Telling the Bees, by Albert Fitch Bellows. circa 1882

It was during a recent course on death and dying that I learned of the 19th-century custom of “telling the bees” when a major event like death had occurred, a custom popularized by the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1858 poem “Telling The Bees”. In it, the speaker returns to his lover’s home after a year’s absence to find the servant girl draping the hives in black and singing a mournful tune. He becomes painfully aware that “she was telling the…