Appalachian beekeeping the Foxfire way: free bees in gums

Inside: Black gum trees not only attracted wild honey bee colonies, but they also provided local families with a place to keep captured colonies. They cut hollow sections out of a tree and added a top, a bottom, and a place where bees could build their honeycombs.

A reward for dusting and cleaning

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.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 163 No. 8, August 2023, pp. 867-870.

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 remember 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 a 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.

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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. 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.

Black gum trees often have large trunk cavities where honey bees like to live.
Black gum trees often have large trunk cavities where honey bees like to live.

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 forest clearing and waited for scout bees to find it. Once found, it didn’t take long before dozens of bees came to collect the bounty. The bee-liners followed the flight of bees as they left the clearing with crops full of bait. With any luck, the beekeeper soon discovered the bees’ home.

One beekeeper explained how to use a lure. “They’ll come to it. And then y’watch’em, and when one gets loaded, he’ll make a circle’r’two, and then when he starts, he’ll go just as straight t’his tree as you can shoot a rifle. Then y’just go th’way he went.” If a bee-liner lost the line of travel, he reset the lures in a new position and tried again. (Luckily, honey bees were not uptight about their pronouns. The accounts in Foxfire 2 always refer to workers as “he/him/his.”)

The locals made lures out of corn cobs soaked in honey, anise extract, salt water, or urine. I was happy to learn the old-timers were fond of anise because it’s my go-to lure for honey bees (and it doubles as a feeding stimulant). Salt as a lure was not surprising because bees love saltwater pools and wet deer licks. As one gentleman said, “They’ll just cover them cobs up if y’put salt in ‘em.” The urine didn’t surprise me either, but I declined to add it to my bucket list.

An artist's impression of a bee gum as described in Foxfire 2.
Bee gums have been popular all over the world. Different cultures use variations on the design, but they are surprisingly similar: a hollow log with a place to attach combs and protection from predators and weather.

Populating a bee gum

When the “owner” of a standing bee tree was ready to harvest, he would fell the tree so the hole side was up. (I’m thinking this is easier said than done.) Then he waited overnight for the bees to settle, returning the next day to collect his cache.

Armed with a gum, a bucket, a crosscut saw, an axe, and rags for smoke, he got to work. First, he cut the tree above and below the hollow, then he split the log along the grain to access the bee cavity. The bees went crazy and “you can just figger on gettin’ stung.”

Most things, including “dead bees, broken combs, and splintered wood” went into the bucket. Then he’d find the queen and place her in the gum along with a chunk of brood comb before shaking the live bees in front of the gum. Then he’d just wait for the bees to march in.

The next day, he’d plug the entrance holes, cover the gum with a tarp, and carry it home. Nothing to it. Different people had variations on the process, tried-and-true methods passed on from father to son, but the steps were basically the same.

Harvesting from a bee gum

Once the beekeeper erected the populated gum in his yard, he ignored the bees until the following year’s harvest. In a gum, you can’t see the brood nest, nor can you do much about anything that happens there. Instead, you collected as many gums as you could, waited for the seasons to pass, and hoped for the best.

At harvest time, the beekeeper removed the locking stick from the lid, raised the head enough to insert a sharp knife, and severed the combs from the head. Next, all he had to do was remove the head and free the combs with his knife, sparing the brood combs below the crossed sticks. He then simply tossed the oozing chunks of honeycomb into a bucket along with dead bees, larvae, and hive debris.

Harvesting (called robbing) was a messy job that often resulted in honey-drowned bees and invasions of looting insects. But since the hives were small, it didn’t take long to get in and out, replace the head, and carry the goods to the kitchen.

The beekeepers never extracted the honey. Instead, they wedged chunks of comb into jars and covered the combs with honey collected from the leakers. A screw-on lid or piece of wood kept out any household vermin.

The family used most of the honey, but if folks were lucky enough to find a market, they might sell some for pocket change. Light-colored sourwood was prized because it sold quickly and reliably.

Problems of the day

Although I could easily follow most discussions in Foxfire 2, the section on parasites and diseases got me all tangled around. In fact, the more I read, especially about wax moths, the confuseder I got.

Of wax moths, one interviewee said, “There’s what we call a weevil. He’s about [a half-inch] long and he’s a worm. … He webs in there — looks like a spider web.” After describing the webs, he says, “There’s a miller causes it. That’s a miller — like you see flyin’ around a light. He goes in there and lays these eggs and this ol’worm, he’ll hatch out.”

There’s more, but I believe what he’s calling a weevil is the wax moth larvae. True weevils have larvae that look very similar, but the vocabulary of the text runs together such that I still don’t know if I’m reading it right. I can’t think of any other insect that would have caused webbing and souring (fermentation) problems in hives back in the 60s and 70s. “Weevil” may simply be a generic term for a larval stage.

The transition to modern equipment

As new ideas filtered into Appalachian communities, some modern ways became incorporated into the old ones. People who purchased milled lumber (or pulled it from fallen buildings) made four-sided wooden hives called “plank gums.”

They modeled these hives on bee gums of about the same size, providing four holes, one in the center of each side, to mount the crisscrossed dowels that supported brood combs. The top and bottom of the plank gums were much the same, including one or more triangular bee entrances at the bottom and a sloped roof above the head.

Later, some folks were wealthy enough to afford “patent gums,” a forerunner of today’s Langstroth. These were suspiciously modern, with supers and removable frames. Owners of patent gums got more honey because the hives were bigger and harvesting was less destructive of the honeycombs.

My Foxfire books fell apart when I opened them. I never knew they contained beekeeping information until a month ago.

A sea change in mountain beekeeping

By the time the next beekeeping articles appeared in Foxfire 11, beekeeping had changed forever. Between the early 1970s and the 2012 publication of volume 11, North America had been invaded by tracheal mites (1984) and varroa mites (1987). Predictably, articles in Foxfire 11 feature management notes for these invaders, along with the usual litany of brood diseases and wax moth infestations (that never again mention weevils).

In many ways, I was disappointed to read accounts In volume 11 that sound similar to today’s beekeeping advice. The profound and irreversible changes to American beekeeping astounded and confounded the bee gum keepers of an earlier time, just as they had confounded the rest of us.

The clearest message

As I read the Foxfire books, one message came through loud and clear: Though beekeeping has changed, beekeepers haven’t. The beekeepers of times past loved their bees as much as we love ours.

And they admired the bees’ intelligence and intuition the way we do, too. One closing remark sticks with me. “They’re a awful sharp thing, a bee is,” said one beekeeper. The “most interestin’ thing you ever seen t’fool with.”

I don’t think any of us would disagree.

Honey Bee Suite

About Me

I backed my love of bee science with a bachelor’s degree in Agronomic Crops and a master’s in Environmental Studies. I write extensively about bees, including a current column in American Bee Journal and past columns in Two Million Blossoms and Bee Craft. I’ve endured multiple courses in melittology and made extensive identifications of North American bees for iNaturalist and other organizations. My master beekeeper certificate issued from U Montana. I’m also an English nerd. More here.

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