grandpa’s bees


  • Social Action Target: Nature
  • Connection:  Grandpa’s Bees
  • Action: Beekeeper and Coordinator for the Pollinator Club
  • Organization: Haw Creek Commons

[To experience the magical world of bees amid a compelling story of South Carolina’s struggle with race issues in the 1960s read Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees.] 

The old-timers call them bee gums.  Bees commonly took up residence in an old gum tree.  These natural hollows could be used for keeping bee colonies.  L.L. Langstroth patented a new man-made structure for bees in 1852 with a careful mind to maintaining “bee space”.  This design, with minor modifications, remains the standard for modern beekeeping in the United States.  Some new designs are being developed.  But Grandpa had his white painted langstroths behind the house and above the garden for his bees.  He still called them bee gums.

I grew up in Colorado, so childhood visits to my grandparents were rare.  But I still remember sitting on the porch watching a massive swarm settling into the nearby tree while Grandpa fretted over how to get them back into a bee gum.  Hard to get honey from escapees.

Fresh honey truly is magical.  Nothing like what comes in the stores.  Even honey from a chemical free beekeeper is not the same – it has sat around a bit.  Grandpa would suit up and grab his smoker and return with frames and frames of the stuff.  My sister and I would chew up the comb extracting the honey directly onto our tongues.  Granny and Grandpa used their great big aluminum pans to drip out honey while cutting the comb.  Chunks of comb would go into waiting mason jars, the remaining honey poured over, and the jars sealed.  The honey went to family, friends, the bank house, and the farmer’s market.  There always seemed to be plenty though Grandpa kept four colonies at the most.

Then the mites came.  The honeybees that were a part of every area farm are not indigenous to the United States.  Most modern queen bees trace their genealogy back to Europe.  Someone decided to try some bees from Asia.  The Asian bees had developed to be able to live with parasitic mites.  However, tracheal mites and varroa mites quickly devastated the European stock.  To understand the problem of the varroa mite, imagine carrying a tick on your body our entire life about the size of a handbag.  Grandpa watched all his bees die.  From time to time a neighbor would get some bees going and let him have a split off of the colony.  But ultimately they all met the same fate.

The gardens and apple trees and overall valley lost this pollinator.

Beekeeping in the 21st century no longer allows simply providing a cozy box, stressing over swarms, and occasional honey robbing ventures and associated stings.  There is constant feeding for weakened bee colonies.  Artificial pesticides don’t discriminate between insects decreasing colony numbers.  Keeping track of mites, launching various battle tactics against the mites, and an all-around obsession with mites and other bee problems never seem like enough.  Trying to get enough food stores to see the bees through the winter is a challenge any year.  Harvesting honey for human use the first year can move beyond theft to slow murder.  And there are stings, always stings.  Honeybees are not particularly aggressive except when queen or honey are threatened or accidental impact – all of which are a part of beekeeping no zippered and veiled suit can fully protect.

But the thrill of watching the amazing little bees is still part of me.  The more I learn about them the more I want to be a part of that hive collective.   I became involved with the bees at Haw Creek Commons about a year and a half ago.  Last year I completed the Beginner Beekeeping Class with Henderson County Beekeepers Association.  I had hoped to complete the certified beekeeping class with Buncombe County Beekeepers this year, but I realized I needed more practice.  Bees are incredibly complicated.  This year we are also expanding beyond bees to other pollinators in the Haw Creek Commons gardens and woodlands with plans that include becoming an official Monarch Waystation.

And every once and awhile you will hear me slip and mention a bee gum.  That’s just Grandpa talking.