Funeral Bees

Recently I shared this post on my facebook page, swiping it from another friend’s page (thank you Lynn!). It was a little clip from the Danville Bee, June 4, 1956—a story posted about a swarm of bees attending their keeper’s funeral in Adams, Massachusetts.

Throughout his life, John Zepka had raised, worked with, and loved bees. He became widely known in the Berkshire Hills as ‘a man who had a way with them’. “

According to the article, as the funeral procession approached the tent they found it swarming with bees. Clinging to the ceiling and floral sprays, the bees weren’t there to harm anyone. They were there to bear witness to their beloved keeper’s life and death. They were merely showing up along with the other mourners to give their solemn regards.


It brought to mind the old tradition of “telling the bees”….that when a member of the family dies, the bees must have their hive draped in black cloth, lest they leave for good. As one northern European song goes:
Honey bees, honey bees, hear what I say!
Your Master, poor soul, has passed away.
His sorrowful wife begs of you to stay,
Gathering honey for many a day.
Bees in the garden, hear what I say!

(Ethnobeeology, Nov. 13, 2013)

I share this story, along with last week’s post, because I am fascinated by the intimate connection that we are able to have with the natural world.  We’ve noticed it with bees, because they are among the few creatures with which we’ve cultivated a relationship—for over 5,000 years. Since I’ve begun to have a relationship with bees, I’ve paid close attention to their habits, changes in their behavior and housekeeping patterns. When I lost both of my hives last winter, I cried. Spring blooms were not the same without the busy, buzzy beehives in my backyard. For me they signal life and the passing of seasons. I certainly mourned their passing. I’m not sure they would mourn mine.

As a bee colleague of mine once said, “I don’t think a few years of having bees qualifies one as keeping bees”. I would concur. One must spend a lifetime of care and dedication to nurture such a bond of trust, as John Zepka’s funeral bees illustrated.

We have many miles to go in our relationship with the world of wild creatures.


10 thoughts on “Funeral Bees

  1. Thanks for sharing this story. It bring me back to when my great-grandad had a bee hives and made homemade honey. My great-grandma got sick because of lot of bee flying around,don’t remember what she was doing when she got stung by bee. My great-grandad sold the hive. Year later at her family funeral and 2nd one for her friend,family,church,and town. I saw a bee flying around and again at 2nd funeral. I showed my step-brother the bee flying around. I say that our Mimi. Then a week or two after the funeral outside my side door there was a bee hanging around not with the other bee. I’ld like to think it was her.


  2. Do bees have “funerals” for their own? I was about to take down the hummingbird feeder for the season, but there were a dozen starving bees going for the last drops. For more than a week now, I’ve been feeding them the hummer sugar mixture in a pie tin with a rock in it. They swarm the pan all day long but there are dozens that die in/near it. I have watched the other bees try to move them. When I check the pan at dusk, all the dead bees are gone. I am not a beekeeper. Am I killing them with the sugar water?


    • Hi Jean, at this time of the year, bees are preparing to go dormant for the winter and seeking the last sweet drops of sugar or nectar that they can find. Since putting out sugar water draws bees from many hives, it’s not the best way to feed them. (I always put anything I want to feed a hive Inside individual hives)
      Bees will swarm the sugar water, fight over the last drops and some will inevitably die from all the trampling, and some are eaten by birds or other wildlife. Also, they spread diseases between hives, which isn’t a good idea. Due to a changing, and unpredictable climate, bees are staying active longer than they usually did into the cold season—especially if a warm snap brings them out of the hive. They will use up their honey stores faster, which is why they are scouting any sweet thing they can find to replenish those stores and just for energy to fly. Where to you live, by the way? Thanks for your conscientiousness, Jean!
      And yes, bees do care for their dead, show compassionate behavior and grieving, believe it or not! I’ve seen “funeral” for the queen, with many bees coming for a final tribute to her and then a few bees carry her to the entrance before they leave her outside the hive. making room for their new queen.


    • In the spring, the nectar and pollen are plentiful, we beekeepers normally do the sugar water in the fall. There is minimum Pollen and nectar so the sugar water helps the girls get through the winter. Also the container you use can be detrimental to their health as they can and will
      Push each other into the water


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