The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

80 Years Observing Bees

By Y.O.C. © 1984

Issue: March, 1984

(Editors Note: In last months Mountain Laurel, we featured a story, “Half A Hundred Springs of Mayberry”. This article was written by an elderly resident of this area. We are highly honored that The Mountain Laurel is being permitted to print these turn of the century memories. For personal reasons, the author wishes to remain anonymous but will sign this and future articles Y.O.C., in order that our readers may follow his stories each month. These are special memories from a special person and we’re sure you’ll enjoy them as much as we do.)

The first bee stands I remember seeing were at a close neighbors, S.P. Scott. Several stands were kept there in a shed on the back wing of his house. Seeing those bees streaking across his garden and fields going after honey fascinated me. Ma bought a pound of honey there now and then and I sort of loved honey.

The first bee tree I saw cut was when I was nine years old. My cousin, O.A. Yeatts (who was a good bee hunter) had found a tree in the mountains across from where Round Meadow joins the Dan River. One of Pa’s cousins was up on a visit and we went to see this tree cut. The ones of us that went were: Pa, Ma, O.A. Yeatts, Boena Yeatts, Cousin Lowery Boswell, Uncle Tobe Yeatts and his boys Roy and Foy.

This was the first time I saw a bee tree cut and the bees were quite ill. I (and the others) had to run. It was also the first time I had seen the Dan River or been down the steep mountains into the Dan River Gorge. I really liked all of it and still do, although I have not been “in the Mountains” for nearly two years.

How did I get into bee keeping? Lots of folks of old were afraid to sell bees to others for fear they would sell their luck, so it was sort of hard to get started. You could save a swarm from a tree, but Pa had a friend living near the Pinnacles of Dan, about four miles away that would sell him a stand. Pa said he would buy them if I would go get them with the buggy. One evening I got the horse and buggy, some sheets, and took off down the road. I got there before all the bees had come in so we watched the bees until they did. Meanwhile, in talking to the man, I found he had a small stand in a little log gum that was pretty cheap. Pa’s gum was in a plain large plank gum with cross pieces. I thought about it and decided to get both.

We wrapped them good and I got home with both gums. Pa and I set them up and they went to work. I claimed the little one as my own. The large one was Pa’s. We got plenty of honey from these, also a couple of swarms.

Ma read in some paper about patented gums and having a brother-in-law that could make them, thought that would be the thing. We ordered some pound frames, some bee gloves and a patented smoke veil, and put a few bees in this kind of gum. I am getting ahead of this story. We had these bees about a year and a half when I saw my cousin O.A. Yeatts at the store and he said he was going to the George Cockram place to cut a bee tree on Sunday if I wanted to go along. I did. He said he would be by Sunday morning and to be ready. He came by early and his friend that usually helped fish and hunt bees was not along. I asked where Will Cockram was and he said he would meet us down the road, as we were going by Jim Vipperman’s. He was going with us because it was his “bee course.” Old bee hunters claimed bee courses for the first chance in finding them. He was a good bee hunter but he had failed on these. He was getting old and the going was getting harder. He was ready anyway when we got near where he lived. We took off down the mountain toward the Pinnacles. When we got to what was called the Saddle (that is the point where you started climbing the Pinnacle or down the North or South coves, whichever), we went down the North cove, to the river. We went down the river a jump and a very steep mountain branch course they said was the George Cockram Spring Branch. There was no water in it as the spring was dry. We had to get over to one side and pull ourselves up by the trees. So, we climbed and climbed. Finally, we got there.

The bee tree was a tall forked tree with another tree that had stood above it laying lodged in this bee tree fork. I saw it and thought this would be a very dangerous tree to cut, but the others had lots of experience in the mountains. We had carried with us an ax, two buckets, rolls of rags, and a little sulfur and a sack. Oregon “cooned” up that large tree to where the bees were but they were on the opposite side and very hard to get to. He was able to get a little smoke to them, I really don’t know how, without falling out of that tree. They got ready to cut, knowing there was only one to get away when the tree fell back out of the mountainside. We all knew the leaning tree was likely to side swipe us when it fell. We all walked to the top to see if it gave or even quivered ever so little so we could warn the one that was chopping at once if it started to go.

All at once, it went over toward the dry branch, bounced and disappeared. There was a long grinding roar like a freight train, only louder and more grinding. We heard it land nearly half a mile down the mountainside at the river. My cousin leaned back and laughed long and loud. I reckon you could have heard him on the other side of the river on the Pinnacles.

Where the branch had been, there was a large flat rock where the tree had hit. I saw what looked like honeycomb on it and we scrambled to it. The rock was covered with honey and it was pouring like a waterfall off this rock. We quickly held our buckets under the honey and filled them to the brim.

About this time, I saw a lone bee crawling on this rock. I showed it to my cousin. He said it was the queen bee. It was a yellow or an Italian bee (as he called it). I had never seen a queen bee or an Italian bee before. He said you could cross them with black bees and they would be better. We caught this bee and put it in a small envelope, folded the open end and pinned it to my hat band.

We all sat down and ate some of the best and cleanest honey I ever saw. I have wondered if that song, “There is Honey on the Rocks, Don’t you see Honey on the Rocks, Don’t you see.” Came from such an experience.

Mr. Vipperman went home the way we had come but we went over the mountain and up Round Meadow. When I got home it was after dark. I stopped by the bees, got this yellow queen bee and put her in our best gum. I listened and could hear her buzz as she went up into the gum.

The next spring when our bees swarmed, they were part yellow out of this gum. The second year, all of our bees were mixed half yellow. We called them “half mixed yellows” and thought them very good bees.

These bees worked hard every year but some years they didn’t seem to make a lot of honey. Other years they could fill supper after supper. Some years we would have a “honey dew.” I found that some seasons, flowers had lots of nectar while other seasons, there would not be as much. I used mostly buckwheat and sour wood for my theory, but poplar and locust was the same. It was called dew because it mainly fell at night, but I saw it fall in the day and was in it the first and maybe the heaviest time I ever saw it. I was going up a path in the woods and noted a cloud shaded the sun. I thought a summer shower was traveling through the timber. As it got near, I stepped under a stooping tree as it passed on over. I could hear it dripping down in the open space in front of the tree I was under. There was some chestnut sprouts there and I could see some of this shower hitting these saplings and bushes. It seemed not to run off as fast as it should so I knew it was a “honey dew.” I stood there a little while and it soon passed over. I bent down and tasted this “dew” that had fallen. It was all pure honey sweetness. As I stood there in wonder, I saw some insects come up those bushes from under bark and go out on those branches and begin to feed on this “honey dew”. The ants were both large and small and the dew was so thick, some of the small ants got stuck in it.

Another time, I was in a dew fall late one evening. I was sitting on a fence and it began to mist a heavy mist. This also was a pure “honey dew”. They never lasted very long or covered a very large area. In fact, I don’t think any one dew covers an area larger than the boundary of one woods at a time. I think these clouds sort of skip along. When it falls in fields, you just don’t notice like you do in woods, hitting on branches. It is a fine mist.

Many folks think the bees make more honey in years when there are “honey dews” as the years they were most prosperous were the years of the most dew. I thought and know that the nectar in flowers some years is much more than others. I don’t know why. Some year’s sourwood has so much nectar you can break a branch and shake it over your hand and cover it with nectar. Other years, you get nothing. Some years the aroma from buckwheat or locust is so strong you can almost feel it on your face, other years, there is none. I think that aroma condenses in the air and falls back as “honey dew”. Other plants and trees containing nectar for honey are poplar, Lynn, small clover, and alfalfa. Some seasons, all of them seem to have more nectar, some seasons less.

I have had the pleasure of helping my uncles and cousins hunt bee trees off of buckwheat honey or bait or when bees are watering. It has been both fun and pleasure for me in the past but (due to health and age) no more.