Archived Opinion

Hearing all the buzz about sourwood

This is a special time of the year for beekeepers in Western North Carolina. It is the time they prepare for the sourwood honey flow.

Beekeepers in this area collect two types of honey from their charges: a spring wildflower mix made up of nectar sources such as locust, blackberry, poplar, apple trees and more, and then the summer’s sourwood.

Sourwood comes from the sourwood tree, or Oxydendrum arboreum. This tree, in my opinion, is underutilized in landscapes. During the summer it has a lovely white bloom, followed in the autumn by flaming brick red or scarlet leaves, making it a very choice ornamental indeed. Besides, what could be better than planting a native tree that helps feed our honeybees?

Anyway, I digress slightly. So I was resting on my bed on Saturday afternoon staring out the window when I idly thought to myself, “I wonder what those white blooms are?” The cabin where I live is nestled into a stand of mature sourwood trees, and it finally dawned on me that the sourwood flower panicles were tagging out. For some reason this bloom time seemed early to me, but a quick glance through my journals shows the sourwood bloom is occurring exactly when it usually does – mid June. I was almost asleep at the wheel.

I got excited, as any beekeeper worth her smoker or hive tool would get excited. Spotting the first sourwood blooms is a momentous thing each and every year, something most beekeepers never quit enjoying. That’s because sourwood is what’s dubbed a varietal honey. It is unique to the Southern Appalachians and therefore is considered choice and special, because there’s a limited supply to be had.

Let me purposely digress for a bit. When I was selling honey for a living I could always count on the sourwood skeptic showing up at my booth each summer. It was always a man and usually a local. The sourwood skeptic came in two predictable varieties: one always claimed there’s no such thing as sourwood honey because, after all, who knows what the honeybees are feeding on? The other sourwood skeptic would always lean into the booth, as if we were co-conspirators, and half whisper, “You know that’s not sourwood honey — that’s corn honey. The bees feed on corn. I’ve done seen ‘em do it, too.”

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Let’s take the first sourwood honey blasphemer. Yes the bees collect nectar from other flowers than sourwood. However, there’s very little else in bloom right now that the bees are interested in, and they are absolutely mad for sourwood. So while it’s true there’s no pure sourwood honey, there is a honey made up predominantly of nectar from the sourwood tree. Sourwood honey is clear and quite sweet, a very distinctive honey, particularly when compared to the dark robust honey we get in the spring.

As to the second sourwood honey blasphemer, I can only say that there is sourwood honey, though you’ll refuse to believe me. There is no corn honey — bees will work corn, but not for nectar. Corn provides bees pollen, which is a protein source they feed on. End of digression.

So having realized the sourwood blooms were tagging out I immediately got into beekeeper mode. My friend and I had just checked the six hives assessing their strengths. One is absolutely booming, chock full of hardworking bees, and that’s the hive I expect to produce several supers of sourwood. Three others looked ready for supers, too. Two of the colonies were clearly too weak to produce honey for themselves and us, so those were out of the running for the year. That’s OK, they’ll produce next year.

Equipment explanations: A super is a box that has frames with wax in them. The beekeeper places the super on top of the hive body. In a happy and ideal world the bees go up into the super and pull out the wax. This is hard to simplify, but basically the bees work the wax into the shape and depth they want, sort of rows upon rows of little honey containers.

The bees, or so the beekeeper hopes, then goes out into the world and gets nectar from the sourwood trees. The workers turn the nectar into honey through a process of regurgitation and it is then packed into the wax containers in the supers. At this point there’s still considerable moisture in the honey, which could allow for fermentation. The bees, however, fan their wings to evaporate the moisture and then “cap” the honey with wax.

A super full of honey weighs 45 pounds.

In addition to having healthy bees ready to work and accurate timing (getting the supers on and off the hives as needed), beekeepers need a little luck and good fortune when it comes to the sourwood crop. Too much rain like we’ve been experiencing will spoil production — an old-time beekeeper explained to me one time that heavy rains does two things: It keeps the bees from venturing out to forage and it washes the nectar out of the blooms.

Here’s what beekeepers are wishing for when it comes to the weather. Hot dry days and a little gentle moisture at night — that’s a perfect recipe for a bountiful sourwood year.

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

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