Bees – a farmer’s best friend

A Langstroth hive with honey bees “bearding” on the outside. These bees rest on the side of the hive in the summer to cool down.

Summer is full of nostalgic sounds. The heat brings crickets and birdsong; twilight brings mother nature’s free night show. Between lightning and fireflies, who could ask for more?

The buzzing, whirling and breeze usher in a sense of freedom and produce fond memories in our minds. Some of my favorite sounds and many others in our environment are the constant buzzing of our pollen-gathering friends, bees.

While North Carolina and surrounding states have tons of native bees that help pollinate our trees, gardens, and flowers, the non-native honey bee has fascinated us since the mid-17th century. Honeybees are native to Europe, Africa and Asia and traveled to the Americas on English ships to be used in agriculture. By the early 1800s, beekeeping was well established throughout North Carolina, with beeswax being a major exported commodity from the state.

Our ancestors used all parts of the hive; wax, honey, propolis and the bees themselves. The wax was and is still used to make candles that smell better than the grease residue originally used for candles. Honey is, of course, a natural sweetener that can be stored for long periods of time and will never spoil if stored properly. Propolis is another resinous product produced by bees that helps build hives. The sticky dark substance can fight bacteria, viruses, fungi and inflammation and sometimes heal the skin.

Folklore also surrounds our vibrant friends with superstitions that cast them as bringers of life. An important tradition is to tell the bees when someone has died. The lore suggests that the bees will help carry the soul to the next place and produce abundantly to keep abreast. If one enters your house, you will soon have a visitor. If a swarm of bees has entered your house, it is a sign of an omen.

On a more practical side, bees were cared for and valued for their pollinating superpowers. The many orchard farmers from our cavern and beyond used bees to spread pollen from blossom to blossom to ensure the year’s apple yield would be strong. Many statistics say that bees are responsible for 80%-90% of the pollination of apple crops. So when you see bees hovering over your gardens, trees and flowers, trying to leave them alone, they are doing the heavy lifting.

In North Carolina, beekeeping had become such an integral part of the agriculture and hobby industry that beekeepers or beekeepers from across the state gathered in Winston-Salem on January 11, 1917, to form the North Carolina State Beekeepers Association. The association grew with the addition of chapters from the various counties of the state, and a full-time state beekeeper position at NC State University in 1975. In 1982, a state beekeeping school was founded by Dr. John Ambrose, in his position as the state. beekeeper. The program is still the largest of its kind in the country.

Surry County has its own beekeepers association that meets monthly to discuss various topics and offers an annual beekeeping course. My friend and master beekeeper Paul Madren is a member of this group and the 1st Mask Craftsmen beekeeper in North Carolina. The aim of Master Beekeepers and Craftsmen is to educate the public about the art of beekeeping. Paul has shared invaluable advice with beekeepers across our state.

This past week he shared some highlights with me: 90% of the pollen and nectar that bees receive is from trees, not flowers, and each tree produces a different type of substance (glucose vs. fructose), dark honey is usually better for you, despite being labeled as “bad” honey. Paul also helped the association move into the digital age. At the meeting of the state organization last month, he was received as the oldest and longest member of the association.

You couldn’t pick a better place to start keeping bees. We are privileged to have such expert mentors in our own province. Mount Airy is even referred to as a ‘bee-friendly city’. If you’d like to learn more, and there’s a lot to learn, contact the Surry County Beekeepers Association or the North Carolina State Beekeepers Association.

Thanks to Paul Madren for his wise advice and stories.

Emily Morgan is the Guest Services Manager at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. She and her family live in Westfield. She can be reached at eamorgan@northcarolinamuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x229

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