Tom Dillard: Bees an important part of Arkansas history

For many generations, residents of Arkansas -- or what we today call Arkansas -- have exploited bees in search of honey.

Considered divine in more than one of the world's major religions, honey sates the hunger for sweetness -- but it is so much more than sweet. Wild honey often has its own distinctive tastes and colors. As late as World War II, many Arkansans still took honey from the wild, enduring numerous stings in the pursuit of this elixir from the bees.

Humans have had a taste for honey for thousands of years. Honey hunters are depicted in an 8,000-year-old painting in the Arana Caves in Spain. Five thousand-year-old tombs in the Republic of Georgia have yielded clay vessels containing traces of honey. In ancient Greece, beekeeping was so popular in the Athens area that a law was adopted to regulate the placement of hives.

Hundreds of bee species can be found around the world, but only a few make honey as we know it. The European honeybee, also called the Western honeybee (Apis mellifera), is the most common species used in honey production.

The Europeans who settled in the new world brought honeybees with them. The insects found the Americas much to their liking, and by the time settlers started arriving in large numbers in Arkansas after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, honeybees were well established in the wild. By 1900, many elderly Arkansas bee hunters complained that the woods contained only a fraction of the wild hives found in their youth.

Many of the early white settlers in Arkansas did not bother to maintain hives, but rather took honey from wild bee colonies, usually found in hollow trees. Silas C. Turnbo, author of a large collection of early tales about wildlife in the Arkansas and Missouri Ozarks, included several stories about honey-hunting.

Turnbo was especially keen on Bill Clark of Marion County, whom he described as a deer and bee hunter who "had but few rivals." In one early 1850s hunt, Clark was able to locate a bee tree that had defied detection for months. Like other bee hunters, he relied on bait to attract bees, usually a corn cob soaked in sugar water. Since bees need minerals and salts, honey hunters occasionally used a cob soaked in a saline solution.

Clark, like other renowned honey hunters, had excellent vision, which was crucial to following a bee as it finished with the bait and rose upward a few feet, circled a time or two, and made a beeline to the hive tree. This process of following a bee to its hive was known as "coursing."

Once the tree containing the hive was located, axes and saws were used to fell it. As you might expect, the bees were not happy to have their hive disturbed, and it was customary for the hunter to back off and let the bees calm down before proceeding. Often, a tree split upon hitting the ground, setting loose a host of infuriated bees.

On one occasion, Turnbo and a friend went bee hunting and had the misfortune of having the hive tree split open upon hitting the ground. Turnbo recalled his friend fleeing the bees screaming "Oh Lord, Oh Lordy, Oh Lord God Almighty, save me from their wrath!"

Later that evening Turnbo strained the honey, collecting more than nine gallons for his family and an equal amount for his recuperating friend.

A nine-gallon wild hive would be unusually large based on Turnbo's numerous reports, but some were even larger. On one occasion, a black oak tree near the Arkansas-Missouri border in Marion County yielded a 10-foot long honeycomb which, when strained, filled 11 one-gallon buckets.

Today, Arkansans seldom "rob" wild bee trees since honey is so readily available and at a reasonable price. As of 2010, about 1,500 Arkansas beekeepers were registered by the Arkansas State Plant Board. Most were hobbyists, but the state is also home to a number of commercial honey operations with Fisher's in North Little Rock the largest processor of honey in Arkansas.

Arkansas honey production varies greatly by year. According to the University of Arkansas Extension Service, "honey production during 2017 from Arkansas producers with five or more colonies [or hives] totaled 2.23 million pounds, up 35 percent from 2016."

The 29,000 producing hives in the state in 2017 averaged 77 pounds of honey per hive. Total honey production was valued at $4.2 million but it has fallen considerably since then. China, the world's largest honey producer, produced 462,000 tons of honey in 2014, compared to 80,000 tons in the U.S.

I was surprised to learn that North Dakota produces more honey than any other state, some 33.8 million tons in 2019. South Dakota is among the top five producers as well, as is California.

Bees have a major presence in our culture. Testifying to the high esteem Arkansans traditionally accorded bee keeping is the presence of an antiquated bee hive -- called a skepe -- on the Arkansas State Seal.

The April 1864 Civil War skirmish at Okolono in modern Clark County is sometimes referred to as the "battle of the bees" because of a claim by one Confederate leader that federal artillery had upset several beehives, forcing the Confederates to abandon the field.

During the state legislative session of 1973, State Rep. Albert "Tom" Collier of Jackson County convinced the Legislature to designate the honeybee as the state's official insect. The late Mr. Collier, who strode about the legislative halls with a chaw of tobacco in his left cheek and a spit cup in his right hand, used the occasion not to extol honey, but rather the persistent and hardworking nature of bees.

The law reads that the "diligent and willing worker [bee] typifies the outstanding citizens of the state of Arkansas." No one asked Collier how he knew the worker bees were "willing."

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]. An earlier version of this column was published April 1, 2018.

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