Archived Opinion

Life lessons from the world of beekeeping

The blossoms on the sourwood trees are opening. This is exciting for mountain beekeepers, though in their enthusiasm for the light, fine honey that bees produce from this flower, they sometimes dismiss as paltry and unacceptable to their delicate palates the earlier dark wildflower honey.

I have even known beekeepers in the area — usually small, wizened grumpy ones who are old enough to still be angry that the park moved their family and others to make way for a national playground — who refuse to even harvest the spring honey. Instead, they either don’t collect it at all; or they do, but they feed it back to the bees come winter.

Each to their own, of course, but I say phooey — this prejudice must be, I believe, a hangover from poorer days here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. A belief, hard won through poverty, that things white are more genteel and more refined; which, of course, they are  — in every sense of that word. People with a bit of cash in their hands could choose white bread instead of heavy brown, white sugar instead of sorghum or molasses, store-bought clothing instead of rough hand-me-downs. These days, they instinctively reach for light sourwood instead of dark wildflower honey, according it virtues that are more related to childhood training than taste.

Having grown up myself using an outhouse and without electricity or hot water unless you fired up the woodstove (my family were 1970s back-to-the-land folks, but poor is poor, whether you are born to it or come to it), I’m not unsympathetic with that line of reasoning. Once I could afford to do so, I found it quite exciting to buy clothes full price from a real store rather than for a few quarters from a thrift store, as crazy as that might sound. Though now that I’m older and so amazingly cool, I’m back in thrift stores by choice instead of need. Which somehow makes it just peachy, a free choice you understand instead of one forced upon me by necessity, or in my case, through others’ choices.

As it happens, I most enjoy the robust notes of the spring wildflower honey. In it you find a roll call of the early bloom: dandelion, blackberry, privet (“hedge” to you older locals), holly and more — most importantly the tulip poplar, which this year to me at least appeared heavy but brief lived.

I’m not selling honey these days to make my living, so the mad rush to remove supers and extract the wildflower honey before the sourwood emerges is no longer part of my life. I don’t particularly care if the two varieties mix, though I’d still like to have some supers (boxes the bees pack honey in so that beekeepers can rob them easily) with pure sourwood. Or, as pure as one can ensure, knowing that bees  will damn well work what they want. But at sourwood time, there is so little other bloom, and the sourwood nectar is so enticing, bees tend to focus on it almost exclusively.

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That focus can be problematic for migratory beekeepers, who make their living helping farmers pollinate fields of crops. I understand, by way of example, that good orchardists mow their apple orchards before the bees are brought in. Otherwise, the bees of the migratory beekeepers might just choose to focus on dandelions, say, to the exclusion of the apple trees. This focus is very intense, and very much part of the honeybee makeup — their obsessive-compulsive disorder is one big reason they are such excellent pollinators for us, because once you can get them focused on your flower of choice, they stay with it.

They don’t, like the independent bumblebee, visit an apple bloom on one outing and a dandelion on another, willy-nilly with no consideration at all for the poor farmer needing a field full of trees pollinated. Bumblebees just bumble mindlessly about, heedless to others’ desires and wishes, landing here one moment, there the next — how infuriating for us humans not to be able to control their movements and selections.

But I digress. The sourwood trees are blooming, and this is exciting, as I mentioned previously. Sourwoods, if my memory serves correctly (the Internet has been out, and so I can’t easily check, unless of course I were willing to get up and walk three feet to the bookshelf, which I’m not) are only found in the Appalachians. Or, that’s not quite true — they can be found outside that narrow band, but they don’t produce enough nectar, or aren’t found in enough numbers if they do, to be of use to the beekeeper.

This is swell for savvy beekeepers, because they often market the sourwood honey as a varietal. That’s a fancy word for you-pay-more-for-it, though I didn’t fall in with that line of reasoning when I was peddling jars of honey. I love wildflower and I figured the bees worked just as hard to produce it, so I asked and received the same amount for both. Folks didn’t object, or insist on paying more for sourwood or less for wildflower. They instead seemed quite happy to accord dark and light honeys equal respect, based on taste preference only, a nice lesson from the apiary for us all about not making judgments based on something as arbitrary and meaningless as color.

(Quintin Ellison can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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