021 – Blackberry Revolution

I want you to meet a friend of mine, who keeps bees in the mountains of North Carolina. We met on a message board, and I could tell she thinks like me about bees. Sometimes you can just tell. It might be what a person says; it’s more often what a person leaves unsaid. Those quiet blank spots, like the gaps in a puzzle piece. We could fit.

She wants to sell her honey by the bucket; I think you would prefer it in a jar, so I bought her bucket and put it in a jar for you.

When we met to make the exchange, she was accompanied by a Suburban full of people. Parents and siblings. Lots of siblings. We chatted. I tasted the honey (it is excellent) and used my spectrometer to verify that it is ripe enough (it is excellent), and agreed to buy it. I handed a wad of cash to my friend. She exchanged looks with her father. “It is up to you,” he said. She handed him the money, “I want this to be my contribution.”

Friend, I was so deeply offended by this interaction. Angry! It shook me up the whole ride home from the mountains, and into the next couple of days. You see, in my family system, money always goes the other direction. From parent to child, from adult-power to youth-weakness. Children don’t contribute, they consume. Parents live to give, and children use and store up energy and get ready … to leave. Children grow up and go, they use that stored up energy and money to start a new life independent of any claims of the family system. The happiness and fulfillment of the individual are of prime importance, and they are being raised to be independent.

In my friend’s family system, children contribute. From a young age, they work not only chores, but also ventures which are intended to bring resources into the family. Not to the individual, to the family. The youngest cares for chickens, and sells the eggs, and the money goes to the family. Another sibling raises cut flowers and sells bouquets, another tends the goats and processes the dairy products. My friend keeps honey bees, and the products of her work are contributed to the family. And from childhood, she is valuable to the community. Her contributions matter to everyone, and she is intrisically supported by the system when she wants to grow and improve.

So to me, this is the most wonderful honey in the world. Magical even. It wants to crystalize rapidly, so you will probably need to warm it in a pan of hot water more than once before you use it all. But it is my participation (and now yours!) in an alternative family system which is even sweeter than the honey.


023 – Wonky Dog


This is Boris. He is charged with chasing intruders away from his homestead in Monroe. His family lives there, and they keep a garden and a blueberry patch, and they trust Boris to keep them safe and sound. A Great Dane, his head is nearly to my shoulder, and you can see that he is solid muscle, so even the friendly beekeeper has reason to be wary.

Boris and I have some history. When he was just little, I tried to initiate play with him the way I had his predecessor. Meridah and I used to play tag in the field before her hips started hurting in old age. Boris has a different personality though, and my dipping and tagging him nearly started a fight that first day, and he hasn’t trusted me since. So when I am there keeping bees, he is conflicted between his general friendliness toward people, and a specific memory of me ducking and tapping him in a threatening way.

Well, on this particular day, I was the only human on the property, and Boris was doing his job. He has some passive-aggressive tendencies, and will act skittish when approached directly, but will sneak up behind if he thinks I am distracted. So when I would be tending the bees in their hive, he would get up real close, then when I turned to address him he would bark terrifically and go bounding off on his long legs and giant feet, every bit of his body language communicating his internal conflict. It was getting annoying, actually, and the bees told me that they were getting annoyed too. They have a little change in their buzz sound when they are approaching a threshold of defensive behavior.

So I addressed Boris directly. I told him that sneaking up and barking at me was irritating me, and not helpful, and that the bees didn’t like it either. I told him that if he continues to do this, “You’re going to get stung.” And I have worked with dogs who can understand cause-and-effect communicated in English, but either Boris doesn’t have that mental framework or he just didn’t believe me. Because he did the sneak-up-behind-and-bark behavior again, and the bees decided to teach him not to do that by stinging his face.

And Boris ran away, flopping his ears around and raking at his cheek to relieve the pain. I think he only took one or two stings, and I didn’t notice any gross swelling. He went off toward the house. And that’s where he stays when I visit now; he doesn’t come be passive-aggressive-friendly-defensive any more. He’s learned that lesson from the bees. As have I, though it’s taking longer.

I call this “wonky dog” honey, because of lessons learned. It’s dark and rich; I tell folks it’s like eating caramel candy. I hope you learn your lessons the easy way, but if not, I hope you learn them the hard way. Until we all learn our lessons, Love Me Some Honey!

020 – Resilience

Worker bees arrange their bodies to partially block an entrance, constricting air flow on a cool morning.

We blamed it on COVID, because we could. But the issues were deeper than that. Turns out, we’re lonely. A lot of us don’t like our jobs, the people we work with, the people we go to church with, the people we sleep with and have breakfast separately. We don’t like them, and if an authority insists that we stop being together, we don’t fight back very hard. Some of us found lockdown and work-from-home, online school, Zoom meetings to be sweet release from the grind.

At once, many of us were using our participation in work and school and church and family to keep us going from one day to the next. When that participation was curtailed, we were faced with a vacancy of meaning and personal identity which was twice as terrifying as the threat of respiratory failure. We didn’t realize how much we were depending on the hugs, the smiles, the incidental touch in the grocery store to remind us of our personhood. Yes, I really am here, alive. For just this moment, until the next, I matter.

This freshly constructed comb holds some ripening nectar (the liquid) and pollen from multiple sources (different colored cake substance).

And I succumbed to it, in degree. I kept working, kept up my family and church roles, but I let my bees and my poultry down. I allowed the worry and the angst that was trying to corral us into consumer patterns to take away the personal energy which goes into animal husbandry. So I neglected the bees, and some of them died. I am sad for it.

But bees are resilient! And so am I resilient and so are you resilient! I did not lose them all, and this crop of spring honey represents a return from a winter of drear into a new summer of productivity and refreshed relationships and joy. Jab or no jab, mask or no mask, on a five-inch screen or in full and living color, Creator gives life so we must live. And the honey … is it not sweet?

They are faint, but in center of some of the cells you can see recently laid eggs; they look like tiny kernels of rice standing on end.

017 – The Learning Yard

There sure is a lot to learn. About how the world works, about how honey bees work in the world, about how I might work in the world. That last one is a little intimidating; I haven’t got much figured out at all. But one thing that helps is to keep trying. Add a little here, leave a little something go, let something fail, try something new.

Early spring pattern of pupae in the top right, larvae in the cells that look empty, and honey in the cells with wax cappings.

This year at the home yard I brought six colonies through the winter, twice as many as last year. And I tried a new strategy: instead of stressing and straining my little colonies to grow and multiply in the chill of March, I waited. When the week came when I wanted to make early spring splits, I waited. And I waited until I had so many bees that I could borrow a bunch from each colony and they would never notice the difference. Then I raised a batch of queens, set them out to mate, and sold a couple nucleus (starter) colonies to a friend. And did not set my bees back in the least.

Waiting is difficult for me. But this year, my colonies were bigger, healthier, and happier. And they made plenty of honey for the bear-in-flip-flops.

Kasey is hiving a swarm from a bait trap into a managed hive box. Her veil is on backwards. We’re all learning.

Also this year, the county bee school assigned a couple new beekeepers to me as mentees. It is a very valuable program; there is only so much you can learn from reading books and attending classes. Even YouTube can’t provide a full-immersion, tactile learning experience with surround sound. Perhaps I am strange, but I always wonder how it will feel to do the thing that I’m learning about. And really, what better place to learn beekeeping than in someone else’s apiary, with their bees, under their supervision? And although I could imagine someone else’s bee yard being more … orderly … than mine, I do believe that my mentees got what they needed: each of them got to do themselves nearly every task that I do during the summer, that they will need to do next summer in their own yards.

Madeleine (10 yo) was taught to graft at BeeFest 2019 in Florida. This is her first attempt to do it at home. About 80% took.

So I’m proud of that. I’m learning, and they’re learning with me.

This is the honey from my home yard. May it fuel your learning: adding on, cutting back, allowing to fail, trying new. And Love Me Some Honey!

Blooming in August: Carolina False Dandelion

Common Name: Carolina False Dandelion, Desert Chicory
Botanical Name: Pyrrhopappus carolinianus
Plant Type: Biennial herb
Typical Bloom Period: May – October
Nectar Usefulness: medium
Pollen Usefulness: high

Pyrrhopappus carolinianus with a visiting sweat bee, first thing in the morning.

While exploring an abandoned farmstead as a kid I found a cast-iron wall decoration. It had a picture of a barn and windmill with a poem, all in capital letters: “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise.” Blooming in August, as throughout the summer in Mecklenburg County, is Pyrrhopappus carolinianus, commonly called “Carolina false dandelion” or “desert chicory”. Carolina false dandelion is matinal: it is a “morning person”.

Carolina false dandelion looks a bit like a common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and also a bit like a hairy cat’s ear (Hypochaeris radicata). It can be distinguished by its stem: solid and leaved. A common dandelion has a hollow stem, while cats-ear and false dandelion have solid stems. A specimen of Pyrrhopappus carolinianus has some leaves on the budding stem; cat’s ear and common dandelion have none. Jan Haldeman has written a fine comparison of the three flowers for the Winter 2012 Journal of the South Carolina Native Plant Society, and the Society website makes all of the back issues of the Journal available: a fantastic resource.

Pyrrhopappus carolinianus flowers face the rising sun, and they bloom first thing in the morning. A composite aster (Astericae Compositae), they offer plenty of pollen of good quality. It is first-come-first-serve, though, and our honey bees have some competition from a matinal native bee. Hemihalictus lustrans is a type of sweat bee — genus Lasioglossum — which has a mutualistic association with Carolina false dandelion: the bee forages almost exclusively on Pyrrhopappus carolinianus, and the flower reinforces the oligolecty by opening early — sometimes as early as 5:30. Female Hemihalictus tear open the anthers and remove the pollen before it is available to our bees and provide cross-pollination for the flower. Most foraging is over by mid-morning, and the flower will be closed by noon.

Pyrrhopappus carolinianus is biennial, and can be found along roadsides and meadows and disturbed areas. It has a taproot which was eaten by Kiowa people. It spreads seed by catching the wind in pappus parasols, like a common dandelion. Our honey bees can be encouraged in matinal patterns by facing their hives toward the rising sun to allow the early light through the entrance – so to become more “healthy and wealthy and wise” and forage on Carolina false dandelion.

The following resources were most helpful:

Daly, H. (1961). Biological Observations on Hemihalictus lustrans, with a Description of the Larva (Hymenoptera: Halictidae). Journal of the Kansas Entomological Society, 34(3), 134-141. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25083219

Estes, James R. and Thorp, Robbin W. (1975) Pollination Ecology Of Pyrrhopappus Carolinianus (Compositae). American Journal of Botany, 62(2), 148-15. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1537-2197.1975.tb14046.x

Haldeman, Jan. (2012) Dandelions, True or False? Journal of the South Carolina Native Plant Society, Winter 2012, 10-11. Retrieved from http://scnps.org/scnps-news/newsletters

016 – The Connection in Midtown

You can support the wellbeing of pollinators in a variety of ways.

I admire this: when a person wants to support a cause, but they don’t have the ability to engage it directly, so they offer what they do have in partnership, as a small piece of the puzzle, and find joy in it. Here is a person who wants to “Save the Bees,” but he doesn’t have the interest or ability to directly engage in an activity like beekeeping. But he has a yard, and would like to host bees and put up a sign and set an example for his neighbors. And he knows his package-delivery-person keeps honey bees. So he reaches out and makes a new connection.

This year, the connection yielded up a couple boxes full of light amber, fruity flavored honey in the middle of spring. It is exceptionally clear. Over a lipid, like butter on toast or full-fat yogurt, the flavor simply sparkles like all that urban sunshine.

Early Prunus on Providence Road

At this particular location, I am fortunate to keep bees without supplemental feeding of sugar syrup. In Charlotte, our summers have long hot months with next-to-no sources for nectar forage. It is hard to believe with all the green growth, but from July to October can be lean months for a honey bee colony. So most local beekeepers incorporate sugar syrup into their apiary management, just so they don’t stress their bees unnecessarily. Sugar syrup is not unhealthy for bees, but it is not very healthy either — imagine going four months a year with only foods from the snacks/chips aisle — you wouldn’t starve but you’d need a detox later. But the bees in this person’s yard have not been fed any sugar, and they don’t seem to be overstressed. So I am happy for his desire to help the bees and my bees are happy for his neighbors who desire to let their clovers and other weeds grow.

Wood sorrel in historic Cherry neighborhood.

If you let your dandelions, your clovers, and all the “little purple flowers” grow up and bloom in your yard, all the bees around you — native bees too! — will be as happy and healthy as my honey bees with no sugar. And you will Love Me Some Honey!

018 – Honoring the Bees with Charlie

I got a call from Charlie on Tuesday, would you like to come tomorrow to help with a cut-out?

Charlie Rivers rescues bees on a daily basis.

I’ve never done such a thing in my life. But I have the day off. I’ve said to him before that I’m curious about what he does. So, the answer is “sure, just tell me where and when and what to bring.”

After some clarifications, we met, and rode together to some friend-of-a-friend’s farm. The bees were in the back of the barn, a two-story board-and-batten sided structure with an open garage on one end and a closed storage on the end with the bees. We didn’t go inside; it is relatively easy to take off board and batten. It’s a typical barn, with “stuff” stashed along every edge — but in this case some of the stuff was useful: they had components for a scaffold and some boards and plywood. So Charlie build us a platform about four feet high, up to the bottom of the tall skinny beehive. Meanwhile, I got the smoker lit, and put on my long shirt and got my veil out of his truck.

That’s me with the service end of the bee-vac. The bees get pulled (fairly gently) into a standard hive box.

I climbed up on the platform and started to give the bees some smoke. Up close, I could see that there were multiple entrances at different heights and behind different battens. Judging by the buildup of propolis along some of the edges of the battens, and by the apparent age of some of the combs, Charlie guesses that colony of bees had been there for five years. They were a very vigorous and active colony, and Charlie wanted me to put on my veil. He had just set his bee-vac up on the platform and I didn’t quite understand his urgency about my veil until the crowbar came out.

Now I said that board and batten is easy to disassemble. That is true. But it requires some banging and some prying and some shaking and pulling. And honey bees are very sensitive to vibration. When the walls of their cavity start to have bangs and creaks from prying, they think a big old bear is after their brood, and they get very defensive. In this case, it is two smaller bears, and we really are on the side of the bees, but they don’t necessarily understand that. So Charlie told me with a little more urgency, “Might want to put on that veil now.”

Charlie said this is that largest cut-out he has ever done.

And so we deconstructed their hive, board by board, comb by comb. We used his vacuum to suck as many bees as we could into a standard hive body with some empty frames in it. Each comb we cut from its board, holding it to keep it from falling and slicing and scraping its attachment to the wood, vacuum the bees into the box, and put the comb gently into a bucket. Old comb got sorted to be melted down, honey comb got sorted to be crushed and strained out, and comb with brood in it was stacked with extra care to cause as little damage as possible.

Piece by piece we worked our way to the end of the bees’ nest. It was perhaps the largest colony I’ve ever seen. Healthy. Vigorous. Organized and intentional. To cut out a comb, I would reach in behind it with my left hand so to cut it with my right. Well there are lots of bees in there, even after the vacuum, and so I would have to be very touch-sensitive and gentle with my grabbing because I can’t see where the bees are; I can only feel them and try not to pinch one. They were gentle bees, but I still got stung more this day than in the two years previous, almost entirely on the fingers. I don’t react or swell up nearly so much as I used to, but sometimes when they get close to a nerve ending it sure does hurt!

I took about twenty stings by the end of the day, but my fingers still look like fingers.

Which is all to say just this: here is a very special batch of honey, not ever to be duplicated! These bees were feral, completely unmanaged for five-ish years, foraging in a largely undeveloped environment. The honey I got from them is all there will be from them, except that Charlie will reestablish them in a new location under direct management. But this chapter is over. Celebrate it! These bees were rescued from a situation where they were becoming pests, without undue harm or rough treatment, and certainly no insecticides. We hope to breed new queens from this stock and continue the line, but that’s another story … until then, Love Me Some Honey!

Blooming in July: Basswood

American basswood tree at Queens University

Common Name: White basswood
Botanical Name: Tilia heterophylla
Plant Type: Deciduous tree
Typical Bloom Period: June-July
Nectar Usefulness: high
Pollen Usefulness: medium

A great tree stands at the Harris Welcome Center of Queens University, facing Radcliffe Avenue at Queens Road. It is 67.5 inches in diameter at chest height and its canopy spread is 99 feet. It is an American basswood, Tilia americana.

Most of the Tilia trees growing in Mecklenburg County are instead Tilia heterophylla, white basswood; their leaves are light colored and downy on the undersides. They are sometimes called “bee tree,” because while they bloom for a relatively short time, they shed pollen densely and offer nectar profusely so that they attract an abundance of attention from our bees.

White basswood trees bloom for about two weeks, displaying clusters of 4 to 40 flowers with prominent bracts. The flowers are “perfect”— they have both female and male parts on the same flower, but are generally not self-compatible and need pollinators to initiate fruiting. Most flowers open in the mid-afternoon or evening. Sepals, petals and stamens gradually fold back, and the anthers shed pollen. Tilia are protandrous: the anthers mature first and shed pollen before the stigmas mature to receive it, about 24 hours after the flower first opens. On the second day that a tree blooms, 90% of flowers will have nectar present, sometimes in droplets big enough to see and taste. Peak sugar concentration in the nectar is 28%, and it is a favorite of both diurnal and nocturnal pollinators.

Basswood trees and their European relatives, the lindens and limes (Tilia x europaea, spp.), are a favorite of scientists as well as bees. The pollen shed is so dense that electronic air quality monitors can be used to gather precise data about bloom time. Several published studies have monitored the timing of Tilia pollen shed over time and location. Trees bloom as much as two weeks earlier with just a few degrees increase in annual temperature. They also bloom earlier if they are surrounded by impervious surfaces, such as in a densely paved city.

A visit to the Queens University basswood at the time of this writing will find that it has already bloomed, and the tiny nuts are just beginning to take shape. This particular tree has been featured in a recent book by Margaret Barker Booth, Treasure in the City, and the Queen’s Crown project, www.queenscrown.org, and is certainly worthy of recognition.

Honey from Tilia species is light yellow with a sharp flavor. Pollen pellets are yellow to light orange.

Most of the information in this article came from these studies:

The Pollination Biology of Tilia 
G. J. Anderson. American Journal of Botany Vol. 63, No. 9 (Oct., 1976), pp. 1203-1212. Published by: Botanical Society of America, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2441737
 Flowering phenology of selected linden (Tilia L.) Taxa in relation to pollen seasons.
Agnieszka Dąbrowska, Krystyna Piotrowska-Weryszko, Elżbieta Weryszko-Chmielewska, Ryszard Sawick. Journal of Apicultural Science Vol. 60 no. 2 2016

Blooming in June: Allium

Common Name: Garden Onion, Field Garlic, etc.
Botanical Name: Allium cepa L., A. lineale
Plant Type: Perennial bulb
Typical Bloom Period: June-August
Nectar Usefulness: excellent
Pollen Usefulness: very good

Allium cepa, in the garden here at Love Me Some Honey

A national restaurant chain offered a free “Bloomin’ Onion” on Monday. Of course, I heard about it on Wednesday after. Had it been a blooming onion in the proper sense, Allium cepa in bloom, the reward would still be available. Onions and garlics, Allium spp., are blooming this month in Mecklenburg county, and our honey bees love them.

The Allium genus includes several hundred species of plants including garlics, leeks, onions, and chives. Most are perennial with true bulbs — a complete plant is inside the bulb, and reproduce vegetatively by dividing their bulbs underground. Further vegetative spread is accomplished by species such as A. lineale which develop bulbils at the top of the stalk with the flowers. These are not seeds; they are clones which will drop around the mother plant and grow into a clump.

Allium lineale, with a very full pond in the background.

Alliums also reproduce sexually. They grow a stalk with an inflorescence enclosed in a veined sheath called a spathe. The spathe opens to expose a head of florets arrayed in a globe — this bloom pattern is called an umbel (think “umbrella”). Each floret is a perfect flower with prominent sepals. Pollinated flowers produce seeds in capsules.

The combination of bulb division, releasing bulbils, and producing seeds is a successful combination for Allium spread. A. lineale — field garlic — shows up and forms clonal clumps in pastures, lawns and unkempt fields. It is listed as a noxious weed in several states — “noxious” being a legal designation to authorize intentional control/eradication efforts against an invasive weed. Dairy farmers do not like field garlic, as it taints the flavor of the milk. Beekeepers don’t mind quite as much.

Honey bees love Allium species because the nectar contains a high concentration of sugars. Many surveys find onion and garlic nectar to be at least around 50% sugar (1:1 sugar to water), and as much as 75% sugar (3:1). Allium florets secrete a high volume of nectar, and most species continue secretion for as long as 144 hours, until the tepals and stamens wilt. So a foraging bee which finds a patch of onions will likely dance excitedly upon return to the hive, and that rich nectar will be available for several days. In Garden Plants for Honey Bees, Peter Lindtner rates garden onions as an excellent nectar source and very good pollen source; he observes pollen pellets to be greenish-yellow.

Keep your eye out for “Bloomin’ Onion” and also for blooming onions. They really are a sweet treat, not to be missed.

Most of the information in the article was gathered from the following sources: Garden Plants for Honey Bees
by Peter Lindtner;
Publisher: Kalamazoo : Wicwas Press, 2014.

Blooming in May: Lyre-leaf Sage

Salvia lyrata blooming on Greenway Ave. in Charlotte
  • Common Name: Lyre-leaf Sage
  • Botanical Name: Salvia lyrata
  • Plant Type: Perennial herb
  • Typical Bloom Period: April-May
  • Nectar Usefulness: good
  • Pollen Usefulness: good

“Kick Me” is what we would write on the paper with tape, and a gentle pat on the back would mark the victim in such a way that s/he couldn’t see or remove it. You might think of the word “note” and then of the word “nototribic”. The Salvia genus of flowers are nototribic, and they are blooming in Mecklenburg County.

Worldwide, there are about 900 species of the genus Salvia. In Mecklenburg County, our most common native species of salvia is S. lyrata, “lyre-leaf sage” or “cancer weed”. They have purple-veined leaves in a rosette at the base which are irregularly lobed, and shaped a bit like a lyre. A square stem stands 1-2 feet tall, covered in sticky hairs and irregular whorls of flowers. The flowers are bilabial — they have an upper lip and a lower lip. They range in color from very pale lavender to rich blue. Wild S. lyrata is most often found along the edges of disturbances.

Cultivated varieties of Salvia are very popular in southern flower gardens. Favorites include “black and blue” S. guarantica, originally from South America, and “hot lips” S. microphylla, originally from Mexico. These varieties bloom later in the year than natives, and they serve to feed our bees through the summer months.

Salvia flowers need bees to transfer pollen grains from the anthers to the stigmas. But every grain that the bees collect and take away is then unavailable for the reproduction of the flower. To combat the loss, our flowers slap a “note” of pollen onto the back of the bee in such a way that she cannot work it around to her corbiculae in mid-flight, so ensuring that she will carry it to the next flower. As the bee enters the floor of the flower to reach the nectary, she presses her head against a lever-shaped stamen and the other four stamens are pushed down to deposit pollen on her back, where she cannot reach it. Because of this staminal lever mechanism, salvia has been the subject of considerable study.

Pollen transfer in S. pratensis L. (schematic, after Meeuse and Morris 1984).

If you observe your cultivated salvia, hoping to see the lever in action, you might observe carpenter bees, Xylocopa virginica, working the tops of the flowers, on the outside. They are biting through the petals to reach the nectar within, bypassing the staminal lever mechanism entirely. Our honey bees will often use the holes that the carpenter bees have bitten to gather nectar only.

S. lyrata blooms through April and May in Mecklenburg County. In Garden Plants for Honey Bees, Peter Lindtner rates most Salvia species as good sources of both pollen and nectar; he includes a fine photograph of a bee biting through the top of a flower.

The August 2007 issue of Annals of Botany (Volume 100, Issue 2) is devoted to the morphology of salvia, and would be a good place to start more intensive research.