Telling the Bees
creative nonfiction by Kellie Brown

My grandmother loved flowers and arriving at her porch in spring meant enjoying an array of colors and fragrances. It also meant battling her spider flowers that encroached on the front door and provided a favorite haven for bumblebees. I was frightened of those bees, and so when she opened the door, I darted inside to the safety of her kitchen. Of the countless hours I spent with her, only rarely did my playing in the yard or helping in the garden result in a bee sting. But when it did, she pulled a spice tin of meat tenderizer from her cabinet, which she used to make a paste that would “take the sting out.” 

My grandmother’s kitchen, with her bee sting treatment, was a place of wonder to me, like a cabinet of curiosities. How such a small space could be the center of so many activities and so much delicious food remains a mystery. At the old Formica-topped table, we would sit to eat fried chicken, to play Yahtzee and Pollyanna board games, and to color in the coloring books she kept for me. I was the firstborn grandchild, the only girl, and the only one who lived nearby. 

Some of my favorite foods from that kitchen came from her cousin’s farm. From there, she brought home an assortment of apples that became filling for fried hand pies and dumplings. She could always achieve the right balance between tart and sweet. Even more precious than those apples were the jars of honey with the comb inside that she brought from the farm. Her cousin maintained several hives and shared the bounty of the bees. I don’t think anything has ever equaled the pieces of honey-drenched comb that she offered me. On the occasions that I accompanied her to the farm, I kept my distance from those bees. But I loved the old country house with its wide fields and generous orchard. For me, it was a storybook setting that seemed fixed in another era. My grandmother loved classic children’s literature, especially Anne of Green Gables, so maybe I felt like Anne Shirley arriving at Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert’s beloved farm. 

In creating the picturesque setting of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery drew on the beloved Prince Edward Island of her childhood in the 1870s and 80s. What better way to enshrine the love of place than to recreate it in timeless stories. British poet Flora Thompson, a contemporary of Montgomery’s, followed a similar path, writing a trilogy of novels based on her childhood growing up in Juniper Hill, a hamlet in Oxfordshire, England. Initially published between 1939 and 1943, the trilogy was re-issued in 1945 as a single volume titled Lark Rise to Candleford. I first came to know of those charming stories from the BBC television show of the same name that ran for four seasons from 2008-2011.
Thompson gave us not only a beautiful physical setting, but a cast of colorful characters that adapted easily for the screen. The series felt to me like a blending of two favorite American television shows from my own childhood— The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, just with British landscapes, cultures, and mannerisms inserted in place of the mountains of Appalachia and the plains of the American Midwest. One of the characters who most interested me in that rural village of Lark Rise was Queenie Turrill. She was the matriarch of the village and a wisewoman, able to converse with ghosts and discern from nature the signs of what was to come.

The roots of this practice may have come from Celtic mythology, which claimed that bees helped humans connect with the spirit world, and so those needing to get a message to the dead could use the bees as their interlocutor.     

Queenie had a habit of visiting her hives to converse with the bees. And in that way, she carried on a popular British tradition that any momentous event that took place in the household, such as a birth or marriage, must be told to the bees; granted, some enjoyed more regular discourses, telling the bees about the daily happenings. This ritual proved especially vital if a death occurred, particularly of the head of the household. The bees needed to be informed or else they might desert the household or even die. Some also draped black mourning cloth onto the hives as a shroud. The roots of this practice may have come from Celtic mythology, which claimed that bees helped humans connect with the spirit world, and so those needing to get a message to the dead could use the bees as their interlocutor.     
This strange but intriguing ritual inspired writers and artists alike. English painter Charles Napier Hemy’s Telling the Bees (1897) depicts a newly widowed woman in a long black mourning dress accompanied by her young son. Having walked through a field, the two stand in front of three beehives constructed from wood with thatched roofs. Dressed in a sailor outfit and straw hat, the little boy leans into his mother, and her arm drapes protectively around his shoulder. She has come to inform the bees of her husband’s passing. 

The American Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier composed a poem with the same title in 1858. Its concluding stanzas read:
 Then I said to myself, “My Mary weeps
   For the dead to-day:
Haply her blind old grandsire sleeps
   The fret and the pain of his age away.”
But her dog whined low; on the doorway sill
   With his cane to his chin,
The old man sat; and the chore-girl still
   Sung to the bees stealing out and in.
And the song she was singing ever since
   In my ear sounds on:—
“Stay at home, pretty bees, fly not hence!
   Mistress Mary is dead and gone!” 

The tradition made its way across the Atlantic with the Scots-Irish immigrants, taking root in New England and in the mountains of Appalachia. Country household activities accompanied by requisite gossip took on the association, labeled as “quilting bees” and “husking bees.” While most popular in the 19th century, the practice of telling the bees continued into the 20th century and the present, especially among those who understand the wisdom of inherited ritual. Appalachian poet Jane Hicks is one such writer, never apologizing for braiding “old ways” into modern life. In her memorial poem for James Still—a Kentucky writer, beekeeper, and collector of “sayings,”—she asks in her poem “James Still Leaves Wolfpen,” “Did anyone think / to tell the bees?”

Maybe the persistence of these rituals keeps us grounded to more than just time-honored cultural practices. Maybe they help us maintain ties to the people and places that we have loved but can now only visit in our hearts and memories, like my grandmother and her kitchen. According to Australian environmentalist and philosopher Glenn Albrecht, part of what I feel is solastalgia, a term he coined that means a sadness for the way a particular place used to be. He meant it as an indictment of the damage humans have done to our planet, but I find it extendable to the beloved places of our past that can never be as they once were.

Just yesterday I experienced Albrecht’s solastalgia in the form of an intense longing to visit again my grandmother’s kitchen of wonders. This happens periodically— a memory surfaces unbidden or something passes through my senses that reminds me of her. I then want to feel her loving arms encircle me and to catch a faint whiff of the White Linen scent she loved to wear. I want to place my hands into her hands, with their long fingers, gnarly knuckles, and age spots— hands that had cared for others as a nurse, that had treated my bee stings and scraped shins, hands that had opened jars of honey and rolled out pie crusts, hands that had sewn to clothe me and cultivated a garden to feed me. Her hands had held books as she read to me and a pen, never a pencil, to fill out her daily crossword puzzle. 

As I recall her industriousness as she moved from room to room in that small house, I also conjure the image of those beloved hands stilled. I had pulled a chair up close to the right side of her bed as she lay unresponsive in a hospice facility. Her right hand, which stretched out on top of the white sheet, had a cotton ball held on with white tape where an IV had been removed. Edging from underneath that bandage was a tiny, rust-colored rivulet of dried blood, and it was that sight of her mortality that shook me and activated my grief. In that moment, it became my hands that held a book and my voice that read aloud, trusting that she could hear me. 

As all these images flood back to me, I am reminded of this passage from George Eliot’s Adam Bede: “Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them: they can be injured by us, they can be wounded; they know all our penitence, all our aching sense that their place is empty, all the kisses we bestow on the smallest relic of their presence.” As I reflect on this 19th century concept of mourning, I think also that the bees might have been told, that their hives might have been covered. I didn’t have any bees to tell that my grandmother passed, but now I whisper my loss into the air and hope that nature’s messengers carry it aloft to heavenly places. 

Kellie Brown was born and still lives in East Tennessee where generations of her family have lived. She is a violinist, conductor, music educator, and award-winning writer whose book, The Sound of Hope: Music as Solace, Resistance and Salvation during the Holocaust and World War II (McFarland Publishing, 2020), received one of the Choice Outstanding Academic Titles award. Her words have appeared in Earth & Altar, Ekstasis, Psaltery & Lyre, The Primer, and others.