Telling the Bees

November 21, 2020

My Grandma Berrigan used to describe a chatterbox as someone who “could talk the hind legs off a donkey,” using an old Irish phrase. It seems donkeys rarely sit down on their behinds; therefore, talking on and on to one would cause the poor standing donkey to collapse. When an acquaintance of limited means came into money and began acting snooty, Grandma remarked, “Put a beggar on horseback and watch him ride!” When an annoying person left a gathering, she would say “glad to see the back of her!” Now that I think of it, most of her colorful idioms were pretty critical, but that’s the Irish for you.

I recently heard someone mention “telling the bees,” and I was intrigued. For someone who is a real “donkey-hind-legs-talker-off-er” type myself, it has never occurred to me to chat up this particular member of the animal kingdom. In fact, I go out of my way to avoid bees completely. While I acknowledge their vital role in the food chain (which is why the decline of honeybees is so alarming), I always assume any encounter with them will end with a nasty sting. Maybe it’s the memory of swarms of yellow jackets that used to attack me on the soccer field as I prepped the orange slices for the boys’ team snack, but I just don’t trust ‘em.

Apparently, bee-telling is an ancient custom, still observed in some parts of Europe. It may have originated in a belief that bees provided a bridge to the afterlife. When a household member died, you had to go out to the hives and inform the bees (in a low, mournful tone). You would say something reassuring like, “The master’s dead but don’t you go; your mistress will be a good mistress to you.” Failure to do so would guarantee that the bees would scram, and the family fortunes would soon decline. These buzzing buddies were also to be let in on the news of marriages and births, and in some places hives were even placed indoors for the celebrations. Talk about social butterflies! I mean bees!

While this superstition sounds quaint and even silly, it’s long been part of the fabric of life, and has set minds at ease for centuries. The idea of inviting bees to a wedding may seem ridiculous to me, but I’m the first to leap into action when someone puts their hat on a bed (Bad bad luck!! Another Irish gem!!) So, really, what idea is sillier?

The world is spinning rather more out of control than usual these days. Maybe things would improve if we kept the bees in the loop? Life would certainly be sweeter (sorry). And a little harmless ritual or two might be very reassuring to us stressed-out, anxious people.

My friends the Uehlings keep bees. I think I might I send them a message to pass along to their little hive-dwellers: “Things are tough, but please stick around. We all need each other.”

Couldn’t hurt.


    I am an author (of four books, numerous plays, poetry and freelance articles,) a director (of Spiritual Formation at a Lutheran church,) and a producer (of five kids).

    I write about my hectic, funny, perfectly imperfect life.

    Please visit my website: or email me at



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