After harvesting a bumper crop of sourwood honey in 2020, most Wilkes County beekeepers are finding little to none of this highly-prized product in their hives this month.
It’s unlikely that any Wilkes honey harvested this year is sourwood unless it came from hives at elevations around 2,000 or higher on the Blue Ridge escarpment or within a few miles nearby.
Sourwood trees grow best in this narrow corridor below the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Eastern Continental Divide) and usually produce more of the nectar that honeybees gather to make sourwood honey. If this is due to the weather, soil or a combination of both isn’t clear.
Honeybees in hives on or near the escarpment also have a longer period to produce sourwood honey since the peak bloom starts at lower elevations and occurs later as elevation is gained.
My honeybee hives at elevations of 1,350 in Moravian Falls and almost 2,000 near Pores Knob in the Brushy Mountains produced plenty of honey from wild blooming plants this spring.
After extracting the spring honey, I put the frames with empty wax cells back on the hives when nearby sourwood trees were on the verge of a prolific display of their bell-like flowers. Sourwood trees near my lower elevation hives never fully opened and the petals fell to the ground early, unlike a strong bloom in some other parts of Wilkes.
Kevin Foster, with 45 hives at the foot of the Brushies near Wilkesboro and in Millers Creek, said his bountiful spring honey crop is darker than some years due to nectar from yellow poplar trees. Poplar has been missing from honey in some recent years due to spring freezes.
Foster said he isn’t surprised to have essentially no sourwood honey this year since the last two were good sourwood years. Foster added that his grandfather, Clinton Beshears, was a beekeeper and used to say that a good sourwood season is more likely after a cold winter.
Some say a good sourwood honey crop more often follows a wet winter, followed by a hot and dry summer. The late Sebert Miller, a beekeeper in Wilbar, used to say too much spring and early summer moisture reduced the nectar flow in sourwood trees.
The late Louis Broyhill, another old-time Wilkes beekeeper, always said warm air currents bringing moisture from the Gulf of Mexico helped produce a good sourwood crop.
Like much else with beekeeping, opinions about factors that influence whether sourwood honey is produced differ widely among beekeepers.
“You can ask a dozen old-time beekeepers why (bees do or don’t make sourwood honey) and you’ll get 13 reasons all sounding reasonable, but no one has done any scientific studies. It’s just nature. There is no silver bullet, single answer,” said beekeeper B Townes of Boomer.