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Telling the Bees (wikipedia.org)
253 points by drdee 23 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 59 comments

My wife told me about this custom when we moved into a new house and found a small bee hive in a hollow of an olive tree. We made it a habit to give them updates about various events that occurred and it became an important bonding event. She is now critically ill and I am not looking forward to sharing her death with our bees, but I'll do it as what I hope will be an important part of closure and dealing with loss. The bees themselves have been doing quite well and have spun off swarms several times. They are docile non-Africanized bees and I hope they will continue to keep making more bees for a long time!

Sadly, my wife passed and I shared the news with the bees. It was a beautiful morning in Tucson, AZ. The bees are still hard at work doing what bees do!

Wishing you lots of love and peace in the wake of your wife’s illness. I cannot imagine.

A lovely sentiment beautifully expressed, and of course my very best to you in this horrific time.

Well-wishes to you and your family.

I used to be an adult ESL teacher and had students who had immigrated to the US from all around the world. I mentioned this practice one in class, and a student from Guatemala made clear that, at least where he was from, people were still telling the bees. I wonder if this is due to convergent evolution or colonial influence?

[0] I learned about telling the bees from the incredible Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA: https://www.mjt.org/exhibits/bees/bees.html

Great museum and a great exhibit! Really compelling description of folks remedies in a way that respects the construction of knowledge.

Unfortunately the museum is still closed due to COVID, but they've said they're not permanently closed...

This is one of the reasons I love Hacker News - random and interesting bits of information. I had heard of people talking to plants, their pets, etc...but apparently bees too, and particularly around deaths.

Grasping at straws here, I could see bees being very routine-oriented, and if a particular person (esp caretaker) was dead, that could upset them because the routine is now different. Why "telling" them appears to work is a mystery.

> Why "telling" them appears to work is a mystery.

I think you're reading too much into myth and folklore. There's no real evidence for these practices ... but there doesn't need to be. It's not about whether the phenomenon is real, it's about a fun myth.

Well... maybe. Whenever I see folklore like this I always suspect there are real effects but they may be attributed incorrectly. For instance, an ancient Greek feels sick, and worships at the temple of Apollo to ask the god to heal him. The Greek starts feeling a bit better when they leave. Apollo or the placebo effect?

My first thought with telling the bees is that just speaking our thoughts to an impartial third party can help ease our burdens and make us feel better. Maybe it's a therapist, a stranger at the bar, or a garden of bees. Now this doesn't explain the supposed effect of bees dying/leaving if the practice is not followed, but it could explain why the practice continues.

Maybe it's as simple as a tradition that helps make sure that nobody forgets to take care of the beehives (an important part of a community's agricultural infrastructure) when somebody dies or leaves the home (due to marriage, etc.)

That's an excellent observation.

> Apollo or the placebo effect?

Note that the placebo effect is not about real improvement perceived by the sufferer except in a few very specific symptoms (pain, high blood pressure, and some psychiatric illnesses, mostly). In most cases, the placebo effect is simply optimistic interpretation/collection of data by people wanting to see the medicine work.

I'm curious why you think this. Is there some research to support this view? From what I've read, the placebo effect seems quite real, with quite physical effects. And the surgical placebo effect is stronger than the medicinal placebo effect.

It's not so absurd if you fully accept that the connection between mind and body is bidirectional.

Placebos aren't curative. It's well known that they can affect a subject's perception of how their condition is progressing, and this may have physical consequences: e.g. a reduction in psychological stress leading to reduced blood pressure, etc. But the placebo won't affect the underlying condition. They don't make the brain somehow cure the body.


"Placebos won't lower your cholesterol or shrink a tumor. Instead, placebos work on symptoms modulated by the brain, like the perception of pain. "Placebos may make you feel better, but they will not cure you,"... "They have been shown to be most effective for conditions like pain management, stress-related insomnia, and cancer treatment side effects like fatigue and nausea."


I am curious why you think that it is different. The base assumption should always be that non-medicine have non-effects - apart from perceived effects and the desire to "co-operate" with the study (which is why we double-blind tests are so important).

[0] is a Cochrane study that looked at this. Quoting from their conclusions:

> We did not find that placebo interventions have important clinical effects in general. However, in certain settings placebo interventions can influence patient‐reported outcomes, especially pain and nausea, though it is difficult to distinguish patient‐reported effects of placebo from biased reporting. The effect on pain varied, even among trials with low risk of bias, from negligible to clinically important. Variations in the effect of placebo were partly explained by variations in how trials were conducted and how patients were informed.

[0] https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD...

The Cochrane review only looked at randomised placebo-controlled trials. That's reasonable, and a good and necessary thing to do. But by definition it hasn't looked at non-randomised trials, or pragmatic trials (i.e. under "real world" conditions) or circumstances where a "pure placebo" is impossible or unethical (e.g. suicide prevention programs, pregnancy termination procedures, etc).

It also does point out that "pure placebo" can have a small but real effect.

Clinically meaningful effects are important: if patients feel that something doesn't work well or they don't like it, then it doesn't matter how convincing the statistical analysis is, the intervention will have poor uptake.

Outside of pharmacology trials, "pure placebo" is rare. Every intervention contains a degree of placebo and nocebo. This is normal and we shouldn't seek to deny it, or we risk wasting resources on meticulously designed interventions that work well in tightly controlled lab conditions but fail horribly in the real world.

Caveat: I fully believe that most modern medicine generally works (although often not for the reasons we think) and wouldn't want my comment to be misconstrued as bashing medicine.

> But by definition it hasn't looked at non-randomised trials, or pragmatic trials (i.e. under "real world" conditions) or circumstances where a "pure placebo" is impossible or unethical (e.g. suicide prevention programs, pregnancy termination procedures, etc).

They looked at quality studies, not bad studies that fail to control for all the confounding factors, yes.

> This is normal and we shouldn't seek to deny it, or we risk wasting resources on meticulously designed interventions that work well in tightly controlled lab conditions but fail horribly in the real world.

Randomized controlled clinical trials do happen in the real world, not in the lab, at least in general. They are the best possible way to study these effects, since real sick people in real hospitals are administered real/placebo medicine by real healthcare professionals. The data is collected by these professionals, who do not know whether they are administering placebo or real medicine.

And what we see in these conditions is what we expect a priori: for some conditions (those that are known to be semi-consciously controlled), there are real improvements from the placebo effects, for others only the real medicine has any effect at all.

I really don't understand what your point is. You claim that you believe that modern medicine works, but you also claim it "often" works for reasons that we don't understand - are you implying most modern medicine is placebo? If so, why is it improving overall?

> > by definition it hasn't looked at non-randomised trials, or pragmatic trials > > They looked at quality studies, not bad studies that fail to control for all the confounding factors, yes.

That's quite the straw-man argument. You've equated RCTs with being "(good) quality" and anything else with being "bad". So, to address those assumptions:

Not all trials are good, even if they are double-masked randomised placebo-controlled. (I'm not saying they're all bad, either.) To be fair, the Cochrane review process and other similar processes do assess quality of the papers they review, and the authors in the cited paper do this (see their Figures 1 and 2). They point out several weaknesses in the studies they reviewed: "All included trials were randomised, but in only 28 trials (12%) was it clear that patient allocation had been adequately concealed. [...] We regarded the risk of bias as low in 16 trials (8%) [...] In 61 trials the comparison between placebo and an experimental active treatment was described as ‘double blind’, whereas in the remaining 141 such trials comparisons were not double blind (or not reported). Observer‐reported outcomes were clearly assessed by a blinded observer in 22 trials, but this was unclear in 41 trials."

In other words, the raw materials they have reviewed were of low-to-moderate quality in a lot of cases. This is not to say the conclusions of the Cochrane review are wrong, it is just that the quality of their raw data (and their assessment thereof) must be born in mind.

The authors also make a somewhat sweeping judgement, which is tucked away here: "In 29 out of the 234 trials (12%), outcome data had not been reported in a way that was suited for meta‐analysis [...] Based on a qualitative assessment, there was no clear tendency for the findings in the 29 trials without outcome data to be different from the findings in the 202 trials we meta‐analysed." This seems to mean that they decided that 88% of the trials that could not be statistically assessed should be considered similar to the 12% they could statistically assess, based on some "qualitative assessment" that is not explained in the review. It would be very useful to have the details of this qualitative assessment made public - how was it done? Again, this isn't to denigrate their findings, but it does demonstrate that even in a strongly quantitative Cochrane review, there is a component of subjectivity.

The above brings up another point: not all reviews are good quality. This one probably is (the Cochrane process is rigorous) although as I've suggested there can still be subjective judgement in even the most quantitative approach. That's perfectly normal and can be fine, iff subjective processes are described in full.

Next point: not all non-RCTs are bad. There is nothing wrong with, for instance, a well-conducted pragmatic trial since it will expose what actually happens in the real world. Patients forget to take their pills, or refuse to do so. Doctors are 'just human', they rely on their instincts (and that's neither "good" nor "bad", it just is). There is absolutely no point in wasting years and millions of $CURRENCY in developing an intervention in a lab if it fails in the clinic for reasons that could have been uncovered beforehand - and research waste is a major problem. Non-RCTs are a part of this process. I'm not saying that RCTs are not part of this process; they have their place alongside other forms of investigation. RCTs are simply not a complete scientific healthcare methodology in themselves.

Next point: RCTs are not always appropriate. It's a real shame that the myth of the RCT as the One True Way persists. Yes, the RCT is the gold standard in some disciplines, and rightly so. But it isn't The Only Way, and other approaches can be appropriate. A huge amount has been written on this in recent years. For example in [0]: "[Evidence-based medicine] can and should shift from evidence-based individual decisions (in which the evidence is generally simple, with a linear chain of causation and derived from randomised controlled trials) to evidence-based public health (in which evidence is complex, with non-linear chains of causation and derived from a wider range of research designs including natural experiments and community-based participatory research)." Frankly, this seems obvious to me. People live and exist in highly non-linear, stochastic situations.

> You claim that you believe that modern medicine works, but you also claim it "often" works for reasons that we don't understand - are you implying most modern medicine is placebo?

Nope. I'd point out that healthcare is broader than medicine, and medicine is broader than pharmacology. But let's start with pharmacology since RCTs are well-suited here. We certainly understand pharmacokinetics very well, and the procedures that take drugs to market are robust, necessary, and rightly include placebo-controlled RCTs. But most guidelines for drug prescription are based on single drugs for single diseases [1] that have been trialled in non-representative patient groups [2]. This falls apart when the patient is in their 80s and taking multiple medications [3]. And that's just a pharmacology example where RCT is very well suited.

Finally, I reassert that the placebo effect is omnipresent. It makes no sense to compare "real medicine" with placebo since "real medicine" includes placebo whether we like it or not. Removing confounding factors under controled conditions is necessary to gain a particular understanding e.g. risk ratios, number needed to treat, etc etc. These are all good and necessary, although difficult to do well and prone to misunderstanding e.g. [4], [5]. But healthcare doesn't stop there. Even the most robust, rigorous, large-scale placebo-controlled RCT of drug efficacy won't stop the real-world reality of a red pill selling better than a yellow one, and won't reduce the value of humane nursing during chemotherapy, for example.

[0] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4556220/

[1] https://www.bmj.com/content/350/bmj.h1059.full

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4632358/

[3] https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/9/8/e031601

[4] https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal...

[5] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455127/

Further reading:

https://bit.ly/3ifxE3I particularly from page 92.

85% of health research is wasted: https://bit.ly/3ik1LHh

Placebo surgery for knee arthritis just as good as real surgery: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12110735/

There are multiple factors that contribute to the placebo effect. The psychosomatic response is one of them. "Optimistic interpretation/collection of data by people wanting to see the medicine work" is another factor, but one that's typically removed by double-blinding. With some conditions, just plain reversion-to-the-mean is also part of the placebo effect--if you take a pill to cure your headache and your headache goes away, who's to say the headache wouldn't have gone away of its own accord anyway?

Hmmm nit picking but I think regression to the mean is different from placebo.

Regression to the mean: most headaches go away within a few hours.

Placebo: your favourite brand of paracetamol seems to cure headaches quicker than the unbranded version.

They can interact, of course.

Placebo refers to any effect where a patient's outcomes seem to improve for reasons not related to the specific intervention attempted. Regression to the mean, incorrect data collection, psycho-somatic effects etc are all elements of placebo, in various degrees in various instances.

Well, fair enough. To split hairs ever finer, though...

Placebo is present in all circumstances, as is nocebo.

Regression to the mean is a statistical phenomenon. It can help aid understanding of the size and role of placebo effects, but it isn't a part of the placebo effect. Ditto data collection and analysis.

But yeah, I'm probably splitting hairs :)

Consider that "nothing changed" gives you no information, while something changing adds to your understanding of the world.

Scenario 1: big change occurs, tell the bees. Bees continue to do their thing. You gain no information because nothing changes.

Scenario 2: big change occurs, don't tell the bees. Bees continue to do their thing. You gain no information because nothing changes.

Scenario 3/4: no change occurs in your life, nothing to tell the bees, so it doesn't matter what you do/don't tell them. Bees continue to do their thing. You gain no information because nothing changes.

Scenario 5/6: no change occurs in your life, nothing to tell the bees, so it doesn't matter what you do/don't tell them. Bees pack up and go. Welp, can't have been your fault - they did it all on their own!

Scenario 7: big change occurs, you tell the bees. Bees pack up and go. But when? Right away? How does one attribute the bees leaving to YOUR actions specifically - it could have been the weather! And why would you? You did everything right & told them! There must be some other cause. You're also a little ashamed about them leaving, so you hide the information from your tribe. Also, the people you give the information to refuse to believe information that disproves the "obvious" theory that "everyone knows", that you must tell the bees.

Scenario 8: big change occurs, you don't tell the bees. Regardless whether the bees pack up and go, you're feeling a little guilty for not keeping up your tradition (which you know your tribe has come to expect of you), so you're primed to associate any change in bee behavior with your own change in behavior. The bees could even take several months to pack up and go - thus giving these scenarios a higher likelihood of occurring. You still blame yourself, and you tell your sad tale far and wide.

Your reaction to the Scenarios where the bees pack up and go are the only times the you gain information. That makes them the times you're most likely to talk about to your tribe. "I did stuff and nothing happened" doesn't make for much of a story and isn't useful to others so they won't remember it.

And because this is all about storytelling and trying to survive, your tribe will pass on any story believed to help them survive. The fact this is happening for every beekeeper everywhere and they can talk to each other amplifies any individually held superstition, which helps to reinforce the superstition and pass it down through the ages.

This is a very sweet way of coping with death.

I think all of these other comments are focussing on the aspects of "upsetting the bees" (which I think is a red herring) and not seeing the therapeutic effects of a ritual. Saying things out loud helps bring closure. This is people dealing with sadness.

"Little bee, our lord is dead; Leave me not in my distress."

We look at individual humans as pretty smart; but then the collective intelligence of a human city as pretty dim. We see individual bees as pretty dim; but perceive intelligence and agency in the swarm.

Many species of bee live individually or in small groups. Are Carpenter bee tribes searching for the secret of fire? They're certainly industrious enough.

What would bees use fire for? Humans used it to create more edible food, for metallurgy, generate warmth, etc. I'm not sure if bees would need that, since honey is energy dense, they have built in weapons, and they sort of hibernate in the cold. And they don't have the ability to stoke and generate fire do they, human hands and cognition are useful fire tenders.

Maybe given millions of years of further evolution, bees or ants could become more capable in their culture?

What would bees use fire for? Same thing they use everything for: education. Specifically teaching all other animals not to mess with bees.

If bees often seem to feel the need to teach you that, consider perhaps improving the diligence of your study.

Bees to this day are very respected in Lithuania. A very close friend can be being called "Bičiulis" which is derived from a word bee. As in "bee honey" = "Bičių medus". For english speakers the pronunciation can sound a bit contraindicative ʙɪᴛᴄʜ-ᴜʟɪs

The name wasn’t based on bees just because bees are respected. “Bičiulystė” (meaning friendship, using the same word Bičiulis) was usually a neighbor friendship with a particular purpose: to take care of bees communally.

Looks like 'medus' and 'mead' have the same root, offhand?

The proto-balto-slavic root for honey is "med", which is why the word for bear is usually some variation of "medved", meaning "honey eater", due to that weird process where something scary becomes taboo and gets replaces with some phrase.


Indeed. And the Lithuanian word for 'bee', bitė, is also cognate with the English word as per Wiktionary[1].

[1] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/bit%C4%97#Lithuanian

The Gardeners do this in Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam trilogy), one character derives much comfort from telling the bees. I didn't know it was an actual custom, how wonderful. I believe there's a certain wisdom in these old customs, that helps keep humans connected with the non-human world.

I'm halfway through The Year of the Flood, loving the trilogy so far. This post also made me think of Toby and old Pilar.

Kind of like the brown M&Ms; if you don't bother to notify the bees, what else aren't you taking care of?

I heard of this from Granny Weatherwax.

GNU Terry Pratchett.

I learnt of it from Kipling's wonderful "Puck of Pook's Hill"

Ah, I read the article and this seemed familiar, and I thought it felt pratchett-ian.

Now it makes sense :)

superbad.com which was, to my knowledge, the original surrealist non-linear web 1.0 site, had one page called "tell it to the bees".

Now I finally know what that means.

(The subsubconscious internet memories that never ever leave you...)

[edit: I was wrong. superbad.com had "have you met the bees" https://www.superbad.com/1/bee/bee.html whereas LA's Museum of Jurassic Technology, another subsubconscious-infecting surrealism, had a long running exhibit called "Tell The Bees", to which this webpage does little justice: https://www.mjt.org/exhibits/bees/bees.html]

From another wikipedia link:

“In mythology, the bee, found in Indian, ancient Near East and Aegean cultures, was believed to be the sacred insect that bridged the natural world to the underworld.”

“According to Hittite mythology, the god of agriculture, Telipinu, went on a rampage and refused to allow anything to grow and animals would not produce offspring. The gods went in search of Telipinu only to fail. Then the goddess Ḫannaḫanna sent forth a bee to bring him back. The bee finds Telipinu, stings him and smears wax upon him. The god grew even angrier and it wasn't until the goddess Kamrusepa (or a mortal priest according to some references) uses a ritual to send his anger to the Underworld.”


The bee was very important for Indo-Europeans, because honey has a really good shelf life, a necessity when one is nomadic.

From the Rig Veda I 154: “तद॑स्य प्रि॒यम॒भि पाथो॑ अश्यां॒ नरो॒ यत्र॑ देव॒यवो॒ मद॑न्ति । उ॒रु॒क्र॒मस्य॒ स हि बन्धु॑रि॒त्था विष्णो॑: प॒दे प॑र॒मे मध्व॒ उत्स॑: ॥ तदस्य प्रियमभि पाथो अश्यां नरो यत्र देवयवो मदन्ति । उरुक्रमस्य स हि बन्धुरित्था विष्णोः पदे परमे मध्व उत्सः ॥ tad asya priyam abhi pātho aśyāṃ naro yatra devayavo madanti | urukramasya sa hi bandhur itthā viṣṇoḥ pade parame madhva utsaḥ ||”

Madhva seems to be an epithet for the Vedic Vishnu, Indra, and later Krishna. The Sanskrit word for honey is Madhu, sharing the same root as mead. So you could loosely translate it as “mead-sweetened”. My hypothesis is that soma was not a psychoactive drug but mead drank in a ritual context.

The bee was so important to the Vedic religon that the earliest iconography of Vishnu is simply a bee resting on a lotus flower. This leads me to believe the Vedic non-Puranic Vishnu was a mead swigging warrior, as opposed to the later Puranic Vishnu/Krishna, who himself was likely a disciple/devotee of Shiva as evidenced by his many Shiva rituals in the Bhagavad Gita.

It’s hilarious to think how Krishna was retconned as Vishnu, when he is himself a huge devotee of Shiva!

> Krishna was retconned as Vishnu

I know that Krishna = Vishnu but never knew it was retconned. What's the source?

That’s merely conjecture on my part. The two are quite different based on their descriptions. The Vedic Vishnu is described as a fierce warrior, like Varaha, a wild boar. Krishna is way more calm, reasonable, and shall we say crafty. The two also represent the shift from a hunter-gatherer society to a more agrarian based society.

Technically both Vishnu and Krishna are relatives, since they both descend from Kashyap, so I could see why his contemporaries saw him as the reincarnation of Vishnu.

This part interested me:

> believed to be the sacred insect that bridged the natural world to the underworld

When we were kids, my brother and I would keep away from dead bees because they "might come back to life". We had probably been warned that the bee might be dormant, or that the mechanism of the stinger can still trigger even after the bee is dead. Maybe a friend gave us a mixed up version of the facts. The way we had it set it in our heads was that dead bees could come back to life.

Vespid wasps, especially the family of hornets and yellowjackets, have alarm pheromones. This is why it's a very bad idea to kill a wasp: her sisters are likely to smell what you did, and may come and try to kill you right back. Damaging the body of a dead wasp can also release the pheromone, eliciting the same response.

I don't know that we need a just-so story to explain a folkway around avoiding interference with the remains of deceased hymenopterans, but if we do, this is probably the strongest candidate.

In "To Have and Have Not" Eddie believes that dead bees can still sting, "especially if they was kind of mad when they got killed."

Huh, I guess I know why my bees died now. But in my defense, I'm a very private person.

Referenced in the framing story at the beginning and end of _The Bees_ by Laline Paull, which is a novel from the perspective of bees that is really really good.

It's tempting to dismiss this as superstition, but have any studies been done to determine whether or not bees can identify specific humans? Cats and dogs certainly have the capacity to mourn. It would certainly be a surprise to learn that bees could mourn a human as well, but I don't think it's completely out of the question.

This could be seen as a metaphor for the practice of public relations. Like when we learn about the president's dogs. Sounds like a strange interpretation, I know, but folklore and various traditions have been known to contain veiled wisdom. Also, the behive has a lot of esoteric associations.

Say what you want about bees; they know how to keep a secret.

I'd like to be able to email the bees. I suppose it shouldn't be so hard to have a GAN for translating from English into the dance of the bees.

Maybe the danger is in translating back and learning what they know. The bees haven't read Ayn Rand, they're more a Hofstadter-Theseus consciousness with many finite lifetimes making a macro-scale Methuselah. They surely know about the Bronze Age Collapse, what happened on Rapa Nui, why out ancestors came down from the trees.

Superstitions around the world are interesting because they often seem so completely arbitrary.

IMHO, superstitions are ritual tribal beliefs, false knowledge, overactive risk aversion, and false modesty.

how do you feel about personal superstitions, developed through individual experience? in my household, before bed, i ask for blessings from my parents and return the sentiment. i'm not pious, nor even religious in the standard sense, but whenever i forget to or don't have the chance, i feel terribly anxious, like something terrible will happen to them/me overnight. i know this comes off as irrational, but it makes me feel safe.

I think they serve a purpose, which I hope is mostly positive. I have my own as well. Some might be seen as prayers or silent meditations. They help me feel better and cope with stressful situations. I don't tell anyone about these or force anyone to do them. Is is irrational? Maybe, but it brings me peace without harming anyone or making the world a worse place to live in.

That's a complete tautology.

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