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News of the death of Queen Elizabeth on September 8 swiftly encircled the globe.
We knew already that her health was declining – that she was poorly, in the British idiom. Yet the 96-year-old monarch had waved cheerily to the crowds celebrating her seven decades on the throne in June. Just two days before the end, she officially appointed Liz Truss the 15th Prime Minister of her reign.
On September 9 news of the monarch’s death, and of the accession of her son Charles to the throne, was conveyed to an unusual audience. John Chappell, keeper of the royal bees, explained to the Daily Mail:
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. I drape the hives with black ribbon with a bow.
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?
You knock on each hive and say, ‘The mistress is dead, but don’t you go. Your [new] master will be a good master to you.’
Chappell, keeper of the royal hives at two royal residences for the past fifteen years, is honoring a custom of several centuries’ standing across Europe. Some trace it to fear that bees may stop making honey, or set out for a new home if they have not been informed of important events. Perhaps it is simply a gesture of respect and gratitude to creatures who work tirelessly to pollinate our crops and sweeten our tea.
The custom seems especially suited to the new king’s enthronement. An avid gardener and an early environmental activist, Prince Charles told reporters 25 years ago of helping his plants grow stronger by talking to them. A new BBC documentary series, The Green Planet, is hosted by the venerable nature guide Sir David Attenborough, who told The Mirror, “We don’t engage with plants enough.” Series producer Mike Gunton added: “Prince Charles had it right all the time.”
I can’t say I have seen dramatic improvements in plants and trees of my acquaintance when I speak words of encouragement. However often I urged the cherries on a little tree behind a former home to be strong and fight off thieves, they always let birds carry them away as soon as they ripened. Vegetables that my wife and I have planted, either in our sandy soil or in planters around our current home, come out leggy and sparse no matter how many stirring songs and uplifting hymns I sing for them. They seem more interested in sunlight, of which there is little to be had in our lakeshore forest. Flowers do better. But they speak more words of cheer to the humans who tend them, I think, than they hear from us.
Is it part of our responsibility as stewards of creation – better, as fellow participants in the complex web of creation – to speak to the bees, and the birds, and the plants? Would insects and plants grow stronger and sturdier and more resilient if we did so? And – perhaps more likely – would we experience similar benefits?
Speaking to all God’s creatures brings to mind St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century friar who founded the Franciscan order. The birds gathered around him and listened to sermons about God’s love for them, legend has it; and he persuaded a ravenous wolf to desist from feasting on local lambs and wait for villagers to bring him a daily meal. Catholics honor St. Francis as the patron and protector of animals. His feast day, October 4, fast approaches. I have not encountered any tales of his preaching to peonies, though.
The solemn announcement to the royal bees brought to mind an incident related to me several decades ago, in the first of many semesters supervising American students overseas, when my students from St. Olaf College enrolled at Chiang Mai University in northern Thailand.
The end-of-term commencement ceremony was a momentous occasion there: the King of Thailand would visit each of the nation’s campuses in turn, offer words of congratulation, and hand diplomas to the graduates.
In Thailand the King’s role is largely ceremonial, with no more authority over laws or courts than that of the British monarch. And yet the Thai monarchy is part of a rich history in the only Southeast Asian nation that was never a colony. Rituals associated with royalty and many and complex. Visitors to the royal chambers must crawl toward the throne and crawl backward when their audience is over.
My students and I learned enough spoken Thai for simple conversations with other students and professors, market sellers, Christian pastors and Buddhist priests, but we were warned that we lacked the vocabulary to speak to those of a higher social station. One of our history professors was “a royal,” in this case something like a grandson of a third cousin of the husband of a princess. We were advised to speak to him only in English, because to address him using the Thai pronouns we had learned would be an egregious insult.
On the site of every Thai home and business stands a “spirit house,” a small shrine atop a pedestal, regarded as the home of the spirits of the plot of land. Flowers are placed around the spirit house on festival days. When major family events occur – births, weddings, deaths – the spirits are duly informed. This custom, we were told, dates back many centuries, like that of informing the hives.
The university’s large spirit house stands near a campus entrance. Each year, a few days before the commencement ceremony, a university official lays a large garland of flowers at its base and informs the resident spirits that his majesty the King will grace the campus with his presence in a few days. One year, however, a newly appointed Catholic chancellor decided to put an end to such pagan rituals and forbade his staff from informing the spirits of the impending commencement ceremony. The spirit house stood unadorned, to the dismay of many faculty and staff, but the chancellor would not budge.
That year, just as His Majesty King Bhumibol began his speech to the graduates, the public address system suddenly failed. Technicians scurried about checking connections, testing the power supply, swapping cables and speakers. Nothing seemed amiss, but the silence persisted. The royal address was audible only to a few.
Since that occasion, colleagues told me, no matter the religious beliefs or personal scruples of the chancellor, the spirits have been informed and garlands have been laid. Never again has the PA system failed! (Royal duties passed to the king’s son on his death in 2016 – the second-longest reign of any monarch until Queen Elizabeth, who served for just a few months longer.)
Spirits are not visible, like insects, but talking to them has some similarities. We do not expect a reply, yet we sense that a measure of respect is due. Our conversation, one-sided as it is, links worlds that are both the same and not the same.
I am not sure the royal bees would have stopped making honey, or emigrated en masse, had Mr. Chappell failed to fulfill his duty to inform them. Perhaps, hearing all the talk around the palace, the bees who collect pollen would have created their own waggle dance to share the sad news with workers inside the hive.
But why take the risk? Talking to bees is an acknowledgement of our mutual dependence. Praying over the hives reminds us that we all live by grace.
Perhaps both we and the world around us would be stronger – would bear more fruit and more flowers – if we talked more often to God’s creatures of all varieties, praying not only for them but also with them.