – a truth so impossible to believe that it can only be repeated: “ah, in the night!”  The beauty of the pastoral scene brimming with life and late-blooming roses is turned on its head; it is jarringly incomprehensible that the young man who happily wandered the fields near his home has died in a cold and muddy field in France.  

Tennant was killed by a German sniper on September 22, 1916, while he himself was on a nighttime sniping mission. In his last letter to his mother, dated September 20th, he wrote, “To-night we go up to the last trenches we were in, and tomorrow we go over the top….I went to a service on the side of a hill this morning, and took the Holy Communion afterwards, which always seems to help one along, doesn’t it? ….I feel rather like saying, ‘If it be possible, let this cup pass from me,’ but the triumphant finish, ‘nevertheless not what I will, but what Thou willest,’ steels my heart and sends me into this battle with a heart of triple bronze.’”  Like so many at the Somme, Tennant seems to have known that it was unlikely he would survive the upcoming attack.  

After his death, a private who served under him wrote to Tennant’s mother, offering condolences and recalling, “When danger was greatest, his smile was loveliest.” 

Katharine Tynan
Tennant's grave, Guillemont, France
(photo by Andrew Holmes)


  1. Those who read and enjoyed this article may enjoy this song of the same subject by lovely English band Big Big Train. Telling the Bees ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGXbOiiaI24

  2. This is WONDERFUL -- thanks so very much for sharing!

  3. I have Pamela's memoir of Bim. I treasure it. Beautiful poem this is. The repetition of phrases of loss indescribably writes them into one's heart.

    1. How very special to have his mother's memoir -- thanks for reading and commenting. I, too, love this poem.