Since the time of Aristaeus, the God of Beekeeping, it was believed that bees had the power over death. Bees represent birth, resurrection and immortality along with wisdom. Bees are the messenger between the living world and the spirit world. Customs dating back to medieval England talk about “the telling of the bees” of a birth, death or any other major event. Invitations to social occasions were made either verbally at the hives or written, tacked to the hives. Talking to the bees in advance was believed to keep the bees from dying, absconding (fly off) and to continue producing honey.
One of the earliest documented references on this is J Molle's The Living Libraries (1621), "Who would beleeve without superstition (if experience did not make it credible), that most commonly all the bees die in their hives, if the master or mistresse of the house chance to die, except the hives be presently removed into some other place? And yet I know this hath hapned to folke no way stained with superstition." The belief was that the attachment of bees to the beekeeper was so strong that if the beekeeper dies so does the hive thus the hive is moved to a new location.
On September 13, 1790 an article appears in the London newspaper the “Argus” on the custom of “turning the bees”. The belief is that the hive of the deceased is turned around as their corpse is being removed from the home. Another practice is the “heaving up” of the hives. Here, the hive of the deceased is picked up at the same time as their coffin is being removed from the home, based on a belief that the soul of the deceased returns as a bee.
In the book, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Lilly, Zach and August drape black crepe fabric over the hives in response to May's death. August explains to Lilly that “covering the hives was supposed to keep the bees from leaving. You see, the last thing they wanted was their bees swarming off when a death took place. Having bees around was supposed to ensure that the dead person would live again.” August goes on to explain that with death there is rebirth.
“Most people don’t have any idea about all the complicated life going on inside a hive. Bees have a secret life we don’t know anything about.” -The Secret life of Bees