The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Bee Tree

By Conway Smith © 1987

Issue: August, 1987

It was one of those rare Indian summer days in November. Trees had long since shed their leaves, but the sky was warm and blue. Robins and song sparrows were singing in the rhododendron thickets, and squirrels were scurrying about burying nuts beneath the leaves on the forest floor.

George and I were grouse hunting over on Long Spur. It wasn't a good day for hunting. Climbing ridges wearing wool shirts and hunting jackets was hot work. And George said that during the light of the moon was not a good time to hunt grouse anyway. He claimed that during the dark of the moon "pheasants" (as he called them) would lay close and would not come up until you almost stepped on them; but on days when the moon was full they would come up wild. We had flushed only three grouse that morning, and sure enough, they had all come up wild, well out of gunshot.

It wasn't a good day to hunt; but it was a good day to sit under a tree and enjoy being alive amidst the beauties of nature. And that was what we were doing.

George was one of the last old–time mountaineers. He lived in a log cabin at the foot of Long Spur, and was knowledgeable of the ways of the denizens of the forest.

As we sat under the tree, George looked up and saw a bee fly overhead. "There goes a honeybee," he said, "I'm going to run him down and find the bee tree." He sprang to his feet and took off through the brush.

I couldn't imagine a man being able to run through thick underbrush, all the while keeping his eye on a fast flying bee. I thought George was on a mission impossible; so I remained relaxed under the tree, enjoying the warm sunshine and the song of the birds in the rhododendron thickets down in the hollow.

It was quite a while before I heard George yell from far up the ridge, "I done found it! I done found it!"

Scrambling through the brush I finally came up with George. He had found the bee tree. High up on the trunk was a hollow place where bees were coming and going. George was walking around the tree, carefully examining it. "It ain't been marked," he said, "It's mine!" He fished a Barlow knife out of his overalls pocket, and cut a cross on the tree's trunk.

"What are you doing, George?" I asked.

"Markin' the tree so nobody will cut it, Nobody cuts a bee tree that's been marked. I'll git maybe thirty pounds of honey out of that ole tree."

There is an ancient unwritten law among mountain people that a marked bee tree is the exclusive property of him who found and marked it. Here in the Virginia highlands the federal law prohibiting the making of unlicensed corn whiskey is often broken; but the law of the bee tree is righteously obeyed.