No one knows for certain how bees make a perfect pattern of hexagons out of wax. We don't know how they measure or how they decide where to begin each circle. They just do. Something inside, from the moment of conception, provides them with the knowledge of thousands of generations of bees before them and allows them to immediately participate in the complex dance of the hive upon coming to life. It's stunning, really, when you think about it.


Our family business was started by George, mostly by chance or luck or fate depending on what you believe in. His father had passed away the previous year and left the family in a mess of debt, and George as the man of the house at the ripe old age of fourteen. If he hadn't stumbled across that beehive while pacing the property, who knows how they would have survived. But he did, and they did, and that's how Stelton Sweet Honey was started. I've been told the story a hundred times.


It was Annie who figured out that the hives closest to the Sourwood grove on the east half of the property produced a particularly sweet honey with a hint of clove that sold like hot cakes at the market. Bees will only use one type of pollen in an area of the comb at a time, allowing you to make a jar of pure honey. In the mountainous areas of North Carolina, the density of Sourwood trees is such that the hive can produce an entire harvest of honey in the peak bloom.


Summers were my favorite time of year. This was the season hives would be pretty much self-sufficient, which meant that I could spend my days soaking the sun into my skin, changing my very hue, or laying in the shade of Annie's Sourwood trees breathing in the spice that sustained our family for so many generations, or floating down the river on my back, swirling in the tides like a lost leaf. Those were the only days that my hours weren't dictated entirely by the needs of the hives. I wonder if the Steltons before me treasured summertime the same.


The business has been passed down to the eldest male for six generations except once, the first time, when George gave it to Annie after all her brothers died, two to cholera and one to the war. Those had been hard years. Half the grove had been burned in a fire that traced its way slowly though the South, destroying homes and livelihoods everywhere in its path. But dutiful Annie broke off her engagement to some city finance boy to stay and take care of the business. She planted and raised two saplings for every Sourwood lost. She raised the grove, and her eldest brother's orphaned children, and Stelton Sweet Honey carried on.

When the business passes down to me next, it'll be the first time in nearly two hundred years that it's been run by a woman. I wonder if Dad ever wished he and Mom had a son. He never says so, he just tells me that I'm as good as Annie. Those will be some tough shoes to fill.


When George-three was a boy, David took him to the pub one day after market and sat him down for a man-to-man about how one day he'd have the business and that day would be hard because it would mean that David would be dead. That was the blessing and the curse of a family business, he said. There was a stable way for the family to survive and always would be, but each generation's rise only came from the previous one's end. When George-three was grown, he took Morris to the pub one day after market and had the same talk. And Morris later gave that talk to my dad, Chris. It's sort of a tradition now.


When we took the big house, I remember feeling so overwhelmed. Before, we'd lived in one of the smaller buildings on the property that had been built in David's time for the extended family after he and Pearl ended up having six boys. I'd been in the big house for dinner every night, but it being ours now makes me see it with different eyes. It is beautiful, easily four times as big as our old house, and twice as old, which all together means it is a lot of work to maintain. We made it ours right away, hanging our photos and paintings on the nails already in the walls.

My bedroom was the same one Annie had used. I could tell because there was a heart with the names 'Annie + Emmett' carved into the baseboard. I figure that Emmett must have been that city boy she was supposed to marry. It seems so romantic and tragic—Annie never remarried, and I imagined it was because she'd never moved on. No one ever really talked about that in the family stories. I used to lay on the floor running my finger over the carving and imagining falling in love, and then imagining giving up that love for duty. Sometimes I think she made the wrong choice. Other times, usually when I'm lying under her trees and surrounded by the land and history that raised me, I'm so grateful that she made the decision she did.


David Jr was supposed to take the business, not George-three, but when David Jr was fourteen he got into a knock-down-drag-out with David and took off after that. Apparently the argument started over hinges, of all things. David Jr was complaining about having to scrape the rust off the hive door hinges and tried to convince his father to invest in those made from a new steel that didn't rust. David didn't see the point in wasting the money and called David Jr a lazy disappointment. Seems a silly thing to break a family apart over, especially since George-three ended up switching to the new hinges the first year he took over. I like to imagine he did it to stick it to his father, out of love for his brother. More likely, he just did it because it needed doing.


Sometimes I try to put myself in David's shoes, figure out why he got so angry that he chased off his eldest boy and his heir. Were those hinges special to him somehow? Because they had opened the same doors that his father and mother had opened and his grandparents before them?


Morris actually went to university to study English literature. That's where he met his wife, Beth. The university happened to have a single Sourwood tree on the lawn and he'd lay under it every day during lunch and close his eyes and breathe in home, but on a sticky autumn day, he went to his tree and found his spot usurped by Beth, who was using its shade to study. They shared the tree every lunch hour from then on, till Morris graduated and took Beth home as his wife. Everyone used to tease that meeting Beth was the only useful thing that came from his education. Since he was George-three and Emily's only child, he was guaranteed to take over Stelton Sweet Honey, which made his whole education rather pointless.


After David died, David Jr started coming home to visit. He'd bring books and souvenirs for his brothers and nephew from his adventures. He'd floated around aimlessly for a while before he found work as a farmhand and was able to save up enough money to move to Raleigh, then he signed up for the Army and went to serve in the war in Europe. He stayed in the Army for a long time even after the war. We still keep his medals in the glass case in the dining room and his picture on the family wall shows him smiling in uniform on a tropical beach somewhere. His books and stories are probably what gave Morris the bug to go to school.


Our family has pretty much used the same hives since the beginning. George bought ones with movable combs that were coming out of Poland when he first started. A man named Langstroth eventually perfected the design, and we upgraded to Langstroth hives which we've used ever since. The whole idea of the movable combs is to disturb the bees as little as possible and keep their pattern of behavior intact. The whole industry has used Langstroth hives for over a hundred years and all of a sudden there is a movement now towards natural beekeeping: a bunch of wild ideas on ways to disturb the bees even less. The changes would mean an overhaul of our whole operation, if we decide to implement them, but they might mean an increase in production, which would make it worth it. The industry hasn't seen technological advance in a long time.


Change isn't always good. Shortly after Morris passed Stelton Sweet Honey down to Dad, we started having colonies collapse more often, worker bees just abandoning the hive. Dad went through a real rough emotional time then, thinking he was doing something wrong, till it came up at one of the beekeeping conferences he goes to. Turns out Colony Collapse Disorder is just getting more common and no one knows why or what causes it to happen, though I think we all suspect it's our fault. Bees haven't changed much in the last thousand years, but the number of beekeepers has increased significantly. Then again, it could be global warming or something else entirely.


And then there's the talk of bees going extinct. It's gotten bad enough that some beekeepers are renting their hives out to help pollinate areas in danger. Honey bees aren't in much danger, but who knows what the ripple effect would be. The family business is more important than ever.


Sometimes, when a colony collapses and leaves their queen, I think of Annie and how everyone around her died and she had to carry on alone. And how David Jr was sent out on his own. And how, somehow, Stelton Sweet Honey kept going through it all. Even Morris, an only child due to his rough birth, was alone to carry on the family legacy, and he did it. But knowing other people are and have been alone with the responsibility doesn't make being alone with it any easier.


The thing about honey bees is that they are whoever their hive needs them to be. A worker bee will do all of the various jobs in a hive in its lifetime: nurse, guard, collector, maintainer. The only difference between a queen and a worker is how much royal jelly it's fed; if they need a queen, they make queens. And the bee that could have just been a worker senses that it should be a queen and emerges ready to fulfill that role. There are no solitary honey bees, they are social creatures. If one gets separated from its colony, it tries to join a new one. If that fails, it dies.


I don't know if I want to be a beekeeper, but that's what I am. Sometimes I close my eyes and imagine I'm an entirely different person with a different life who made different choices and try to think of what I would be. An engineer? A baker? A politician? An artist? Since we're graduating next year, most of my friends are talking about what colleges they are applying to and what they want to major in. For a while I thought about going to college like Morris, maybe even art school. I like to draw but I'm terrible at it, but maybe I wouldn't be if I'd practiced more. But our family is smaller now than it was when Morris went off to college, so Mom and Dad need me here. Especially since our production has been booming. Dad says it's because I've got 'Annie's touch.' It turns out, I'm very good at caring for the bees.


Dad says that in Africa, there is a bee that pretends to be a queen, but it's not. It takes over hives, clones itself, and then lazily uses up the resources of the hive till it collapses because the fake queen won't actually do any work. Then its clones go off and do the same thing. It sounds awful. Why would nature create such a selfish and destructive thing?


If Dad doesn't pass the business down, he could sell it. It would kill him, I think, to be the one who lets the business fall out of family hands. And god only knows what new owners would do to the place. All that history lost, the family graveyard paved over, the hives separated, the queens shipped off to breeders. There really isn't much of a choice, in the end.


Being a beekeeper isn't just about collecting excess honey from the hives. There isn't really such a thing as excess honey. The honey that the bees make in the combs above the brood is meant for surviving harsh weather and winters. They make what they need. When we take that food store from them, we have to nurture them carefully with fructose in the winter or risk losing the whole hive. And if we take care of them, they'll keep providing for us.


Annie's three children stayed with the business their whole lives, even though David did most of the running of it. Mary never even got married. Peter became a preacher in town but still lived on the family land. They made it through the depression with all eleven of them, counting David and Pearl's children, on just the money brought in by Stelton Sweet Honey. They had to tighten their belts, no doubt. George-three wouldn't even eat honey when he grew up. Said he couldn't stand the stuff after they'd had to eat so much of it during the tough years.


If a colony does get weak, you have to balance it with a strong one. Never add the strong colony to the weak one's hive, always add the weak one to the strong one's hive. And you have to give them time, because they aren't the same and they recognize that the other bees are different. But a good hive will welcome the newcomers if you give them time to get to know each other. They'll blend seamlessly like they were never different. It can be really good in the end. A little genetic diversity is always a good thing.


One of the Sourwood trees in the older part of the grove has the names of each person who has taken over the business carved into it.

George

Annie

David

George III

Morris

Chris

I'm guessing that each person added their own name when they took over because all the lettering styles are so different. The next one will say Emily.


When a honey bee finds a good spot to collect pollen and nectar, it does a dance for the other workers in the hive that gives them directions so that they can collect from the same bounty. It's a marvel how they can communicate distance and turns, sights and smells, just by the way they move. And they know how from the moment they're born. Our bees have danced out directions to the Sourwood trees a thousand times or more and will continue to do so as long as Stelton blood lives in the mountains of North Carolina.


Title image "Waxed" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2022.