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Statue of a bear holding a sign reading "will work for honey."
A small statue of a bear holding a sign reading "Will work for honey" adorns the file cabinets in the shared workspace of AFC's Folklife Specialists. Photo by Meg Nicholas

Keeping company with bees

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Summer gardening season is in full bloom. Do you know where your pollinators are?

A close-up photograph of a bee flying in to land on the head of a cleome flower head in the middle of a West Virginia garden.
Bees pollinating spider flowers (cleome) in Ben Burnside’s garden. Terry Eiler, photographer. September 1997. Coal River Folklife Collection (AFC 1999/008)

On a recent trip to Trenton, I found myself under a tree near the New Jersey State Museum, battling a swarm of bees for a handful of linden flowers. Well, perhaps “battle” is too strong a word. Rather, we were peacefully cohabitating the same space on the side of the road, lured by the tantalizing scent of a flowering tree. As I stared up into the leaves of that linden, I was reminded – as I so often am these days – of something I had come across in the archives of the American Folklife Center.

In the course of the field survey that would become the Coal River Folklife Collection, folklorist Mary Hufford interviewed several folks living in southern West Virginia about bees. Howard Miller had the following to say about bees and linden trees (also called basswood):


A full jar of honey, light amber in color, with two large chunks of honeycomb inside, sits center-frame on an old wooden tabletop outdoors.
Jar of “lin” honey from Paul Fitzwater, made by bees from the nectar of white basswood. Mary Hufford, photographer. January 21, 1997. Coal River Folklife Collection (AFC 1999/008)

During another recording, Hufford is presented with a jar of “lin” honey from Paul Fitzwater, produced by Truman Long’s bees. According to Fitzwater and his friend Phil Pettry, linden honey – or lin honey, as they call it – is sweeter and lighter than the honey made from tulip poplar and locust and tended to be the favorite of the folks living in the survey area. “Lin honey’s about the best you can get,” Pettry tells Hufford. Fitzwater points out that he uses it in everything that he needs to sweeten, including his coffee. Unfortunately, ecological changes in the area were starting to affect the availability of this favored honey tree:

And it wasn’t just the dwindling supply of basswood that was impacting honey production. The impacts of mountaintop removal, contamination from mining, and logging were being felt in several ways. In an article on biodiversity featured in the Coal River Folklife Collection’s digital presentation, West Virginia resident Robert Allen had this to say: “Wild bees. There used to be a lot of them around here, and now they’re dying out. The wild bees would be in the older trees. The younger trees wouldn’t be big enough.” Paul Fitzwater referenced these old bee trees as well. At times, Fitzwater shared, folks would come track a hive of wild bees to their tree, claim them, and relocate them – a process known as “lining” and “hunting bees”. “Lining bees” is the actual process of spotting a colony of bees at a water source and following the line of their flight back to their hive. Fitzwater recounts:

“Years ago, they’d cut a log – they’d find a hollow tree – they’d cut it in two and fix their bees in that. I remember seeing a lot of them in Clear Creek when I worked up there. But we didn’t have none of that.”

A large bee rests in a large pink dahlia bloom.
Bees pollinating dahlias in Ben Burnside’s garden. Terry Eiler, photographer. September 1997. Coal River Folklife Collection (AFC 1999/008)

Once the bees were spotted and followed back to their tree, the beekeeper who was claiming the wild hive would either carefully cut out the section of the tree the bees were already inhabiting and relocate them together, or would transfer the bees and their honeycomb to a waiting “bee gum” that had already been prepared. Black gum trees tended to be popular hosts for wild bees, hence the name. However, as we learn from Dennis Dickens – another West Virginia resident Hufford interviewed in the course of her fieldwork, more than one kind of tree could be used for a “bee gum” log:

A man poses with a bee gum, a wild bee hive made from a locust tree.
Caldwell Schuyler and a bee log, cut from a locust tree with a hive in it, made for him by his neighbor Alex Goodson cut the top on an angle so rain would run off. Carl Fleischauer, photograper. April 1978. Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project (AFC 1982/009)

A photograph of a “bee gum” can be found in another AFC collection, for the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project (pictured above). While most of the bees that Caldwell Schuyler tended on his farm lived in the bee boxes that modern beekeepers use, he also had a hive that had been relocated from a local tree. According to a letter I found in the Center’s “beehives” subject file, bee gum hives like this were quite popular in the States, whereas European beekeepers used a hand-woven basket-like hive called a “skep.” A portion of this letter – signed “Rolla E. Chandler, Skeppist” – reads as follows:

“The early Colonists to this Country brought honeybees to the ‘New World,’ in ‘Skeps,’ which had been in use in Europe for hundreds of years. Honeybees are not native to North America. As a result, Skeps were used for many years by the European Settlers, particularly in the Eastern States. Gradually, Skeps were replaced in favor of the hollow log ‘Gum’ because of the plentiful supply of hollow trees in this Country. Invention of the present day movable frame beehive in the mid-1800’s has, for al practical purposes, replaced ‘skep’ and ‘gum’ beehives as a home for the honeybee. Skeps are still in use in Europe, where straw and grass is less expensive than lumber for beehives. ‘Bee Trees’ are still quite common in wooded areas.”

A photocopy of several pictures of woven basket-like beehives called skeps
Examples of skeps from the American Folklife Center’s subject file on beehives. Photo by Meg Nicholas.

Whether or not you are up on your apiculture history, chances are you are familiar with skeps, despite the decline in use. Their imagery is still used to this day to represent beehives – such as the trademark registration below – as well as being depicted alongside a certain silly old bear with a love of honey. One of the reasons that both skeps and bee logs have become less prevalent is that it tends to be harder to monitor them for bee diseases. As honeybees are increasingly threatened by disease and environmental stressors, this aspect of hive monitoring has become even more important.

Trademark registration of an illustration of a beehive and accompanying bees, for a white wax and bleached wax goods company.
Trademark registration by Eckerman & Will for Bee Hive brand White Wax and Bleached Wax Goods. Feb. 11, 1890. Prints & Photograph Division, Library of Congress.

Of course, bee mites and other diseases are not the only threat to our buzzy friends. Remember those linden flowers that started this whole thing? There are several types of linden trees – also called “lime” in some areas, but not the citrus variety – and some of these are toxic to bees. But not all linden trees…and not all bees. And maybe…not always? From what I gathered from the handful of articles I ended up reading through on the topic, linden trees tend to be linked more to bumblebee deaths rather than honey bee deaths, and part of this might depend just as much on the time of year as the variety of linden tree. Food for thought, indeed. Just maybe not for some of the bees.

Want to know more about bees and other pollinators?


  1. This is all well and good but what do you do about neighbors who use tons of pesticides on their lawns? Finding dead or disoriented bees on your property is not very uplifting. Furthermore, the landscapers who use such toxins should be wearing protective gear, but companies fear that seeing workers on lawns in hazmat suits and wearing masks may scare off potential customers. Does anyone remember Rachel Carson?

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