Essay by Timothy N. Osment
The practice of bee keeping entered Appalachia with the earliest European settlers, and honey was a prized sweetener long before granulated sugar was available. As late as the mid-20th century, most mountain farmers kept hives and practiced the skills of bee keeping. Honey was eaten at home, given to friends, and sold at roadside stands. Since the 1980s bee keeping has declined across the mountain region with the loss of small farms, the spread of hive diseases and fears of aggressive African bees. Still, bee keeping endures as a popular hobby and a well-organized cottage industry that provides the prize honeys of the mountains–tulip poplar, clover, and sourwood.
Though bee keeping has been present in Appalachia for centuries, the practice began many generations earlier. In fact, almost every society on earth has traditionally utilized honey. The earliest records of bee keeping and the harvesting of honey are European cave drawings that date back over 15,000 years. The Bible describes Israel as a land flowing with milk and honey. Ancient Romans paid their taxes in honey. The Hindu god of love strung his bow with a chain of bees, while his Roman counterpart dipped his arrows in honey. Today’s post-nuptial celebration originated with the Scandinavian custom of supplying the bride and groom with honeyed-wine (mead) every day for their first month together – thus the honey-moon.
However, the essence of bee keeping and honey production is far more practical. Not only is honey valuable both as a nutritious supplement and a profitable agricultural product, but honeybees are nature’s key pollinators – directly or indirectly related to a large percentage of our planet’s food production. Albert Einstein once remarked, quite seriously, “If bees vanished from the face of the earth, mankind would only exist for four more years. Without bees, there’s no pollinating, no grass, no animals, no people.”
Annually over two million dollars worth of honey is produced in North Carolina. Yet the greatest value of honeybees is their role as the frontline pollinator of the state’s crops. In North Carolina flies, moths, and other insects are also important pollinators of garden, orchard, and field crops. However, the honeybee contributes more to agricultural pollination than all other means combined. To recognize its value, in 1973 the N.C. General Assembly designated the honey bee as the official State Insect. Interestingly, since North Carolina’s adoption, sixteen additional states have awarded a similar title to the hard-working insect.
A wild honeybee colony contains about 20,000 bees while domestic colonies can house as many as 80,000. There are three different types of honeybees: the queen (one per hive), drones (several hundred per hive), and workers (thousands per hive). The queen’s primary purpose is to make more bees. She can produce over 1,500 eggs per day and usually lives between two and eight years. She is larger than the workers or drones. Her stinger is curved with no barbs on it, and she can use it many times. All drones are males and have stingers. They live about eight weeks. Only a few hundred are ever present in the hive. Their sole function is to mate with a queen. Any drones left at the end of the season are driven out of the hive and soon perish. Worker bees maintain and operate the hive. All are sterile females. When young, they work in the hive doing comb construction, brood rearing, tending to the queen and drones, cleaning, regulating temperature and defending the hive. When mature, they leave the hive and become “field bees.” These gather nectar, pollen, water and certain sticky plant resins used in hive construction. They usually live about six weeks and have a distinct specialized construction that aids them in their various tasks. They have a straight, barbed stinger which can only be used once. It rips out of their abdomen after use, which then kills the bee.
As the field bees forage for nectar, pollen sticks to the fuzzy hairs which cover their bodies. Some of this pollen rubs off on the next flower they visit beginning the fertilization process. The bee’s remaining pollen ends up back at the hive where it combines with flower nectar and other elements. These combinations provide nourishment for the bees, components for hive and comb construction, and ultimately honey production.
Honey is a thick liquid produced by certain types of bees from the nectar of flowers. Though many species of insects consume nectar, honeybees refine and concentrate it to make honey. Since honeybees remain active year-round, they make enough honey to sustain them during months when flower nectar is unavailable. As nectar is essentially a solution of sugars, honey contains a wide range of these sugars and small amounts of other nutrients such as minerals, vitamins, proteins and amino acids.
The aroma, taste and color of honey are determined by the plants from which the bees have gathered nectar. For example, clover produces a sweet, white honey. Dark honey usually has a strong flavor and pale honey has a more delicate flavor. Often the popularity of different honey characteristics varies from region to region. Color sometimes indicates quality. However, many fine kinds of honey can be dark. While liquid or extracted honey is the most common, many stores and stands sell honey in the comb, one of the least-processed food items available. Honey requires no refrigeration. Even if it crystallizes it is not spoiled and can be restored by placing the container in warm water. The predominant sugars in honey are the simple sugars fructose and glucose. They are easily assimilated by the body and are a more complete food than other sweeteners like processed table sugar or corn syrup.
The handling of honey, whether from a wild nest, a domestic colony, or a factory-made hive, is even more relevant than its source. Avoiding contamination, excessive heat, and over processing is important. Consequently, rural beekeepers using simple equipment can produce honey of top quality just like large processors. If the beekeepers are located in remote places, like the Appalachian wilderness far from roads and industry, the honey may even be certified as organic and command a premium price.
Technically all honey is wildflower honey. The type of honey produced by any hive on any given day depends on what is blooming within the bees’ gathering range (usually one mile). This dynamic makes it likely that nectar and pollen from many different types of plants will find their way to the hive and into the honey that ends up on your table. Some of the most delicious honey available is made from the flowers of the sourwood tree. Generally light in color, sourwood honey is prized by honey lovers. The mountains of western North Carolina have a high concentration of sourwood trees that produce a very high quality honey, making North Carolina one of the largest producers of sourwood honey.
Several traditional Appalachian folk-remedies espouse the medicinal effects of locally-produced honey. One is a widely-held belief that honey prevents or lessens the severity of seasonal allergies. Though bees store pollen within the hive separately, inevitably a few grains find their way into the nectar and eventually into the honey. It is suggested that individuals that ingest a tablespoon of local honey every day (which contains trace amounts of local pollen) boost their immune system and have greater resistance to the allergens produced by local flowering plants. This author offers this sage observation, “If it works that is great! If not, the worst you have done is enjoyed a dose of delicious honey!” Biologists can actually identify the various pollens under a microscope and determine on which plants the bees have been foraging.
The history of bee keeping in Appalachia is rich. However, its future is threatened. The varroa mite has all but eliminated most wild honeybee populations in North America – and there is fear the mites may target domestic hives next. Also, pesticides and rural development are endangering the habitats that bees need as they work to produce both honey and offspring. It is estimated that honeybees pollinate almost 100 different agricultural crops throughout our region. More than any other creature, they are responsible for the abundance and variety we enjoy in our daily diets. Early European settlers recognized the life-sustaining contribution made by honeybees. Now it is up to present and future generations to preserve the heritage and value that accompanies the practice of beekeeping and the art of harvesting honey.
For more information please see:
- “Sweeteners” in Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Rudy Abramson and Jean Haskell, eds., 2006
- “Hooray for Beekeeping” , Bobbie Kalman, 1997