It was maintained by certain demonologists that if a sorceress
ate a queen bee before being captured, she would be able
to sustain her trial and tortures without making a confession.
In some parts of Brittany it was claimed that these insects were
very sensitive to the fortunes and misfortunes of their master,
and would not thrive unless he was careful to tie a piece of black
cloth to the hive when a death occurred in the family, and a
piece of red cloth when there was any occasion of rejoicing.
The Latin grammarian Gaius Julius Solinus (third century
C.E.) wrote that there are no bees in Ireland, and even if a little
Irish earth be taken to another country and spread about the
hives, the bees would abandon the place, so fatal to them is the
earth of Ireland. The same story is found in the Origines of Isodore.
‘‘Must we seek,’’ says Pierre Lebrun, author of Critical History
of Superstitious Practices (1702), ‘‘the source of this calumny
of Irish earth No; for it is sufficient to say that it is a fable, and
that many bees are to be found in Ireland.’’
There are many ancient superstitions about bees. In biblical
times they were thought to originate in the bodies of dead cattle,
hence the riddle by Samson in Judges 148, ‘‘Out of the
eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness.’’
In fact, the skeletonized rib cage skeleton of dead cattle
provided a natural beehive. In Egyptian mythology, bees arose
from the tears of the sun god Ra, while a Breton superstition
said they came from the tears of Christ on the cross. In Hindu
mythology, bees formed the bowstring of Kama, the Indian
Popular folklore claimed that bee stings aided arthritis and
rheumatism sufferers and recently bee venom has been revived
as a possible treatment for multiple sclerosis.
In rural districts all over the world, the old custom of ‘‘telling
the bees’’ persisted when there was a death in the family or
someone left home. In Ireland, the bees also told secrets or advised
on new projects. In ancient European folklore, bees were
regarded as messengers to the gods, and the custom of ‘‘telling
the bees’’ might have been a remnant of the idea of keeping the
gods advised of human affairs.