After the Queen died, John Chapple, the official Palace beekeeper, was charged with the task of "telling the bees." He literally went from hive to hive telling tens of thousands of the Queen's bees that Queen Elizabeth II had passed. Vanity Fair explains:
As reported in the Daily Mail, Chapple travelled to Buckingham Palace and Clarence House to perform his opposite-of-sweet duty. He spoke "in hushed tones," no doubt to try and take the sting out of it.
Chapple placed black ribbons around the hives, and then told the busy workers inside the news. He also explained that King Charles III is now their new master, and that he will be good to them.
"The person who has died is the master or mistress of the hives, someone important in the family who dies and you don't get any more important than the Queen, do you?" Chapple said to the British newspaper. Getting into the nitty-gritty of it, he explained, "You knock on each hive and say, 'The mistress is dead, but don't you go. Your master will be a good master to you.'"
The ritual of "telling the bees" about important events in the life of the beekeeper is centuries old. JSTOR explains its origins and how it developed over time:
This practice of "telling the bees" may have its origins in Celtic mythology where the presence of a bee after a death signified the soul leaving the body, but the tradition appears to have been most prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the U.S. and Western Europe. The ritual involves notifying honey bees of major events in the beekeeper's life, such as a death or marriage.
While the traditions varied from country to country, "telling the bees" always involved notifying the insects of a death in the family—so that the bees could share in the mourning. This generally entailed draping each hive with black crepe or some other "shred of black." It was required that the sad news be delivered to each hive individually, by knocking once and then verbally relaying the tale of sorrow.
Charles Fitzgerald Gambier Jenyns, a British Victorian apiarist and rector, in his A Book about Bees (1886) asserts that this message should be delivered to the hives at midnight. In other regions, like in Whittier's New England, they simply hung crepe on the hive and then sang to the bees that, "So-and-so is dead." Other variations include merely telling (rather than singing) or whispering the information. In some places they may say "Little brownies, little brownies, your master (or mistress) is dead."
I never knew about this ritual until the Queen died. When a friend—who was a beekeeper—died two years ago, a friend of theirs set up a group chat where we could all share photos and stories and memories of happier times. The person who set up the chat named it "Telling the Bees," and now I finally understand what that means. As much as I question most of the ritual and pomp and circumstance happening in the wake of the Queen's passing, this practice of telling the bees is touching, and seems like an intimate and meaningfully deliberate way to mourn someone's passing. As the JSTOR article points out, the ritual also highlights the incredibly important relationship between bees and humans that we must continue to foster:
While the future of the honeybee remains uncertain, this staged funeral serves as a powerful reminder that our fate is inexorably linked to that of bees. If they were to depart, the journey "we all must go" will come sooner than we realize.