A Gift From the Land of Honey
"This land has become our second career," says Ruth Stolting as she sweeps her arm toward the forested horizon. "We've come to realize that we're here for a special reason, to preserve this land and all the life it holds.
"We see a lot of nature here," she says as she points to the pond-side perch of an osprey that is very fond of the bass in the pond.
The honeybees are an important component of the nature found at Oldefield Farm, which is part of a 50-acre tract of land that Ruth and her husband, Robert, purchased in 1997. Because of some forestry work, rare plants were discovered. They sold 40 acres to the state as part of plant preserve that now totals over 300 acres.
"We never intended on becoming beekeepers, but the more we learned about our land and the unique role bees play in agriculture, it was something we just decided to do," she says.
Nudged on by friends Joyce and Len Tufts, also beekeepers, the Stoltings purchased their first beehive in 2000. They worked to build the box and frames and then purchased a package of Italian honeybees from a local beekeeper and introduced them to their new home.
"They left, in three days," Ruth says. "I guess they didn't like something we did."
The beekeeper kindly replaced the bees, and they started again.
They persevered and along with the guidance and friendship they received as members of the Moore County Beekeepers Association and the North Carolina State Beekeepers Association they built a successful honey business, though as Ruth says, "It won't make us rich."
When they started their business there were only about 15 people involved in beekeeping in the county, but today nearly 60 members crowd into association meetings.
The Stoltings agree that there has been a resurgence in beekeeping, and it may be due to the publicity about colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious disease killing off bees worldwide. But they also feel that people want to feel a "connection" with their food and have an understanding, and some control, over how it is produced.
"A lot of people just want a hive or two in their back yard," Ruth says. "With the concern about the nationwide bee shortage, people are realizing how important bees are to food production. It's not from a truck, and it all pretty much starts with the bees. They're needed to pollinate the plants that feed other animals, and us."
Honeybees are indispensable to agriculture -- so much so that in North Carolina they have earned the distinction of being the state insect. According to the American Bee Journal, honeybees account for one-third of the pollination of U.S. agriculture.
The Stoltings' gentle Italian honeybees, now happily buzzing in and out of the hives in the waning days of summer, number in the tens of thousands -- with as many as 40,000 to 60,000 in each double hive. Last year they had 16 to 20 double hives, but they lost nearly 50 percent of the bees this year due to the cold winter.
"It was the worst we've ever had," Robert says. "The temperatures in the winter months fluctuated greatly. It would get warm, and the queen would start producing eggs. Then it would get cold, and she'd stop, then it would get warm again. It just played havoc with them."
Ruth also says that some of the bees were weak going into last winter, showing signs of distress.
"We really don't know what it was, but the talk here was that it was most likely a toxic cocktail," she says.
That toxic cocktail is a mixture of pesticides the bees come in contact with while searching for and sipping nectar.
Bees, she says, serve as biological filters.
"You really can't produce organic honey -- it's not possible in North Carolina," she says. "Even if you don't use pesticides on your property (the Stoltings do not) the bees still fly, sometimes two or three miles for the nectar. Sometimes they don't make it back alive, or they may return with the pesticide in their pollen baskets, which can wipe out some of the brood."
The toxic cocktail makes them less able to deal with Varroa and trachea mites and other predators, like the wax moths, which can clean out a hive in as little as a week.
The Golden Nectar
But despite this setback, Oldefield Farm produced a beautiful golden honey this year that tastes of spring. The nectar for the honey is from blossoms of the red maple, sumac, tulip poplar, holly, and sourwood trees, along with the blossoms from plants such as blackberries, blueberries, white clover, and many wildflowers.
Every beehive has at least one brood box, and a honeybee colony with a mature population will require at least two brood boxes, often called a double. In addition, during the spring and fall honey flow seasons, a hive will have multiple honey supers. The honey super sits on top of the brood chamber and stores surplus honey. The bees also store honey in the brood chamber for their consumption.
"At times our hives are towers -- they get so high that if we get a storm or windy conditions, Robert and his friend are out there strapping them down so they don't topple over," Ruth says, while reminding Robert that she does not like him up on the ladder.
The honey is stored in honeycombs held by frames in the honey super. When the honey flow is good, the Stoltings add additional supers for the bees to store honey.
The supers are removed once or twice a season depending upon when the honey is capped by the bees. Capped honey signals ripened honey. When the bees initially bring the nectar to the hive it is 60 to 90 percent water, when it is ripened it is only 17 percent water.
The first super is removed around the end of June to ensure a spring blend of honey. Some years, the Stoltings will wait and get a mix of blue honey, a unique honey that can be found only within a 50-mile radius of Fayetteville. In 2005, they had a particularly dark blue mix of honey with the distinct flavor of blueberries. Occasionally, they will offer some cut-comb honey, a specialty, which can be eaten in entirety, if desired.
Honey as a Social Event
The honey extraction has become a favorite social gathering for the Stoltings at the end of June. Sometimes, honey is extracted for a second time in early August.
"Along with some of our neighboring beekeepers we'll take the supers to one location," says Robert. "We set up a big table, the sink, and the extraction equipment and enjoy the time together."
First, the waxy capping of the honeycomb is scraped off the top of the frame with a heated capping knife. Cappings are saved and shipped to a wax producer. The wax can be purchased for re-use in the frames or for items, such as hand-rolled beeswax candles.
The frames are placed in the extractor, which resembles a large bucket with either an electric motor or hand churn. The extractor removes the honey from the honeycombs by centrifugal force into a pail. The contents of the pail are released into a series of sieves that remove particles of wax, or "bee's legs" that might be in the honey and it is stored in large pails.
Prior to bottling the honey, it is poured from the pail into a specially-designed long strainer, and then it flows again into the pails where it sits for 24 hours. They skim any foam, which is not harmful, since most consumers like clear honey. It is bottled, labeled, and taken to the stores and the farmers markets.
Oldefield Farm honey is raw honey; it is not heat-processed as many of the commercial honey products are prepared, which can significantly decrease honey's value as an antibacterial agent.
The Stoltings sell their honey, as well as hand-rolled beeswax candles, note cards and other items at the Moore County farmers markets. The honey is also offered for purchase at Fresh Market, Elliott's on Linden and Burney's Hardware.
"When people stop by to see us at the farmers markets, they are always interested in learning more about the very intricate life of the bees," Ruth says. "We have a lot of materials to show them, and we get some pretty interesting questions."
As North Carolina State Cooperative Extension Service Master Gardener Volunteers, the Stoltings are often asked to provide talks to groups about beekeeping and fostering a better environment for the bees.
"We try to blend our knowledge as beekeepers, master gardeners and forest stewards," says Ruth. "Raising bees can be a challenge, so it is very important that we give them the best to keep them strong."
Part of keeping honeybees strong is providing a healthy environment and the necessary plants for their nectar-seeking habit. In April, when red maples signal the nectar season is starting, the bees seek out the blossoms of the early flowering bulbs, tulip poplars, and hollies, which help the bees "pack in the nectar" and stimulate the queen into brood rearing.
In addition to beekeeping, the Stoltings try to encourage people to cultivate bee gardens and establish honey plants in a pesticide- and chemical-free environment so the bee population can be strengthened and rebuilt. They provide a comprehensive listing of annuals, perennials, bulbs, ferns, vegetables, shrubs, trees and fruit trees that are all beneficial for bees.
"We see this as our destiny now," Ruth says. "We really didn't quite know what we were going to do with this land, but it didn't take us long to fill our life with the good things this land has to offer -- now we just want to share that gift with others."
Claudia Watson is a Pinehurst freelance writer and may be reached at email@example.com.
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