The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861
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The Curious Beekeeper

Appalachian Beekeeping the Foxfire Way

- August 1, 2023 - Rusty Burlew - (excerpt)

Feeling industrious one spring day, I tackled a dusty shelf of books I’d been avoiding. Concealed in a rarely visited room of the house, it was easy to overlook. But I knew what lay ahead.

I sat cross-legged on the floor and began extracting books one by one. The old volumes, falling into desuetude with sun-scorched spines and musty odors, caused me to sneeze. And again. Home alone, I was free to complain aloud about the choking mess.

I considered omitting the cleaning part and tossing everything: easier, quicker, and less traumatic. But at that moment, I came to three fat paperback Foxfire books that raised a flood of nostalgia. I remembered purchasing the books soon after I got married because they featured information I might need someday, articles on how to slaughter a hog, build a still, and set a broken arm.


Wisdom from the hills
The homespun advice in the books came from Appalachian mountain folk who, in the early 1970s, were still living in the backcountry, far from doctors, grocery stores, and tax collectors. Instantly, I knew I couldn’t part with the books because they contained records of people who came from my neck of the woods and thought as I did.

When I opened the first browning volume, pages fluttered free and alighted on the floor like seagulls on trash. Munching mildew had left the edges irregular and the text spotty with sepia stains. My dust rag didn’t stand a chance against the destruction.

After two more quick sneezes, a miracle ensued, serendipity at its finest. As I collected the errant pages, I discovered a treasure trove of beekeeping advice illustrated with grainy black-and-white images. At that moment, I set aside the idea of cleaning and settled in to read.


A brief history of the Firefox project
Foxfire magazine, which preceded the books, was a project developed by Eliot Wigginton, an English teacher at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Rabun County, Georgia. Each year, students in his class produced a magazine based on interviews with residents and relatives about Appalachian history, traditions, and culture. They published the first magazine in 1966 and the first book in 1972.

The Foxfire project was a dive into experiential education. Instead of studying English composition and grammar in the traditional way, the students learned it in the course of collecting, evaluating, and recording the stories of others. It was a remarkable success, both in preserving history and providing value to others.


A region rich in lore and tradition
Historically, the Appalachian foothills were a seat of American poverty. Populated primarily by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians from northern Ireland, the plucky communities lacked money but overflowed with creativity, determination, music, and dance. The residents lived hard but amused themselves with “singin’, log rollin’, and candy pullin” when the day’s work was done. Undaunted by a lack of funds, the independent spirit shone through all aspects of mountain life.

The students’ decision to record interviews in dialect always surprised me simply because it’s so difficult to do. But the kids nailed it, recreating speech patterns and rhythms that would otherwise be lost to future generations.

Best of all, the students never allow the dialect to belittle the speakers. They remain professionally dispassionate throughout the volumes, remaining open and unbiased. Each article is a refreshing reminder of what good journalism can be.

As I read the dedication on page 5 of “Foxfire 2,” it felt oddly contemporary, almost eerie. It reads: “This book is dedicated to high school kids … across this nation — all searching, all groping, all testing for the touchstone, the piece of serenity, the chunk of sense and place and purpose and humanity they can carry with them into a very confusing time.”

Our current times, it seems, are not much different.


Bees enriched the lives of rural families
“Foxfire 2” is the only one of the first 10 volumes with a report on beekeeping. It begins with a brief profile of sourwood honey followed by detailed instructions on how to keep bees in gums.

Until the early twentieth century, rare was the mountain family that didn’t keep bees. Honey was their sole source of sweetener, used for spreading on biscuits, making sweet treats, and canning. Other sweeteners were scarce and unaffordable for most, but honey was ubiquitous in the hills and free for the taking. Besides honey, the local hives yielded beeswax, a substance with hundreds of uses around the homestead.

Honey bees flourished in the Appalachian forests, which were rich with flowering trees. Family members hunted for feral colonies or caught swarms on the run, housing them in homemade hives. In order to maximize honey yields, they often marked a bee tree as “found and claimed,” using a common symbol carved into the trunk. The finder could then wait, returning at the end of the nectar flow to cut down his tree and collect both the honey and the bees.


How to make a bee gum
Before modern beehives appeared in the mountain states, the locals kept all their honey bees in gums. When a family wanted a new hive, they simply sliced one from a hollow section of a tree trunk.

Because of a biological quirk and a fungus, hollow sections were common in black gum trees, Nyssa sylvatica. Hollowed-out sections of black gum trees (also called black tupelo) were so popular with beekeepers that the word “gum” became synonymous with “hive,” regardless of its source.

To make a gum, a beekeeper cut across the grain at each end of the hollow section to a length of about 24 to 36 inches, making sure the cylinder would sit level. Next, they chiseled the inside to make it smooth and drilled four holes around the perimeter about midway between the top and bottom. The holes, evenly spaced and level with one another, were threaded with wooden dowel-like sticks that crisscrossed in the center of the gum.

The crossed sticks provided a place for the bees to hang their brood combs. A plank laid across the top of the gum formed the “head,” to which the bees attached the combs for honey storage. As in a super, the honeycombs filled the space above the brood combs.

On the outside of the gum, the beekeeper made a lock by slipping a stick through two eyes fastened to the top edge of the gum and directly opposite each other. Above the head, the beekeeper often fashioned a sloped roof to deter rain and snow.

At the bottom of the gum, one or more inverted V-shaped holes formed the bees’ entrance. They placed the entire hive on a board a bit larger than the gum. The base discouraged intruders and formed a convenient landing board for the bees.


Beekeeping with a gum
To populate the gum, locals often bee-lined in search of a bee tree. To do this, they set up bait in a