- How many queens can one beehive have?
In case you haven’t heard — Elizabeth II, the Queen of the United Kingdom, died on September 8 after reigning for 70 years. We’re not sure how you could’ve missed the news, though.
After all, even the Queen’s bees have been told about it.
There are a lot of old and arcane rituals and traditions when it comes to British royals. But one of the more obscure ones is informing the royal bees of their ruler’s passing.
The one who carried out the duty on September 9 was John Chapple, the official royal beekeeper of Buckingham Palace and Clarence House. He solemnly declared to the bees that the Queen was dead, and they should be good to King Charles III, their new master.
This whole thing brings up a fascinating question. Were the bees more loyal to their own queens or the Queen of England?
‘The Mistress Is Dead’
Like many other royal traditions in Britain, the informing of the bees follows a strict ritual. According to Chapple, he begins by approaching each of the nests, five at Buckingham Palace and two at Clarence House.
“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,’” he told Daily Mail.
After the declaration, Chapple drapes a black ribbon over the hive. He completes the ritual by tying the ribbon into a bow.
“It is traditional when someone dies that you go to the hives and say a little prayer and put a black ribbon on the hive,” he said.
The bee-informing tradition seems a bit strange and, well, it is. The whole ritual is rooted in ancient superstition.
According to the old belief, bees are very sensitive to the passing of their owner. If they’re not informed of their master’s or mistress’ death properly, they supposedly get so upset that they’ll stop producing honey.
In the worst-case scenario, the bee queens and their subjects might decide to follow their expired owner and drop dead.
It’s not just deaths that the bees want to know about, either. The royal beekeeper is supposed to let them know about all important events in their owners’ lives, from births and marriages to going on extended trips.
It might be tempting to write this tradition as yet another bizarre British ritual, but it’s not exclusive to the UK. There are similar traditions elsewhere in the world as well, including Ireland, Wales, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, and the U.S.
Who knew bees cared so much about their owners’ day-to-day lives?
‘A Wonderful Privilege’
Chapple asked the royal bees to be good to the new King, but it remains to be seen how good the King will be to the bees. Although he’s known for being fond of plants and the environment, it’s his decision whether or not the bees get to stay at the royal estates.
“‘I hope they still want to keep the bees on their premises. You never know,” said Chapple.
“They might say, ‘take them away,’ but I don’t think that will be happening. Though, really, you do never know. It’s up to the new tenant of Buckingham Palace.”
The bees’ position is potentially precarious, and the same goes for their keeper. Although he is the royal beekeeper, Chapple says the job is really a hobby to the 79-year-old retiree.
Granted, he’s very good at what he does. And he should be since he’s been keeping bees for the past 30 years.
“Now I look after a few hives for important people. Number one is the Queen, or rather was, the Queen. I was the Queen’s beekeeper and hopefully, now I’ll get the job of being the King’s beekeeper,” said Chapple.
He even got the position rather unexpectedly. Chapple said that one day 15 years ago, he received an email from the head gardener of Buckingham Palace, inviting him to come over and “talk about bees.”
“I thought they had a problem with bees but it turned out they wanted to keep bees. So, henceforth, I look after the bees here,” Chapple said.
“It has been a wonderful privilege to do things like this for the Queen and hopefully now for the King.”
Here’s hoping Mr. Chapple gets to keep keeping the bees. And that he won’t have to deliver more sad news to them anytime soon.