Beekeepers in Western North Carolina were hit especially hard this winter by a mysterious rash of bee disappearances.
Amateur Haywood County beekeeper Andy Bailey said he lost three of his four colonies during the winter. His final hive lasted until the spring but then those bees disappeared.
What puzzles Bailey is that his hives weren’t filled with the corpses of the thousands of bees, which would seem likely in the case of a massive die-off. Instead, the bees abandoned their homes — honey and all.
As the weather cooled this past weekend, Kathy Taylor’s bees were nowhere in sight; sheltering themselves within their manmade, wooden hives, the bees had calmed again after an unseasonably warm winter left them stirring.
This time of year, the queen bee lays her eggs and the worker and drone bees that surround her focus on keeping themselves, and more importantly their leader, alive. A Marxist society, the worker bees happily labor for the benefit of the queen. Without her, they would transform into swarms of anarchists.
This winter has been particularly trying for the insect, however, which usually cluster during the coldest months of the year. The mild temperatures have caused the bees to stir and eat up some of the honey they have stored.
“This is a bad thing for the bees,” said Taylor, president of the Haywood County Beekeepers Association. The association is a local chapter of the state beekeepers association.
As the stores dry up, the bees will die from hunger unless the beekeeper gives them sugar water or other sustenance.
And, if the plants bloom too early, they will not bloom later in the year for the bees, which look for buds to break open as they start a new season of honey making.
Production usually begins in the early spring, with the budding of plants and the rising of the sun. The sooner bees feel the warmth, the sooner they will begin that day’s work so beehives should face the sunrise.
“So if the sun rises in the east — and I reckon it still does — you want it to face east,” Taylor said.
People should also be considerate of their neighbors when they are looking for somewhere to settle their bees because the insect knows no bounds when it comes to searching for quality pollen.
“You can’t say that I live at 195, and you can’t leave here,” Taylor said.
While bees will travel about 100 yards in an adequately pollinated area, they can travel up to three miles hunting for their favorite plants or water — which is key, she said.
If the neighbor has a pool, make sure to keep a sufficient amount of water nearby the hive to prevent the bees from surrounding the pool. Along with pollen, a water source is critical to honey production.
Bee farmers should also strap down their hives somehow or fence them in to prevent predators from attacking them. This year, Taylor said she has seen more animals than usual daring to romp around homes forging for food, which for many could include her bees and their honey store.
“Think about it,” she said. “What did Winnie-the-Pooh love?”
The beekeeper must not be greedy and take all the honey either as it keeps honeybee alive during the winter.
“If we extract too much, then we take away from the bees,” Taylor said.
Standing just more than five feet tall, Taylor is the type of person who greets everyone, even complete strangers, with the phrase “Hello, precious.”
Her naturally nurturing personality has become quite handy during the past few years as she cares for and expands her beekeeping operations — which can be an arduous task.
Taylor backed into beekeeping after her husband retired in 2006.
“He said, ‘What are we going to do?’ and I said, ‘Let’s start an orchard,’” she said.
As she began, Taylor, owner of KT’s Orchard & Apiary Barn in Canton, saw the need to nurture bees alongside her fruit trees and bushes, but she didn’t know where to start. At the time, Haywood County did not offer beginner beekeeping classes so she traveled to Hendersonville.
Taylor began beekeeping in 2007 with two hives, which during the years expanded to 21 colonies housed at various locations near her Pigeon Ford Road home in Canton, in Beaver Dam, and in Buncombe and Jackson counties.
Several years later, in early 2010, Taylor helped charter the more than 75-member Haywood County Beekeepers Association.
The group holds school events, participates in local festivals and teaches beginner classes for burgeoning beekeepers.
Taylor suggested that any new or wannabe beekeepers take a beginning beekeeping course. The class teaches the basics of beekeeping and allows people to get acclimated to the bees and overcome any fears they might have.
“The bees know if you’re not calm,” she said. “That’s why beginner bee school is so important.”
And, any gardener or farmer has good reason to keep bees, she said, and bees have made a resurgence alongside the buy local movement as people realize that they need pollinators to help grow other products.
“Just think of the things you would not have without bees,” she said.
Bees cross-pollinate at least 30 percent of crops, including apples, berries, cucumbers and almonds, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The bees also teach the novice or less experienced grower about their favored plants.
“Dandelions, oh my goodness gracious,” Taylor said of the bees love for that particular weed.
The Haywood County Beekeepers Association will host a two-day introductory course starting this Saturday. The class will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Feb. 18 and 25 at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service building.
Topics include equipment, selecting beehive locations and getting honeybees.
The cost is $35 per person, $45 per couple and free for students under 18. The fee includes a yearlong membership with the association.
The Smoky Mountain Beekeepers is another local organization that brings together beekeepers and offers starter classes for novices in Swain and Jackson counties. The association will host a course in beginner beekeeping from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., April 14, in Bryson City. Robert Brewer, University of Georgia’s Apiculture Extension Coordinator, will lead the bee school. Brewer is a certified International Honey Judge and co-founder of the Young Harris Beekeeping Institute. Topics covered will include basic bee biology, how to get started in beekeeping, insect and disease control.
The pre-registration fee is $15 prior to April 1 and $20 thereafter or at the door. The course fee will cover the cost of lunch and reference materials.
Cutting collards this past weekend, I was surprised to find colonies of purplish-colored aphids under many of the leaves.
That discovery spurred me into a more extensive garden inventory. I discovered several of the more tender greens, such as the Asian introductions Tokyo Bekana and Vitamin Green, bore evidence of feeding insects. There were shotgun patterns of holes marring these tasty plants’ leaves.
When later I jerked a length of row cover from a shelf in the garden storage shed, the abrupt movement disturbed a small village of Asian beetles. The honeybees, too, were actively in search of something to feed upon. But because they fly from the hive at temperatures roughly 50 degrees or warmer, this wasn’t as profound a marker of the unseasonable-ness of our recent weather as other insect types.
This is the first time I can remember such vigorous insect activity this late (or should that be early) in the year. I’m certain we’ve had similar warm, early winter weather in past years; until I became a gardener there was little reason to note such events in my memory bank. Which is an excellent reason, among many excellent reasons, to garden. One immediately becomes an acute, if amateur, observer of nature; and a historian of sorts regarding previous garden seasons and anomalies accompanying them.
The surge of insect activity hadn’t been isolated to the garden. I’d noticed, but not attended to the why, our hens were ranging farther and farther from where their laying pellets are kept. The insect populations clearly must have rebounded elsewhere, too. The hens this past week could be viewed happily tossing the leaf litter on the forest floor like so many industrious chicken leafblowers. They must have been uncovering and devouring newly emerging or reemerging bugs and worms.
The weather forecasters, however, warned of an impending deep freeze while I snacked in front of the local news broadcast hours after devouring a requisite helping of hoppin’ john. The winds indeed were gusting by nightfall of the new year’s first day. A burst of Arctic air, as the television weather woman ominously and breathlessly termed the incoming assault, accompanied most likely by accumulating snow. That sounded brutal, but such cold certainly would prove much more painful for the insects than me, given my ability to hole up, sheltered, by a warm fire. An “Arctic blast” would end not only their unseasonable romps through the garden, but indeed through life.
A New Year’s Day visitor noticed the honeybees flying from the hives perched on the hill above the house and asked how well they winter. Perfectly, I responded, unless they get wet, diseased or starve to death.
Honeybees in cold weather form a cluster, a huddle, to protect themselves and most importantly, to shelter the brood and queen. Honeybees during cold spells will disconnect their wing muscles from their wings. This allows them to more easily vibrate and, in this manner, generate lifesaving and life-giving warmth. The temperature inside of the cluster containing the precious queen and brood has been measured at a consistent, and balmy, 92 degrees.
The outermost honeybees periodically move into the center of the huddle to stay warm, leaving other honeybees for a time to endure the cold’s brunt on the cluster’s parameter. There is a constant in and out flow to a winter cluster, a cycle as perpetual as the movement of waves on an ocean, ever coming and going. I find this enjoyable to ponder when having an insomniac moment on a cold night.
I have sugar water prepared to go on the hives into hive-top feeders. This should have been fed to the honeybees already, but an attack of a plague-like illness sent me to bed, to weakened even to care for the bees. I had hoped to send them into this cold weather as prepared as possible. Fat and sassy, scoffing even at the promised Arctic blast and accumulating snowfall.
There’s little doubt that honeybees will be starving this winter across Western North Carolina if beekeepers neglect feeding them. The warm weather means they’ve likely been eating their stores at a torrid pace.
Starvation, even in colder winters than this one, is the most common method of death for honeybee colonies.
The beekeeper can know she’s starved her charges quite easily — you raise the cover and inner lid of a hive to discover the honeybees’ butts in the air, dead facedown into the comb cells. They starved there while searching in vain for something to eat. This is a sad, discouraging sight indeed for any beekeeper, maybe the worst one I know when it comes to honeybees. Because it’s so clearly the result of preventable neglect; akin to the act of leaving a dog in a car with rolled up windows on a hot summer day. Or tethering a goat unwatched to feed on weeds, like so much bait on a fishing line for marauding neighborhood dogs.
A number of readers have informed me that the agonizing sting I described in last week’s column was the work of a Japanese hornet. That sent me trotting to my computer, where I read a description of being stung by one. He wrote the sting of a Japanese hornet felt like having a hot nail driven into his leg.
I guess one man’s hot nail is another woman’s hot poker. I had written it felt akin to a hot metal poker being jabbed in my foot.
In actuality, a European hornet probably stung me — the Japanese hornet isn’t present in North America. The European hornet is the largest and, technically, the only true hornet found here. It was first reported in 1840 in New York, and the European hornet has since spread to most of the eastern United States. I certainly don’t remember seeing bees this size while growing up in Bryson City, though maybe I simply didn’t pay attention and they’ve been here all along.
Here’s the official description, courtesy of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service: “Adults somewhat resemble yellow jackets, but are much larger (about one-and-a-half inches) and are brown with yellow markings. Queens, which may be seen in the spring, are more reddish than brown, and are larger than the workers. Nests are typically built in hollow trees, but they are often found in barns, sheds, attics, and wall voids of houses. Unlike its cousin, the bald-faced hornet, European hornets rarely build nests that are free hanging or in unprotected areas. Frequently, the nest is built at the cavity opening, rather than deep within. The outside of the exposed nest will be covered with coarse, thick, tan, paper-like material fashioned from decayed wood fibers. Nests built in wall voids may emit a noticeable stench.”
Now that I’ve been stung by one, I’m seeing them everywhere. Including a nest under the porch of a cabin on the property here. I’m suspicious that the hornets are actually in the wall of the cabin, flying down into a crack through the porch, but I hope that I’m wrong. That will mean suiting up in protective clothing and pulling off boards to get to them. Understandably, I’m not eager to be stung again by one of these monster-sized hornets.
I’ve helped with bee removals before at other people’s homes. Usually it’s honeybees that take up residence. Here’s a free tip for those of you who want to do the removal yourself: fill the cavity with fiberglass insulation after you’ve gotten the bees out. Otherwise, it is inevitable that another swarm of honeybees eventually will take up residence in the same place, attracted by the pheromones of their predecessors.
Since the column published last week, I’ve had several people ask me why I fool with honeybees since I react so violently to being stung. There’s a big difference between swelling from the venom — which is what I do — and having an actual life-threatening allergic reaction.
Most people have some sort of reaction — pain, swelling, redness and itching, that kind of thing. I’m in smaller subset, about 10 to 15 percent of people, who experience larger areas of swelling for up to a week. Uncomfortable, yes; unsightly, yes; but not life-threatening.
Over in Macon County, Lewis Penland, who heads up the planning board, falls into the still rarer group (about 3 percent) who have full-blown allergic reactions that cause anaphylaxis. It forced him to give up honeybee keeping.
The same thing happened to my maternal grandfather, if I remember the stories correctly. He had honeybees, but one day he simply couldn’t have them anymore — he’d developed full-blown allergies to the venom. It happens like that sometimes.
Interestingly, the venom of various stinging insects isn’t the same chemically speaking. I hardly swell from yellow jacket stings, or wasps. But let a honeybee pop me and I blow up like a hideous balloon animal.
And, I’ve now learned, from the sting of a Japanese/European hornet.
There is much myth and lore connected with beekeeping, such as telling the bees when the master has died so they won’t abscond after his or her death, and a method of swarm control called “tanging.”
Research studies have debunked the virtues of tanging, or beating a stick against something metal to drum down the bees. There is no scientific evidence, zippo, to support people who believe the folk tale that you can bring home a swarm.
I’m a modern girl and all, but I flat-out believe in tanging — and I nearly brought a swarm of bees down on myself this past Saturday doing it. I learned tanging from local guys. They learned to tang from their parents and grandparents, who in turn were taught tanging by their parents and grandparents, and so on — this is an unbelievably old practice, a method of bee husbandry that dates to antiquity.
My reading has muddled up my memory, and I frankly am unsure if anyone locally uses the word tanging — more likely, they just told me to beat on a washpan with a stick when there was a bee swarm. Lacking something metal at hand, I’ve seen these guys drum on empty wooden hives (called “gums” by oldtimers), and on empty five-gallon buckets. Bees, apparently, aren’t particular in this one respect.
So on Saturday, at about 10 a.m. just when it was starting to get really hot, I was working in the garden when I heard the familiar roar, looked up, and saw the bees taking off from the hive. It surprised me, frankly, because this is sourwood season and they ought to have plenty of work to keep them happy and focused. But bees, as I’ve mentioned before, do whatever they please, others’ wishes and needs and limited time to deal with swarms be damned.
This particular swarm was determinedly headed west, over the house and away from me, seemingly intent on settling high out of reach in a cherry tree. I’ve lost at least four swarms this year, and I wanted at least a shot at putting up this one — tanging was the only thing I knew to do.
A swarm does not move particularly fast. The bees have gorged on honey before leaving the hive, I suppose to help sustain them while they move in to a new home, and they fly heavy in the air. Watching a swarm of bees has a mesmerizing quality that is different from anything else I know, and you can get lost in following the languid flight of individual bees who are caught up in the tornadic motion of the swarm — the swarm seems to form a huge single organism. The noise, too, lulls and draws you in — that hypnotic roar, the noise of thousands of bees sounding together, a chorus like none other.
I broke the spell, however, and looked around for something to beat on. I noticed a metal watering can. After emptying the water, I started hitting it with a stick. I drummed, and the large swarm seemed to hesitate in the air; then it slowly returned in my direction and began revolving more or less just over my head. They dropped down, and I went into a crouch, worried I’d get a drive-by sting or two.
After several minutes, the swarm settled into a nearby, small tree, me still drumming away on my watering can. I wish I could tell you that I went and collected the swarm, but after a short time they simply went back into the hive — a false start, probably indicating the queen wasn’t able, or willing yet, to go.
Still, I’m left as always believing in tanging, research findings to the contrary. Is it the rhythm that brings them down? I don’t know, but it works.
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.
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.
A beekeepers association has formed in Haywood County.
The club meets at 7 p.m. the first Tuesday of the month at the N.C. Cooperative Extension Office in Waynesville off Raccoon Road.
The club has seen a huge level of interest since forming last fall, with as many as 60 people at the meetings.
“The importance of having an association is that everyone who is interested in bees can talk and share their experiences, their problems and their excitement,” said Kathy Taylor, one of the founders of the new club. “Anyone who is interested in beekeeping or learning about bees is welcome to come.”
Bees are vital to pollination of crops, but the wild bee population is declining, making the role of hobby beekeepers more important than ever.
“When I was growing up every farmer had two or three hives,” Taylor said.
Allen Blanton is also a founder of the club.
For more information, contact Taylor at 828.648.0700 or Blanton at 828.400.1735.
By Kathleen Lamont
I’ve got two cents to add to the honeybee dilemma. There are approximately 20,000 species of bees roaming around, out of which approximately 300 pollinate, and of those 300 most people can identify two — the bumblebee and the honeybee.
Hugh Gibby knows a little something about honeybees. He’s kept them for 63 of his 78 years, following in the footsteps of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.
If you want to keep bees, the best thing you can do is join a local beekeeping club. Here you’ll find expert advice and support, and perhaps a personal mentor to explain the intricacies of beekeeping.